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