Sonoma County Housing Element calls for 3,824 new units in unincorporated areas

Valley groups review Sonoma County Housing Element, and offer words of warning.|

Housing in Sonoma Valley is not just a challenge, it’s a crisis for the future of Sonoma Valley, according to housing advocates as the Sonoma County Housing Element is finalized.

A chorus of voices spoke up about the impact of high housing costs on children, health-care workers and middle-class professionals if Sonoma County’s Housing Element does not adequately address dire needs in its unincorporated areas.

“You are about to become a town without children,” Celeste Winders said, a member of Springs Municipal Advisory Council and a new Sonoma Valley Unified School District trustee. “I think that we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is that really who we want to be?’”

Sonoma County is updating its 6th Housing Element for 2023-31, which determines how many units a community is required to build and strategic responses to address regional housing needs. The state first assesses the needs of an area, which is then broken down for Sonoma County by the Association of Bay Area Governments.

The Housing Element for the unincorporated sections of the county is separate from the city of Sonoma’s Housing Element, which calls for 311 housing units to be built in city limits between 2023-31.

“The 2023-31 (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) for Unincorporated Sonoma County is 3,824 units, which is more than 650% greater than the 515 units required in the 2014-22 Housing Element,” according to the executive summary of the county’s housing element.

Part of the reason for this massive increase is due to the overwhelming need for more affordable housing in a county where there are 16,825 more very low-income households than affordable rental homes, according to the summary.

The Sonoma Valley Collaborative, which advocates for housing, said the Housing Element doesn’t go far enough, and called for more action in a recent email, “including new policies such as a tax on vacant homes, banning almost all vacation rentals, government and nonprofit ownership of land for housing, rent stabilization and more.”

‘It’s a lot of units’

Marin County faces a similar drastic increase in units for its unincorporated communities, going from 185 units the last cycle (2014-22), to more than 3,500 housing units in the most recent cycle.

Bradley Dunn, policy manager of Permit Sonoma, said the county appealed its RHNA designation, citing the need for “city centric growth” to meet other state goals, including the reduction of emissions through lower vehicle miles travels and the preservation of natural resources.

“Those kinds of things can happen in cities in ways that are much, much harder to happen in rural unincorporated Sonoma County,” Dunn said. “It's a lot of units.”

The state rebuffed the county’s appeal, so Permit Sonoma began planning for 3,824 new homes; broken down with 1,604 units dedicated to low-income housing, 627 to middle-income housing and 1,589 units slated for high-income housing.

The housing units will be spread across the county’s unincorporated areas, where 30% of its residents live. Then through the utilization of zoning codes, housing programs and policies, the county must meet its housing goals, according to Dunn, although it’s not yet clear where those units will be built.

What followed was the “most extensive public outreach” effort for a Housing Element in the county’s history, Dunn said.

Homeless advocates, community focus groups, low-income rental advocates and the general public all contributed in public workshops and focus groups, a requirement of the Housing Element process.

Once finalized, the Housing Element must be certified by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Without approval, municipalities could lose state funding to address homelessness and forfeit their land-use and zoning authority.

That’s what happened to Santa Monica earlier this year when it temporarily lost its zoning control after failing to submit a compliant Housing Element. Santa Monica developers were able to utilize the “builders remedy,” a streamlining tool permitting developers to build any project with at least 20% affordable units — without regard to local zoning. California City News reported Santa Monica developers submitted and received approval for 16 new projects, including a 15-story, 2,000-unit complex.

San Francisco could face a similar fate if its Housing Element fails to meet RHNA standards, but Dunn believes the plan for Sonoma County is a good one.

“We're really proud of the product that's moving forward,” Dunn said, “But there's still a ways to go.”

‘All hands on deck’

While the proposed housing in Sonoma County’s plan are just numbers in a document, they signal the priorities of Sonoma Valley’s unincorporated areas.

As part of creating the Housing Element, Dunn and Permit Sonoma held a joint meeting with Sonoma Valley’s advisory councils on Nov. 30. Local residents questioned if the housing plan went far enough to stop the displacement of families and essential workers.

“Sonoma Valley is hemorrhaging children because families can’t afford to live here,” said Kim Jones, a coordinator with the housing advocacy group Sonoma Valley Collaborative. Jones said leaders need to respond to regional housing needs as an “all hands on deck” crisis.

During the meeting, multiple Sonoma Valley youths described how high housing costs and cramped living spaces had negatively impacted their wellbeing, stymieing their success in school.

“Living in a household of six in a small trailer home, … I don't have privacy,” said Esme, a sophomore. “That limits my ability to study and have a place to do my school work without interruptions.”

A high school junior named Jay said he lived in a one-bedroom apartment with four other relatives far from school, causing him to “always be late.”

An “inexhaustible need” for housing exists in Sonoma Valley, according to Dunn. In an e-blast, the Sonoma Valley Collaborative said the Housing Element must embrace new strategies to prevent the displacement of low-income residents.

“The displacement policies and policies to extend deed restrictions are not strong enough to keep middle- and lower-income people in their current homes,” Jones said at the meeting.

She added another pressing problem on the local housing stock. “Part of the unstable housing market in Sonoma Valley is due to the high number of vacant units used as vacation rentals.”

Of the 11,500 vacant units in the unincoroparated areas of the county, “63% were held for seasonal, recreational or occasional use,” a rate significantly higher than the county or the Bay Area, according to the Sonoma County Housing Element.

Sonoma Valley Hospital is one of the Valley’s largest employers with 345 staffers, yet even health-care professionals are stressed by the high housing costs, according to Public Relations Coordinator Celia Kruse de la Rosa said.

“The hospital sees housing and security both with our patients and our staff,” Kruse de la Rosa said at the meeting. “Currently, 70% of staff does not live in the health care district, and this number is unfortunately growing.”

She said the local housing crisis has made recruitment and retention of quality employees difficult, which exacerbates the health risks of the largely rural base of elderly clients.

The county is eligible to submit its housing element draft to the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development within 10 days of the Dec. 15 close of the public comment period. Permit Sonoma plans to submit the draft before the end of the year.

After receiving the proposal, the Housing and Community Development Department will have 90 days to review and potentially approve the county’s draft.

The Housing Element is just one piece of the puzzle, advocates say.

“We need policies like rent, stabilization and just cause eviction,” Jones said, “Or else we will see more and more local businesses and organizations close their doors and their owners and employees move away.”

Contact Chase Hunter at and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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