We’re all familiar with the catastrophe of the October fires, and so far, we’ve responded in a way that showed the strength of our community.
A regional housing need allocation report published by the Association of Bay Area Governments before the fire told us that Sonoma County was 14,000 units short of what we needed. Then we lost thousands of homes.
As a result, we are short tens of thousands of housing units to have a healthy market.
Before the fires hit, we had a 1.5 percent rental vacancy rate, which is effectively zero. Those 1.5 percentage points accounts for the time it takes for one renter to leave a unit, have it repainted and for a new renter to move in. During the past three years, rents have increased by 36 percent. The average rent in Sonoma County is now $3,224 a month. Between 2007 and 2014, we only built 500 housing units in Sonoma County.
At the same time, many think the fact that our low unemployment, 2.8 percent, is a hallmark of success, but in reality we have a workforce crisis. We don’t have enough people who can build homes or who are available to work in our communities — in our shops and our fields.
The fires on Oct 8 were the straw that broke the camel’s back. We lost 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, half in the unincorporated area and half in the city of Santa Rosa.
This housing crisis is a disease that makes us weaker and weaker.
So how do we respond? In the past we’ve dealt with this in isolated silos managed by jurisdiction. What we need is more collaboration and collective impact.
We can’t have a healthy economy, community or natural landscape without affordable housing. The lack of infill and transit-oriented development puts more pressure on environmentally sensitive areas and forces people who work in Sonoma County to live in Mendocino or Lake counties and other areas, putting more miles on our roads and emissions in the air.
The rules we have in place have handcuffed us. We need to change the paradigm with our primary goal being to support the people who lost their homes. They deserve the highest degree of streamlined financial support to rebuild their homes.
At the same time, we cannot stop at rebuilding. We also need to build.
The housing crisis demands that we have an ambitious goal and that we must develop a new system for doing business.
The goal of building 30,000 new homes in the next five years was put before the Board of Supervisors at the February housing workshop. And we said, “challenge accepted.” This may scare some people and for others it might sound unrealistic, but I ask, if you don’t have a goal how do you get anywhere?
For example: the county evaluated what it could do with its own resources. What if the county and city of Santa Rosa consolidated offices and removed the burden of under-utilized space and deferred maintenance and co-invested by moving employees into downtown Santa Rosa? This would bring salaries into an area needing an economic bump, and we would support those workers with SMART stations and by creating housing around the area, leading to a vibrant downtown.
And what if the county and city could work together, taking the old county facility, sitting on 26 acres of underutilized space, built in 1954, when parking took precedence over people and space, and converted it to 1,400 housing units? What if the county took advantage of recent studies and, supported by the SMART board, looked at building housing around the SMART station by the airport.