PD Editorial: Achieving housing goals may require painful tradeoffs

Michael Wolff, CEO of Wolff Contracting, poses for a portrait on his property on Dennis Lane where he allows fire recovery workers under his employ to live, in Santa Rosa, California, on Saturday, February 3, 2018. The city of Santa Rosa is forcing Wolff to remove the trailers, effectively evicting the employees living there, some of whom lost their own homes in the October wildfires. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


Thankfully, cooler heads are prevailing in the clash between the city of Santa Rosa and a local contractor who has allowed his debris-clearing workers to live in trailers on a vacant 1-acre parcel near Coffey Park.

The city on Wednesday said it would not be pursuing fines against Santa Rosa contractor Michael Wolff, who lacks the proper permits to allow the workers to stay on his property. Said David Gouin, the city’s director of Housing and Community Services: “We want to try to make this all work out.”

That’s good because it’s our guess the community wants this worked out as well.

We understand the city’s need to protect public health and to ensure safe living conditions. But this wasn’t exactly a shanty town that had cropped up on the Dennis Lane property. The workers were living in 10 sizable trailers, the kind that would normally be found in RV parks, not in the middle of neighborhoods. But these are not normal times. There is little space available in RV parks near Santa Rosa, and many of the homes and residents in this particular neighborhood are gone.

Moreover, the community lacks the workers needed to clear the lots and rebuild the homes that were destroyed in the October fires.

Santa Rosa officials contend this dispute has less to do with the trailers than it does with some unresolved code violations that date back before the fires. Either way, this episode has come to symbolize the many challenges the city and county face in meeting its housing needs. Rebuilding from this catastrophic event is going to require compromise, tradeoffs and some new ways of problem-solving.

As the Board of Supervisors discussed during a day-long workshop on Monday, the region was already short by some 11,000 houses and apartments before the fires hit. The fires destroyed more than 5,100 homes, making the rental and resale housing markets all the more crazy. When factoring how many more new homes and apartments will be needed to keep up with demand, the county is looking at setting a goal of 30,000 units in the next five years.

That’s a breathtaking sum, one that may reflect more wishful thinking than prudent planning. Nonetheless, it puts the region’s true need in perspective.

It also raises two critical questions that the county has only just begun to tackle: Where are these houses and apartments going to go, and where are the workers who are needed to build these units going to stay?

In November, a Santa Rosa audience gasped when economist Christopher Thornberg projected that the county was going to need nearly 19,000 construction workers, or roughly 6,500 a year over three years. That’s just to rebuild the houses that were lost. Santa Rosa frankly doesn’t have the luxury of discouraging those who are finding creative ways to house construction crews.

Even more daunting is identifying the places where all of this new housing is going to be built. For decades, this region has fought to preserve open space and agricultural lands, create urban growth boundaries and put the emphasis on city-centered growth. But the community needs to have an honest discussion about whether cities will be able to absorb all of this growth in such a short period of time.

Supervisors discussed the possibility of moving its government center to downtown Santa Rosa and developing its existing 26-acre site for housing. It’s something worth exploring, but such a massive project is unlikely to happen within five years and, even then, it would result in the addition of only 1,450 new homes. It makes the 30,000 figure all the more daunting and the need for new thinking all the more apparent.