Santa Rosa’s housing focus may not be enough to meet lofty goals

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Santa Rosa may revisit 27-year-old caps on growth in its struggle to create more places to live, as the city continues to greenlight an increasingly higher volume of homes and apartments to alleviate its housing shortage.

The city approved building permits for 431 residential units — not including hundreds of applications to rebuild homes destroyed by the October 2017 wildfires — in 2018, the third consecutive year the figure increased, according to an annual development review presented to the City Council and Planning Commission on Tuesday.

Though 1,400 Santa Rosa homes and apartments have received building permits since 2015, the city would need to approve an average of 925 housing units annually — more than double the amount it approved last year — from 2019 through 2022 to meet a housing quota it adopted in 2014.

“The need for more housing is clear,” said Amy Nicholson, a city planner and one of several staffers who relayed volumes of information to council members and planning commissioners Tuesday.

The 431 newly approved units mark a five-year peak, but the figure is well below the 800-unit annual cap set by Santa Rosa’s 1992 growth management ordinance. David Guhin, assistant city manager and planning and economic development director, expects the ordinance will be reviewed as part of a long-term citywide planning effort.

Review could come sooner, he said, if Santa Rosa’s relatively new package of downtown development incentives, such as lower fees and faster permitting, lead to a lofty apartment building in the heart of the city. Santa Rosa officials will likely consider revamping current height limits and density restrictions as part of the city’s ongoing process to adopt a new downtown blueprint later this year.

In addition to attracting new development, the pro-growth policies — plus a new federal designation that offers tax breaks to downtown investors — could lead to the redevelopment of existing buildings such as the 30-acre Santa Rosa Plaza. The Simon Property Group, which owns the mall, had been made aware of the city’s incentives and has been “open to the conversation” about redeveloping its brick-and-mortar shopping hub, Guhin said.

Another city housing policy dating to 1992 that requires market-rate developments to include some affordable units or pay a fee may be reformed this summer, planning officials said. Possible amendments include requiring 15 percent of a housing project’s units for sale to be set aside for lower-income residents and adding not only incentives to spur new affordable housing but measures to ensure compliance.

Tuesday’s meeting was a review and a forecast for the local officials, who regularly make decisions on significant development projects and planning policies in Santa Rosa.

No votes were taken, as council members and planning commissioners took the opportunity to clarify findings and ask staff to research more granular information, such as the current residential unit vacancy rate and the typical school impact fee for a secondary home.

Mayor Tom Schwedhelm lauded the planning staff’s efforts and urged officials and city employees to continue working on addressing Santa Rosa’s housing crisis.

“This is what progress looks like,” he said, “keeping the pedal to the metal.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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