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Housing report: ‘Future of community at stake’

Sustainable Sonoma

Sustainable Sonoma is a forum of community leaders from a range of sectors across Sonoma Valley, including nonprofits, business, and governmental interests. Their website is sustainablesonoma.net.

"“Homes for a Sustainable Sonoma County: Strategic Recommendations for Our Community” is available for PDF download from sustainablesonoma.net/homes. Hard copies of the 50-page handbook can be requested from Kim Jones, coordinator, at kim@sustainablesonoma.net.

“Sonoma Valley suffers from a severe housing affordability crisis that affects every aspect of our community,” reads the “Housing Declaration” that guides a new housing report released this month by Sustainable Sonoma.

“The future of our community is at stake.”

That foundation premise lays the groundwork for the nonprofit’s new report, “Homes for a Sustainable Sonoma County: Strategic Recommendations for Our Community.” The report is the product of over two years of listening, investigating, workshopping and collaborating with local nonprofits, businesses, government agencies and other stakeholders in an effort to find solutions to a variety of ongoing community challenges.

The 50-page report, available as a PDF download from sustainablesonoma.net/homes, reflects the depth of that deep dive, exploring the strategies necessary to address the Valley’s various inequalities.

The report is less a series of findings or even recommendations, but a call to action “to reach the vision articulated in the Housing Declaration.” Three such actions are specified: Strengthen public will for housing affordability; help people keep their existing affordable homes; and build new homes that embody the principles of the Sustainable Sonoma Housing Declaration.

Sustainable Sonoma

Sustainable Sonoma is a forum of community leaders from a range of sectors across Sonoma Valley, including nonprofits, business, and governmental interests. Their website is sustainablesonoma.net.

"“Homes for a Sustainable Sonoma County: Strategic Recommendations for Our Community” is available for PDF download from sustainablesonoma.net/homes. Hard copies of the 50-page handbook can be requested from Kim Jones, coordinator, at kim@sustainablesonoma.net.

Sustainable Sonoma formed in the summer of 2017 as a collaborative project, spearheaded by its director Caitlin Cornwall and coordinator Kim Jones, both of the Sonoma Ecology Center. Its stable of partners includes the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, Vintage House senior center, the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, La Luz Center, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District and the City of Sonoma Police, among many other partners.

Cornwall is a biologist who leads planning and partnerships, and advises on technical projects, at Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC). Jones, a Sonoma native who spent eight years in Sweden gaining dynamic experience in education and public relations, is also marketing director at SEC.

“You could call it a roadmap, or you could also call it a strategy,” said Cornwall. “It’s not as detailed as a blueprint, or a set of recommendations.” But it’s clearly reaching for a consensus among its diverse group of partners to build momentum for a series of solutions, each in keeping with the “triple-bottom line” of economy, environment and equity.

The handbook is assembled as a series of interlocking talking points that drive toward solutions, beginning with Strategy #1: “Strengthen public will for housing affordability.”

Homes+for+a+Sustainable+Sonoma+Valley-+Strategic+Recommendations+For+Our+Community_122820.pdf

“One of our main recommended strategies it to strengthen the community voice in favor of housing affordably,” said Cornwall. “That recommendation gets carried out by the people who live or work here and who may not have seen housing as part of their purview before.

“But in the research we did, and the experts we consulted, Sonoma Valley has become a place with immense barriers to housing affordability, and changing that requires a bit of a cultural shift.”

Sustainable Sonoma has produced this as an incentive or guide for taking action. It’s not to be digested in one skimming session, but referred to and rechecked over time, a roadmap to directed community action. The pages are each designed to be visually informative and self-contained – each one could be a handout or social media post.

With limited affordable housing opportunities in the Sonoma Valley, available for a population struggling with diminished economic options made critical by the coronavirus emergency, the report’s self-described “windows of opportunity” appear all the more pressing. They start at City Hall: influence the on-going revisions of Sonoma’s development code, to make affordable housing more fair and available.

At a slightly wider level, Sustainable Sonoma is drafting a verbal report to present to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 26 on the topic of Eldridge, site of the former Sonoma Developmental Center, and its future, as envisioned by community input. “It’s an exciting conversation for a coalition like Sustainable Sonoma to have,” said Cornwall.

“The future of that place has unprecedented potential to bring in whole triple-bottom line concept — economy, environment and equity — that’s a site where enormous benefits to the Valley and the whole region could be had in all three of those categories.”

The pages are each designed to be visually informative and self-contained – each one could be a handout or social media post.

The report bears kinship with the Sonoma Valley Fund’s 2017 “Hidden in Plain Sight,” which warned that despite a thriving culture of philanthropy in Sonoma Valley, the increasing scope, intensity and interconnectedness of Sonoma Valley’s challenges could overwhelm the area’s existing network of nonprofits.

“The shortage of affordable housing is incredibly complicated and presents thorny challenges for our community. In many ways, much more challenging than the problems we laid out in ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ because of the size and scope of the problem,” said Joshua Rymer, who co-authored that document.

Rymer found the first state of Sustainable Sonoma’s evolution – a listening process – was a luxury the Sonoma Valley Fund didn’t have time or resources to undertake. “That built a lot of ideas and some momentum — which will be crucial.”

Meanwhile those time-sensitive windows of opportunity — as long-term plans for growth in the Springs and the future of Eldridge are being developed — are open now.

“If we don’t change the direction we’re going in as a community, we will have fewer and fewer children in Sonoma Valley,” said Cornwall. “Already parents and their children are leaving, they can’t make it here. And children who do live here, as they get older, don’t see a place for them here as adults.

“All those factors are changeable, but it takes a real shift, it takes intention, to make Sonoma Valley a welcoming place for children, their families and young adults. And it starts with housing.”

Email Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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