Housing report finds Sonoma has room for 579 housing units

Draft Housing Element identifies potential sites for new housing, with feedback sought through Sept. 7.|

There’s plenty of room to build new housing in Sonoma, according to a draft housing report from city planning consultants.

In fact, Sonoma might have capacity for an additional 579 housing units in the city limits, according to De Novo Planning Group.

The report, aka the 6th Cycle Draft Housing Element, establishes the goals, policies and programs for the City of Sonoma to address its housing needs between 2023 and 2031. A city’s Housing Element requires state certification every eight years – essentially demonstrating that the jurisdiction has adequate opportunity to develop the necessary housing to accommodate its anticipated population growth.

In December 2022, the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG, the regional planning agency which estimates future housing needs for the nine Bay Area counties, determined Sonoma would need 311 new units – aka its Regional Housing Needs Allocation - to accommodate the expected job and population growth for the next housing cycle, through 2031. Those units are further broken down into four income categories: very low (83 units), low (45), moderate (50) and above moderate (130).

Sonoma’s Housing Element needs to demonstrate to the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) that the city has the space for potential development of 311 units – and 579 puts the city comfortably above that.

“Sonoma is in a pretty good spot,” De Novo principal planner Perry Banner said at the Aug. 18 Sonoma Planning Commission meeting where he presented the Draft Housing Element. He said other jurisdictions his firm works with are “struggling to find the sites” to reach their RHNA numbers.

De Novo’s projection of 579 potential units would likely be pared down during review by HCD auditors who may reject certain sites put forth in the Housing Element. But by submitting more than 250 potential units above the required 311 gives Sonoma enough wiggle room for “a little bit more of a seamless process for Sonoma to get its housing element certified,” said Banner.

Banner said they reached their housing-unit estimates from a variety of angles. The lowest-hanging fruits were the 152 units currently already approved by the Sonoma Planning Department and in the pipeline for development – giving Sonoma a sizeable head start in realizing its housing goals. In addition to that, the consultants also identified vacant sites in the city that can accommodate 257 units. They then identified “underutilized” properties – sites already built up, yet still have capacity to develop another 102 units in total.

Finally, they anticipate more than 60 accessory dwelling units (ADUs) will be built over the course of the housing cycle.

Sonoma’s housing-needs allocation of 311 is its largest in all housing cycles since RHNA requirements were first established in 1969. The most recent 5th Cycle, for instance, saw Sonoma at a RHNA of 137, which it surpassed by a comfortable margin, with 166 units permitted for development over the course of the cycle’s eight years.

Planning Commissioner Ron Wellander asked Banner if Sonoma’s past success in reaching its housing goals would result in the state taking a more hands-off approach toward Sonoma’s Housing Element.

“I’m not particularly happy with their overreach into our small community,” said Wellander. “Especially if we’ve met our (housing) numbers and have a good history of it.”

Banner conceded that the state housing department does take a “one size fits all approach” to housing elements. “Just because Sonoma has done a great job in the previous housing element cycle, its unfortunately not going to give us a pass,” said Banner.

That said, “it reflects really well on Sonoma that we exceeded our 5th Cycle (goals).”

In response to some questions from the public at the meeting about who would build the housing, Banner stressed that the City of Sonoma is not obligated to build any of the housing – just to demonstrate the land is available and zoned properly for potential development.

“The city’s role in this process is that we’re, essentially, setting the table,” said Banner. “We’re making sure development can occur over the planning period and then it’s left up to the free market to actually build the units.”

Commissioner Robert McDonald asked about the ramifications for cities that don’t implement state-mandated programs to produce more housing.

Banners said the state is going to be doing a lot more “scrutinizing” of local jurisdictions’ progress on implementing housing programs. Those cities that don’t meet certain timelines may be denied housing-related grant funding, he said.

“There are ramifications,” Banner said. “There’s more teeth, so to speak, now than there has been in the past in so far as a city being required to implement their programs.”

The Draft Housing Element is currently in the 30-day public-review phase, with public feedback being taken through Sept. 7. Then the document goes to the state Department of Housing and Community Development for review. HCD will issue a findings letter with possible revisions. Adoption of the Housing Element by the Planning Commission and City Council – and certification by HCD - is expected to take place in early 2023.

The Draft Housing Element can be viewed at sonomacity.org/housing-element-update.

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