30,000 homes in 5 years? Sonoma County eyes aggressive approach to ease housing crisis
Updated: Jun 2, 2018
Author: J.D. Morris
Publication: The Press Democrat
Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday floated an ambitious goal of building 30,000 new housing units over five years — a number equal to 130 percent of the current stock in Petaluma — as part of a moonshot project to alleviate a regional housing crisis deepened by October’s devastating wildfires.
Under the same banner of a hands-on, government-led recovery, the Board of Supervisors discussed putting a housing bond before voters that could speed reconstruction by tapping taxpayer dollars.
And supervisors mulled a relocation of most administrative offices of county government, one half of an idea that would free up both the county campus and Santa Rosa City Hall complex for future housing development.
The proposals were among numerous suggestions put forward during a daylong workshop the Board of Supervisors held to focus on housing construction in light of the more than 5,100 homes lost in the October wildfires.
The disaster exacerbated a severe housing shortage, county officials and community leaders agreed.
“As we all know, we’ve talked about the problem for far too long,” said Supervisor James Gore, the board chairman. “We’ve talked about a crisis without acting like it’s a crisis.”
The 30,000-unit goal, which has not yet been formally adopted by the board, reflects what various estimates indicate the county would need to rightsize its insufficient supply, said Margaret Van Vliet, the executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission.
The high target — which calls for 7,000 more units than currently exist in the city of Petaluma, the county’s second-largest city — is likely out of reach in the near term given the county’s slower approach to housing production. But county leaders believe formation of a new regional housing agency could speed development significantly.
Called a renewal enterprise district, the new agency would be akin to the public supplier Sonoma Clean Power and its approach to spurring renewable energy development, officials said. Van Vliet said the agency would consolidate financing mechanisms and provide developers with more regulatory certainty, though the details haven’t been fully fleshed out yet.
Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose house burned down in the fires, supported the need for new housing but was skeptical of what sounded to her like a goal too lofty.
“My eyebrows just shot through the roof,” Gorin said. “I love goals. (But) 30,000 units in five years is not going to happen.”
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said so many homes could never be built in the county’s current housing system, which she described as “clearly broken.”
But she said it could be doable if officials radically change their approach, possibly through the renewal enterprise district. Another housing tool supervisors considered in their workshop was potentially asking voters this fall to agree to a bond similar to those already in place in other Bay Area locales, including San Francisco and Alameda County, to fund affordable housing.
“To me, it still seems we don’t have the tools to address this crisis and keep pace with rising demand,” said Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts, who presented the idea to supervisors. “It’s almost as if we’ve given ourselves a hammer to build a house but we haven’t given ourselves the nails to bring it all together.”
Tibbetts said the bond could take the form of a levy on each $100,000 in assessed property value or a parcel tax — a uniform fee applied to each property. The bond could be used by local officials to initially fund the proposed renewal enterprise district, he said.
Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials also are eying their own government properties to make room for more housing. The county’s sprawling administrative campus in north Santa Rosa and the City Hall complex on Santa Rosa Avenue consist of aging buildings that sit on attractive locations for new homes, officials said.
As the governments discuss potential moves, they’re thinking about moving into the same building, possibly in downtown Santa Rosa, which Mayor Chris Coursey touted to supervisors on Tuesday.
“Let’s think about doing something big together for this community,” Coursey said. “Combining our forces is the only way can both help our residents rebuild what was lost in the fire and at the same time work not just toward the kind of housing that we need in Sonoma County, but the kind of housing we want.”
The county is looking at freeing up 26 acres at the county campus — excluding the courthouse, jail and the Sheriff’s Office — for as many as 1,450 units of housing, according to Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director. Relocating the county administrative offices would require about 2 acres elsewhere or an 8-story building on a 66,000-square-foot space, though she said officials were “not married” to a specific height.
Supervisors were mostly supportive of the idea, but Hopkins worried that if the county offices were in downtown Santa Rosa, they would be even further removed from rural west county residents and that limited parking in the area could pose additional challenges.
County staff members are expected to bring a more specific plan for the administrative campus before the board at a later date.
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