Golis: Making good on the promise of more housing

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In Tuesday’s election, voters didn’t lack for hometown candidates promising to do something about a housing shortage and the crippling cost of rent.

Now the winners get to walk their talk.

But the election results also remind us that it remains easier to make promises than to produce solutions. In Healdsburg, city leaders devoted two years and 30 community meetings to drafting a housing plan they hoped would enjoy widespread community support.

Measure R took a drubbing, garnering barely 40 percent of the votes cast.

Almost everyone agrees that Healdsburg has a problem. It’s on its way to becoming an enclave in which the wealthy savor the good life in the Wine Country, while many people who show up to work every day can no longer afford to live there.

Most rentals cost more than $2,000 a month — putting them beyond the reach of people who earn $12 or $15 an hour. The median price of a home has reached $870,000, affordable if you happen to have $174,000 in cash and an annual income north of $150,000.

Some communities follow the path of least resistance, embracing the rewards of new commercial developments, while paying too little attention to the housing needs of the people employed in those developments. For many Bay Area residents, Marin County comes to mind.

But there are consequences. In effect, communities that don’t provide housing for their workers are asking their neighbors to bear the costs associated with new residential construction, traffic gridlock, air pollution and more. Meanwhile, the people who can’t find homes anywhere live in their cars, in a friend’s garage or in an apartment shared with multiple families.

Measure R in Healdsburg would have increased the number of new housing units from 30 to 70 per year — not a huge number — and it would have required developers to construct twice as many affordable units, emphasizing multi-family housing. The measure also would have granted to the City Council authority to change the ordinance.

At a time in which distrust of government is epidemic, it was this last provision that probably sank Measure R. “It was a measure that was very confusing and substantially different than the one that has been in place for 16 years,” Councilman Shaun McCaffery acknowledged to Staff Writer Clark Mason.

The resounding defeat left Councilman Eric Ziedrich so frustrated that he resigned, telling Mason, “After putting so much effort into housing … to be refuted by this quiet, silent majority, it felt to me like I can’t represent those people. We are moons apart.”

If nothing else, the Healdsburg experience might serve as an object lesson for other communities pursuing their own housing solutions. Make sure your plan is understandable. Make sure voters don’t think you’re making an end run on rules that protect their quality of life.

In recent months, the Santa Rosa City Council has declared a housing crisis, enacted a controversial rent control ordinance, pushed to accelerate the approval of shovel-ready projects with affordable units and made available $3 million to subsidize affordable housing. But no one doubts a new City Council will have more work to do.

Going forward, it will be instructive to watch how the council’s two newest members influence the conversation. For Chris Rogers, 29, and Jack Tibbetts, 26, the burden of housing costs isn’t an abstraction. Both are renters, who would like to be able buy a house in their hometown. Unlike the baby boomers who serve on the council, Rogers and Tibbetts have experienced firsthand what it’s like for young people to try to make their way in this changing economy.

A new study released last week matched income to housing costs and found that Sonoma County renters are among the most “cost burdened” in the nation. The report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development noted that households that must spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing have less to spend on food, clothing, transportation and medical care. That’s what happens, Staff Writer Robert Digitale explained, when rents grow by 49.5 percent over five years.

For too long, we have ignored the housing needs of the next generation of workers, especially people who don’t make a lot of money. With so many baby boomers retiring in place and with a longstanding shortage of apartments and duplexes, the scarcity of housing for people with day jobs (night jobs, too) is only going to get worse.

You know how this goes. Need a teacher, a nurse, a carpenter, a painter, an engineer? Want the stores where you shop to be able to hire clerks and delivery people? Hope your favorite restaurant can recruit a talented chef and a dedicated wait staff?

Well, those folks need a place to live, too.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at

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