Sonoma County seeks ways to alleviate housing shortage
When Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane steps into a crowd of up to 500 people today for the county’s first-of-its kind housing summit, she is expected to play up a strategy she hopes to steer next year to address the local housing affordability crisis.
“My motto for this upcoming year is ‘build, baby, build,’?” Zane said Tuesday, when the Board of Supervisors allocated nearly $4 million for new low-income housing projects. “We have got to build more housing.”
Local government has long been vexed with how to increase the supply of housing to accommodate the region’s population and its wide array of residents, from wealthy professionals and blue-collar workers to the chronically homeless.
The county and local cities are staking out ambitious goals to address the housing shortfall, targeting especially the rental market, where tenants have seen skyrocketing rent increases and rock-bottom vacancy rates.
One part of that initiative launches today with an all-day workshop at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, where elected officials, housing advocates and business and real estate representatives will gather to discuss potential policies and financing options.
“There are going to have to be trade-offs if we’re going to have an impact on housing,” said Margaret Van Vliet, the former top housing official in Oregon who is the county’s new department director overseeing housing and homelessness programs.
She said the county would need to have a frank discussion about what land is suitable for new projects and whether to ease other regulations to speed housing development.
Options that supervisors floated in their meeting Tuesday included a bond to generate financing for new affordable housing projects. Santa Clara County voters last week approved a $950 million housing bond to finance low-income units and provide housing assistance for homeless people, seniors and veterans.
Supervisor Susan Gorin said the county could seek a transfer tax on real estate transactions to finance local housing projects. Zane said the county could hire an ombudsman to work with landlords and convince them to rent their vacant units to people with low-income housing vouchers.
The housing summit comes two years after the county declared a housing emergency. Since then, the pressure on?lower-income residents has grown. Rents have risen 50 percent over the past five years in the county, and the vacancy rate has dropped to 1.4 percent. Santa Rosa declared an emergency on homelessness in August, the same month council members approved rent control and eviction protection measures for tenants. Sebastopol followed this month with its own emergency rule capping rent increases at 3 percent a year for qualifying residential units.
By 2025, county supervisors want to build 2,200 new housing units and end homelessness.
On Tuesday, supervisors approved the county’s single largest funding and policy package to advance its goals.
It includes money to help shelter homeless people this winter and address rising rents for those with low-income housing subsidies. Tuesday’s funding package included $3.9 million to fast-track the opening of four low-income housing sites. Celestina Senior Apartments in Sonoma Valley received $1 million, Roseland Village on Sebastopol Road in Roseland received nearly $540,000 and Ortiz Plaza in Larkfield north of Santa Rosa received $510,000.
“This action is the way Sonoma County should be moving,” said Scott Johnson, director of housing development for MidPen Housing, the low-income housing developer for the Roseland Village and Celestina Senior Apartments projects. “A critically important part of the solution is more supply, and more supply faster.”
The board’s action followed previous moves over the past two years that have expanded emergency homelessness shelters during cold and wet winter months, created more than 200 new housing units for homeless people and helped fund the homeless outreach team credited with housing more than 120 chronically homeless people during its first year of operation.
Supervisors on Tuesday also approved a controversial proposal to invest an additional $1.9 million into tiny homes pilot project, set to begin construction early next year at the county administration complex near Mendocino Avenue and Chanate Road. It is expected to house 12 homeless veterans.
After the first two years, the 12 tiny homes will be relocated to a site on West Hearn Avenue at the edge of Roseland, supervisors said.
Area neighbors opposed to the project sought to overturn it Tuesday.
“This proposal is disproportionately scaled for West Hearn Avenue,” said Lennie Moore, who lives on the street. “We are managing our fair share of the burden for social services. We will fight this permanent site.”
Moore referenced a 15-bed transitional housing facility for homeless veterans currently located on the West Hearn Avenue site Ultimately, the nonprofit Community Housing Sonoma County plans to add eight homes to the site, with capacity to house 32 additional homeless veterans.
Zane chided those who spoke against the project.
“It’s not about sharing the burden. If you go to fight for our country, you shouldn’t have to come home to fight for housing,” said Zane, who will be chairwoman of the board next year and therefore will play a lead role in setting the board agenda.
“The ‘not in my backyard’ has got to stop if we’re ever going to solve this issue of homelessness.”
Supervisors also approved a plan to challenge the federal government to increase the dollar amount for low-income rental vouchers. At present, a voucher for a rental subsidy for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,572.
“We believe that’s way too low,” said Martha Cheever, manager of the county’s housing authority. “It makes it really difficult for people with vouchers to find housing. … With an increase, our landlords will be much more inclined to rent to voucher-holders.”
To be successful, the county must conduct a detailed analysis of the actual costs of renting an apartment inside and outside city limits, then submit it to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The board allocated $95,000 Tuesday for the survey.
Cheever expects the process to be complete in early spring. If approved, the increase would go into effect immediately, Cheever said.
You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 702-526-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ahartreports.