Before the apocalyptic October 2017 fires ravaged parts of Sonoma County, the county had already been dealing with a lingering problem that was only getting worse: a housing crisis. There isn’t enough affordable housing and it only exacerbated when the fires destroyed more than 5,300 homes and businesses. Some homeowners are still rebuilding, some have moved out-of-state and there are many others who are having a difficult time purchasing a home because they’re priced out of the market. Then in March 2020, the pandemic was officially declared, which produced even more problems when businesses shut down and people lost jobs. What Sonoma County was in need of was an organization that had the best interest of the people, who can’t afford to rent or buy a home, and one that could advocate for them. Enter Generation Housing.
A new way of thinking
Located in downtown Santa Rosa, Generation Housing—also known as Gen H—opened its doors in January 2020. The nonprofit organization is run by Jen Klose, executive director, and consists of four full-time employees (including Klose) and a few independent contractors, who work on specific assignments for Gen H. According to Klose, the organization was formed after research was done and funded by the Community Foundation of Sonoma County.
After the 2017 wildfires, the question being asked was what were the barriers to housing production in Sonoma County, and then to answer the question: How do we solve those barriers? Klose says what rose to the top of those barriers was a lack of political and public will, and the corollaries to possible solutions was an independent housing advocacy focus group.
Cassandra Benjamin, a housing and philanthropy expert, and Efren Carrillo, the Burbank housing chief development officer, led a year-long incubation process with a curated group of cross-sector leaders who volunteered for a year to incubate the group. “I was asked to volunteer on that team as a representative of education because I was the school board president for Santa Rosa Schools [at the time],” says Klose. “We pulled together focus groups of large employers, labor, housing staff leads, affordable and market-rate developers. During the focus groups, they posed these questions: Could we be helpful? Do you think we should exist? And they all said, ‘Yes! How fast can you exist?’”
The mission of Gen H is to advocate for more diverse, affordable housing in Sonoma County. The organization provides public education for decision-makers and policymakers by providing information about housing policy solutions (e.g., up-zoning, impact fee reform, incentivizing affordable multi-family development in high resource areas. It also describes how the housing crisis impacts the community and how to improve our housing system, and how increasing housing diversity, availability and affordability will positively impact our community. It also evaluates and endorses housing developments and pro-housing policy, conducts research on how informed housing decisions are made, develops model policy to help the organization advance its housing goals. Gen H also acts as a convener—wherever it can help to get people to align on housing solutions. “We try to [bring together] housing lead staff members from all the jurisdictions in the county on a regular basis to give them an opportunity to collaborate,” says Klose. “We’re starting to convene the large employers in the county to see how they can align on housing solutions since they’re struggling with workforce issues due to the housing shortage.” Additionally, she says the organization is engaged in the #WeAreGenH public will-building campaign where it’s attempting to change opposing minds on housing, creating a counter-voice against local NIMBYs—the Not In My Back Yard individuals who may have an opposition to housing.
Generation Housing primarily focuses on advocating for policies and projects. Klose says the organization will endorse a project if it falls under specific endorsement criteria and if it’s driven by the organization’s guiding principles—people, place, housing options, impact and collaboration. (See “Guiding Principles” on page 22).
According to Klose, not every project that’s presented to Generation Housing will receive an endorsement. However, if the project is endorsed, it will have gone through a rigorous analysis and will be placed into a point system and a point rubric. Then, depending on how many points the project scores on that scale, different levels of support will be provided. The organization also has a policy advisory committee, where a subcommittee of Gen H’s board helps advise. “It’s a group of very experienced development and housing policy experts who help us talk through some of the thornier issues of housing policy, to make sure Generation Housing’s staff is making considered decisions about its endorsements,” she says.
Occasionally, Generation Housing takes part in hosting different advocacy and networking events, as well as virtual webinars. On Nov. 2, the organization virtually held its first annual Innovations in Housing Development Conference, to discuss solutions in solving the housing shortage and affordability crises, as well as the effect climate change and weather-related events have in the planning and building of housing. The conference will address innovations in: time/cost saving; sustainability/climate conscious; fire-resistant design and construction; policy and financing; and communications and community engagement.
One of the many hurdles that can also contribute to the housing crisis is density restrictions. There are long-standing policies that discourage development and when density restrictions arise, Klose explains, such as zoning that’s exclusively for single-family homes, an issue develops. However, two new state laws will help alleviate the single-family zoning restrictions. “Laws SB 9 and SB 10 are starting to chip away at that kind of restrictions, which are giving homeowners more rights with respect to what they can build on their property, while also giving cities a little more discretion about where they can build small, multi-family housing,” says Klose. “The state is helping us out, but we can do much more on a local level to change zoning ordinances in a way that could encourage more multi-family housing development in more parts of our cities.” Klose believes it would also help integrate and diversify cities and communities. “Right now, we have segregated communities by income, race and ethnicity, and changing the way we allow for multi-family housing to be developed can help alleviate that.”
Renewal Enterprise District
An organization that has collaborated with Generation Housing is the Renewal Enterprise District (RED) in Santa Rosa. Michelle Whitman, RED’s executive director, and Klose have been working closely together for the last two years.
RED, which is in partnership with the City of Santa Rosa and County of Sonoma, was formed after the 2017 fires and has been more focused on trying to attract financial resources to blend private and public financing to solve for the financial piece of what is stalling the housing projects. This is where Generation Housing comes in. “Gen H was established to do the advocacy, the public and political will-building that is also stalling projects,” says Whitman. “For example, if you put something that’s related to housing on the ballot, you’re not going to see [overwhelming] success. And part of the reason is that we haven’t had an organization out there or a community leader building our housing ethic, and I think that’s the niche Generation Housing and Klose have been so effective in.”
In contrast to public and political will-building stalling housing projects, Whitman adds that despite public policy changes made by local, elected officials, who have taken down some of the barriers that have historically stalled housing, projects are still not breaking ground. Once those policy barriers are down, you look at what’s left. In some cases, the housing doesn’t ‘pencil out,’ she says, and in other cases, they’ve encountered some headwinds from the community. There are residents of communities who don’t see the need for more housing or they do see the need, but don’t want it next to them (aka NIMBYs). “So there’s a need for community education and public will-building because when those projects come up for approval before a city council or a board of supervisors, the elected officials also need to reflect a shared housing ethic,” says Whitman. “And that’s what Generation Housing, again, has been so effective at, the education piece and the community engagement. We finally have a strong, collective housing ethic and these projects can actually happen.”
Whitman adds that Generation Housing feels strongly that its work is about more than just a home. It’s about fundamental human rights that should apply equitably and inclusively to everyone in the community. “So they’re not just fighting for housing for one group over another. They’re out there advocating for housing for everybody. Klose and Generation Housing recognizes the connection of housing to not just social justice, but to our economic vitality, our resilience to disaster—and that includes fires and the pandemic,” says Whitman. “They see housing as a key to our long-term climate resilience. They see the interconnectedness of housing to all of these other issues.” She concludes what Klose and Gen H have also excelled in is fostering and maintaining a diverse, unparalleled network of allies, including voices that have not been represented in the housing space in the past.
Another collaborator in agreement with Whitman and Generation Housing is Caitlin Cornwall, project director for Sonoma Valley Collaborative (SVC) in Sonoma. According to Cornwall, Generation Housing was initially formed at the same time as SVC after some soul searching and interviews with people after the 2017 fires. “When the question was asked, ‘How do we make Sonoma County more resilient going forward into the future if we’re going to be experiencing disasters like this?’ It’s a short, existential threat to the viability of Sonoma County communities and there was a recognition that the county lacked a housing advocacy organization,” says Cornwall. She adds that Generation Housing’s board of directors intentionally includes people from business, people from environmental studies, and people with backgrounds in social justice. Those three—economic, environment and equity—are the basis for a sustainable community, and that’s the value system that defines SVC. “It makes it easy for us to work with Generation Housing because we share a value set,” says Cornwall.
Peter Rumble, CEO of Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, also has first-hand knowledge of Generation Housing. He serves as vice president of Generation Housing’s board of directors, and his responsibility on the board is to help provide general organizational policy guidance and to support the executive director, and establish the organization in a way that fulfills its mission. He adds that he’s been involved with Generation Housing before it existed. “I was part of the initial incubation team that generated the idea for Generation Housing together with a number of other people, and bringing shape to the organization,” he says. Regarding the housing crisis, Rumble says probably the greatest threat to our vitality, the health of our community and the health of our economy is the inability for people across all income spectrums to purchase a house or afford rent in the community in which they live.
“It impacts our inability to keep a workforce here and it impacts our ability to keep our vital services here. It makes life much more difficult and stressful for families,” says Rumble. “It makes people choose between housing costs and other necessities, like food, taking care of themselves, their children.” My biggest hope, he says, is that the community at large recognizes and moves beyond acknowledging that there is a housing crisis and takes action. As a community, I hope we will have a smarter and more humanistic conversation about affordable housing and workforce housing, he adds. “The only way we can provide enough housing and the right kind of housing for the community is to build it and to continue with it as the community grows…and growing can come internally,” says Rumble. “Generation Housing is about all generations, all incomes and all of our community being able to live in a place that we love.”
Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, says the housing problem in the county has been going on for a while now, and he’s watched the problems mount for 34 years. “We talk a lot about the need for more housing, but we don’t do much about it. We are now playing catch-up for a decade or more of limited housing being constructed, and we have got to accelerate the pace of building because we’re so far behind,” he says.
The housing shortage isn’t just a problem, he adds, it’s a genuine crisis. “It’s not going to be eased or resolved until everybody gets on board,” says Woods. “That means the general public becomes accepting of more housing in their neighborhoods potentially, that the government streamlines the processes and fees to gain more housing and elected officials get fully committed to housing and are willing to stand up to the so-called NIMBYs.”
How difficult is it to find affordable housing in Sonoma County? According to Klose, Sonoma County has between a 1.5% and 2% vacancy rate. However, there’s not a lot of turnover, so it’s hard to find units at all. And then when units are found, they’re expensive. “More than half of our residents and more than 57% of our renters are cost-burdened—meaning they pay more than a third of their gross paycheck in rent. That’s not a healthy thing to do, according to the federal government. That means you’re not having enough money to meet all of your other basic needs, particularly if you are a low-wage earner,” says Klose.
“And it’s difficult enough that we also have numerous people living in overcrowded situations here,” she says. “We have lots of folks who are doubled and tripled up in homes and that overcrowding is an unhealthy way to live—both mentally and physically. We saw the physical side out during the pandemic where folks who were in overcrowded living situations were in those communities that had higher rates of COVID transmission, so it’s a challenge. And even on the ownership level, nearly half of our residents are cost-burdened in their housing costs, which include taxes and insurance.”
Rumble agrees with Klose. The lack of affordable housing and the fact that people are paying 50% of income on housing costs, in addition to paying for basic necessities—like child care and food—means they’re now paying 70% to 80% of their income. Rumble says Sonoma County is tens of thousands of housing units short to be in a healthy, sustainable place for our population. “That hard data alone should suggest to people that we’ve got to do something and not just talk about needing housing. So that means supporting the housing development that’s gone up in your neighborhood. That means telling your policymakers they must do more, that means encouraging our governments to be a facilitator of housing and not an impediment or a barrier to housing development,” says Rumble. “It also means developers need to look creatively at what can be done and move to a different model of housing—not single-family housing so much as multi-family housing, not on the outskirts of our cities and towns, but in the urban core where we have so much land that is ready for and ripe for development. It’s going to take everybody, from the neighborhood to the government to the developers themselves to pitch in to find a solution for this.”
Despite the endless reasons why Sonoma County doesn’t have adequate, affordable housing, Generation Housing has a few ideas on how it plans to handle the ongoing crisis. According to Klose, the organization is supporting policies that will lower the cost, speed the pace, and encourage development. It’s also working to create a real, strong housing ethic for elected leaders, appointed leaders and the general public, so there’s no active or effective opposition to housing. Gen H is always trying to look for additional funding for the development of housing and work collaboratively with other organizations—such as the Renewal Enterprise District—to help find funding solutions.
“It all has to be successful. We need the public and political will, so we need folks to develop that strong ethic and then the backbones to back it up,” says Klose. “We’re also going to come up with financing solutions because it’s hard to get deals to ‘pencil in.’ And part of those financing solutions is getting money in to help fund projects and it’s also about lowering costs and lowering the time for development, which also lowers cost. So we have to do all of it.”
On the horizon
What are the organization’s goals within the next year or so? Klose says she’d like for the organization to keep doing more of the same; continuing to support good development and pro-housing policy.
“We’d like to grow our action team of individuals, who help us support those projects and policies. We want to make sure to educate the public on their rights under SB 9 so that we make the most of that legislation. We also want to make sure that all of the jurisdictions in the county adopt SB 10, the jurisdictions have to opt-in to be subject to it, so we’re going to encourage that,” says Klose. “And we’re going to develop some model policy to further increase the number of options that folks have in areas that have been traditionally zoned only for single-family homes. We’re a new organization, so of course, we’re going to be working to ensure that our organization is here for the long haul and that it has sustainable funding.”
Though Generation Housing is an organization that advocates housing for all income levels, says Klose, it does so with an environmental and equity lens. On the environmental side, it wants to develop housing in a way that preserves and protects Sonoma County’s beautiful, natural environment, while also addressing climate change. And on the equity side, the organization knows that people who are most acutely suffering from the housing crisis are low-wage earners and communities of color. Generation Housing’s mission is affordable housing and low-income housing options.
Although Generation Housing has only been in business for a short time, it’s fair to say that it will certainly meet all of its goals and will provide a glimmer of hope to individuals and families, who have never given up on their dream of owning a home.
Generation Housing operates with six guiding principles. They include:
People. To promote livable, sustainable and walkable communities with proximity to transit and to support a greater diversity of homes in high-opportunity neighborhoods.
Place. To support financial stability by advancing homeownership opportunities for lower- and moderate-income families and to promote policies that stabilize neighborhoods at risk of displacement and gentrification.
Housing Options. To create new financing tools for local government to support affordable housing, and promote affordability for all income levels and add to the diversity of housing needs.
Sustainability. To advance environmentally-conscious and sustainable siting, promote environmental design, as well as promote resilience against natural hazards in home production.
Impact. To achieve large and/or strategic impact in meeting local or regional housing needs, and to support policies that address the job-housing gap.
Collaboration. To promote robust community outreach and engagement to guide the conversation, and foster interagency engagement and collaboration.