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Sonoma County supervisors advance proposed $300 million housing bond for November election

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday advanced efforts to place on the November ballot a $300 million bond measure meant to help subsidize the construction of tens of thousands of new homes in the region.

Policymakers, housing advocates and environmental leaders have aligned in support of the proposed general obligation bond. They see it as crucial tool to speed recovery from the October wildfires, which destroyed nearly 5,300 homes in the county.

The proposal, which awaits a final vote by the Board of Supervisors this summer, would be patterned off similar efforts approved by voters in San Francisco, Santa Clara and Alameda counties to support affordable housing development.

“So many people my age, my generation, feel like they have no future in Sonoma County,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, 35, who is part of the coalition working to bring the bond before voters. “I see them leave for other states … This is also true at the other end of the age spectrum and with our senior community who increasingly feels like there’s not place left for them.”

Supporters hope the bond measure can be used to leverage more money at the state and federal level, including a proposed $4 billion state housing bond going before California voters in November.

The local money could provide funding to help much-needed housing projects pencil out, backers say, spurring the creation of affordable units that were in short supply even before the wildfires.

“It’s never easy to go before the voters for local revenue measures, be it ag preservation, be it open space, be it parks, be it roads, be it bridges, and in this case, housing,” said Efren Carrillo, a former county supervisor, who now leads government relations for the nonprofit developer Burbank Housing in Santa Rosa. “And yet we recognize that there are many tools that the local leaders have to look at to start to crawl back out of the crisis that we have before us.”

The bond proposal has drawn support from a cross-section of local political leaders and environmental interests, including Sonoma County Conservation Action. Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts is helping lead the push for the proposal.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, an architect, voiced strong support for comprehensive efforts to expand the housing market and said county leaders needed to hold themselves accountable to their ambitious targets.

“We’ve never done that before,” Rabbitt said. “We say we do, but that’s not true.”

The Board of Supervisors, for its part, has floated a goal of adding 30,000 units in the county over the next 5 years.

“I hope we can have an adult conversation about housing, about growth in this county and really talk about where that should be and how it should occur,” Rabbitt said.

But not everyone is on board yet. Maddy Hirshfield, political director of the North Bay Labor Council, said her organization was “disappointed and saddened” with the bond plans so far. The current statement of principles drafted by supporters does not include sufficient workforce protections, including ironclad requirements that developers who tap into housing bond money pay prevailing wages and hire local workers, she said.

If the government is trying to help ensure workers can afford to live near their jobs, “we simply cannot scrimp on these things,” Hirshfield said.

The bond also has been proposed as another way to help the county’s homeless population, who number at a rate more than three times the national average. And the discussions come as the county is preparing to clear out a large homeless encampment behind a Dollar Tree store in Roseland, hoping to make room for a new development that would include 175 housing units.

Homeless advocates protested the tent village’s expected closure at Tuesday’s board meeting, setting up tents outside the county administrative offices and bringing signs into the board chambers, urging supervisors to reconsider their strategy. The camp is supposed to shut down Thursday.

“For heaven’s sakes, we’ve got people who are living and breathing, fighting for their very existence,” said Kathleen Finigan, a member of the activist group Homeless Action. “Please do something.”

Hopkins said the “angst and frustration” from community members concerned about homelessness was among many reasons to support the housing bond measure, which she called a “crucial piece of our housing recovery.”

In an email to supervisors Tuesday, Jennielynn Holmes, the director of shelter and housing for Catholic Charities, said she was involved in the efforts to get the bond on the ballot because she feels “very strongly that this is one of the most important things we can create in our community to address our housing and homeless crisis.”

The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to direct staff members to evaluate the county resources needed to place the measure on the ballot this fall. Supervisor James Gore was absent.

Staff will return May 8 and present a more detailed plan to the board. Supervisors are expected to consider a formal vote to put the bond on the ballot sometime in July.

In other county business Tuesday, supervisors authorized the human resources department to prepare for potential layoffs in county departments because of the financial strain caused by the wildfires and unrelated funding challenges in certain county departments. Already, the Department of Human Services is planning to cut 13 jobs, almost all of them vacant, in June, but personnel managers told supervisors more staff reductions may be needed.

Personnel officials said they will try to reduce the need for any layoffs, using transfers of affected employees to different jobs within the same department or other county divisions.

“I want everybody to realize that we don’t take these things lightly,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “I take these layoffs very seriously, and we need to mitigate as much as possible … Nobody wins a popularity contest when you make these. They’re painful.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.