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Simple Homes for People of Modest Means, Please?

Author: Duane De Witt
April, 2017 Issue


For more than 20 years, the city of Santa Rosa has known it has serious housing problems for a large part of its population, which has continued to grow exponentially with no relief in sight.

 Many Sonoma County residents rode out the wet winter without a roof over their heads. Though Santa Rosa declared a “homeless emergency” last August, there was nowhere for many poor residents to go during record rains. Shelters were full and local political leaders were unable to make arrangements for additional housing. This may be because the county has a vacancy rate of less than one percent, according to government statistics. These facts were not mentioned in a recent Sonoma County Economic Indicators report discussed by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board in February. The economic picture looks good for Sonoma County with low unemployment and positive economic growth, but without enough workforce housing available there could be problems.

A recently proposed California state senate bill states: “High housing costs and the shortage of housing stock in California directly affect the future health of California’s economy and … bold action is necessary.”  Emphasizing positive aspects of building more housing SB3 pointed out, “Investment in housing creates jobs and provides local benefits. The estimated one-year impacts of building 100 rental apartments in a typical local area include $11.7 million in local income, $2.2 million in taxes and other revenue for local governments and 161 local jobs—or 1.62 jobs per apartment.” This bill is for a proposed housing bond of $3 billion in 2018 with State Senator Mike McGuire a coauthor.  More substantiation included, “The additional annually recurring impacts of building 100 rental apartments in a typical local area include $2.6 million in local income, $503,000 in taxes and other revenue for local governments and 44 local jobs or [-0.44 jobs per apartment.]”

Those numbers are a powerful incentive to get momentum going for more housing in Marin, Napa and Sonoma Counties. But it will take political will for workforce housing to be built here. The state Senate is also seeking another bill, SB2, to add another chapter, “Chapter 2.5…to Part 2 of Division 31 of the Health and Safety Code, relating to housing, and declaring the urgency thereof, to take effect immediately.” The new act, if approved, “Shall be known as the Building Homes and Jobs Act.” This comes about because, “The Legislature finds and declares that having a healthy housing market that provides an adequate supply of homes affordable to Californians at all income levels is critical to the economic prosperity and quality of life in the state.”

These measures will take effect after elections in November 2018, if the bills pass. For now, North Bay residents are in need of immediate actions to get new housing construction underway. One dilemma for more local communities is that now every building imaginable for possible housing, such as garages, out buildings, and sheds, are already being converted without permits. Getting new building permits and financing to build workforce housing has been difficult for a long time.

For more than 20 years, the city of Santa Rosa has known it has serious housing problems for a large part of its population, which has continued to grow exponentially with no relief in sight. According to the 1996 annual report of the city department of community development, “No units affordable to very low income households have been approved.” In 1997 the same thing occurred though 17 units of “low income” housing received building permits while 691 permits were issued. “Moderate income” housing, which is also considered workforce housing, received 104 permits back then. At the end of the year it was acknowledged 570 units had been built for “above moderate” income people while needs for close to 3,000 housing units for lower incomes existed then.

During the last 20 years, the needs for more housing in the North Bay Area have only grown. San Francisco’s chief economist estimates it would take another 100,000 units of housing to stabilize rents, according the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). While the needs in the North Bay may be comparable in terms of scale, there doesn’t seem to be the political will in Sonoma County needed for aggressive approaches to permitting workforce housing, which is being exhibited in San Francisco. More than 700 units of housing are already “permitted” for the southwest area of Santa Rosa now. But breaking ground this summer is necessary to get a start on making more shelter available to people of lower-income levels in our workforce. Let’s build more affordable North Bay work force housing in 2017, and include low-income single resident units.

Duane De Witt, MCP, MLA, MS, city planning and landscape architecture, environmental planner and urban forestry. 



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