As affordable housing deed restrictions expire in Sonoma, seniors fear being hit with market rates
John Brians opened his apartment door to find out what the ruckus was as he meandered with his cane into the hallway, furrowing his bushy eyebrows to the noise upstairs.
A maintenance worker was adding new carpeting to the apartment upstairs, and a sign out front offered a 1-bedroom apartment for $1,175 per month. If that number seems low for an apartment in Sonoma, it’s because it is.
Setzer Senior Apartments, a small, eight-unit complex, is deed-restricted for low-income seniors. But come June 2023, the affordability restriction will end. After seven years of residency, Brians and the other tenants are not sure what comes next.
“I have no choice,” Brians said. “I’ll have to see if I can make ends meet … luckily, I know people who have money so I hang in there.”
According to a city housing outlook for 2023-31, Setzer Senior Apartments was considered high-risk of being converted to market-rate units “that would not provide assistance to lower-income residents.”
Sonoma has 399 properties with limits. Eighteen are at risk of conversion from low-income housing to market rate by 2035, and four of them have restrictions that will expire by 2025.
Ben Hernandez, a Realtor for the Setzer complex, said the owner, Donovan Family Trust, “wants to be reasonable” when the affordable deed-restriction ends in June and rents can be raised.
However, that will depend on whether the city of Sonoma chooses to buy the property, he said.
In ‘deed’ of housing
After decades of building affordable housing projects as part of the New Deal, in 1968 the federal government found a new way to create low-income units, according to Elizabeth Elia, an associate professor of property law at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Elia wrote “Perpetual Affordability Covenants: Can These Land Use Tools Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis?” a research paper for the Pennsylvania State Law Review, which showed how affordable deed-restrictions play into the larger housing market.
In exchange for shifting the burden of low-income housing to private landlords, Elia said, the government subsidized private owners through low-cost mortgages, grants or operating benefits.
“The federal government did a sharp turn away from government-owned housing and toward the private market as the providers of affordable housing for low-income Americans,” Elia said.
The government needed to guarantee a property would remain affordable — and not be sold off to shed its affordable status. So an affordability restriction was written into the deed of homes, Elia said, typically for the length of a 30-year mortgage.
At the Setzer Senior Apartments, erected in 1993, that 30-year limit is almost up, leaving residents wondering what happens next.
Farm boy financing
Brians grew up as a farm boy in Penngrove as a fourth-generation Sonoma County resident. Looking through a collection of old newspaper clippings and photographs, he produced a photo of a dirt intersection taken in 1948.
“You know where this is? East Cotati Avenue and Snyder Lane,” Brians said. “Can you imagine that? In 1953, we had a square mile and my dad sold it for $300,000. It was money back then.”
The intersection today is lined with coniferous trees, lawns and subdivisions of single family homes, many of which are now valued at an average of nearly $1.3 million and have risen 30% since July 2020, according to Zillow.com.
The $971 a month Brians receives from Social Security does not cover his rent of $1,175 per month, which was raised nearly $100 this year but is still far less than Sonoma’s average of $2,100 per month.
As a result, Annie Falandes, the founder of Homeless Action Sonoma, has provided monthly financial assistance for Brians.
“It depends on how he's doing that month, but usually I pay at least a couple hundred dollars,” Falandes said. “But if it's going to go to fair market value, John is going to be out of luck. I can't cover that.”
Brians is sensitive to the rising costs for the owner of Setzer Senior Apartments, too.
“Look at the price of turkey for Thanksgiving,” Brians said. “So it’s not just me, it’s not just rent, it’s the whole environment.”
Still, Brians received notice in the past year that the affordable deed restriction on his home would expire in June.
“I might not be alive in June,” Brians said. “I’ll see how it plays out.”
The silver tsunami
Brians tells stories about his life after graduating from the University of California, Davis, crossing the Atlantic and hitchhiking through Europe in a sport coat.
Sport coat not withstanding, Brians lived a Bohemian lifestyle, he said, and for three years he stayed in Casablanca, Morocco where he met and fell in love with his partner Alex. The two would eventually resettle in Sonoma and open the Frame Factory, a custom picture frame shop located on East Napa Street.
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