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Workshops reveal Sonoma housing paradox

Housing in Sonoma

The City of Sonoma has two pages on its website that deal with housing issues:

Housing Our Community town hall series at

sonomacity.org/housing-our-community

Key Inititatives: Housing Opportunities and Strategies at

sonomacity.org/housing-opportunities-strategies

Sonoma’s concern over housing opportunities – or the perceived lack of them – has prompted the City Council to prioritize the topic over the past couple years, including the formation of a Housing Trust Fund and the appointment of a housing ad-hoc committee of City Council members Logan Harvey and Rachel Hundley.

During her term as mayor in 2017, Hundley called for a joint city council-planning commission meeting on housing, which she hoped would produce a tangible action plan. Though nothing resulted, to her disappointment, she now feels that progress is being made – and inspiration is coming from an unlikely direction: north-west Sonoma County.

“Recently, two things happened that finally set us on a course to do something,” Hundley wrote last week in an email to the Index-Tribune. “The first was the discovery of Healdsburg’s Housing Action Plan, an impressive document that specified exactly what their housing goals were, who they wanted to house, what types of housing products they needed and what they needed to do … to make those lists a reality.”

Hundley and Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola then brainstormed on how to get “everyone on enough of a similar page on housing” to move forward, and ended up asking sustainable-development consultant Jim Heid, who had helped produce Healdsburg’s Housing Action Plan, to help the City of Sonoma through a similar process – which launched earlier this year in the form of three “housing town halls” that city officials held at Vintage House senior center with a goal of opening up a dialogue on local housing issues.

The findings of those workshops – held in April, May and June and billed, respectively, as “Learn,” “Discuss” and “Explore” – were summarized by Heid at the Monday, Aug. 5, City Council meeting.

The town halls were well-attended, with a substantial number of participants returning for two or all meetings – a number Heid estimated at 40 percent, based on shows of hands. Sign-in sheets showed the meetings attracted 58, 62 and 57 participants respectively.

At the third town hall, “Explore,” maps of Sonoma and color-coded Lego pieces were distributed, and the attendees broken up onto tables of eight participants each to create as a group a housing plan – or “housing vision,” as Heid put it – making use of different “housing products” available, as well as the knowledge they had gained in the earlier town halls.

Five questions helped participants focus their task:

How much housing is appropriate in the next decade?

How much of that should be deed-restricted Affordable?

What kinds of housing should it be?

Where should it go?

And a more big-picture query: What are the opportunities and barriers we need to address?

Heid pointed to this exercise as giving people the realization that “this is the sort of stuff (city staff) struggle with every day. It’s not as easy as some people think it should be.”

“Every table was comfortable with seeing more growth and more housing over the next decade than you’ve been producing historically,” Heid told the City Council.

Sonoma may not be as housing-project averse as its reputation would lead one to believe, one meeting attendee stressed. Kelso Barnett, a member of the Sonoma Planning Commission and life-long Sonoma resident, said, “As far as I can remember Sonoma has always approved housing projects.” Though recently it is falling short of allowed Growth Management Ordinance goals.

Heid said the town-hall participants also wanted to see a higher percentage of deed-restricted affordable homes and convert market-driven affordable houses to deed-restricted housing. An example of this, said Heid, is the movement by some communities – including Healdsburg, where Heid lives – to purchase apartment complexes and other housing, renovating and converting them to permanent affordable housing.

When it came to the Lego exercise from the June workshop – yellow pieces signified single-family units, blue pieces accessory dwelling units, green “cottage court” developments and the like – the participants struggled to fit their ideas of how to create more housing for Sonoma onto the map showing what parts of town had available space. Sonoma’s zoning districts, its Urban Growth Boundary and other factors limited their options, but at the end of the exercise Sonomans showed surprising willingness to dramatically increase the stock of housing opportunities, especially for affordable housing.

“Those in attendance were comfortable with seeing more housing production than they’ve been seeing in the past 20 years or so,” said Heid, with every one of the eight workshop tables showing they were in favor of significantly more housing in Sonoma than is currently being built.

Housing in Sonoma

The City of Sonoma has two pages on its website that deal with housing issues:

Housing Our Community town hall series at

sonomacity.org/housing-our-community

Key Inititatives: Housing Opportunities and Strategies at

sonomacity.org/housing-opportunities-strategies

This includes a lot of “affordable, deed-restricted” units, which are required by contract to provide affordable houses for tenants. Many of the deed-restricted units, however, are expiring in the next few years, and prioritizing the renewal of those contracts was regarded as necessary if “low-hanging fruit” for the city to deal with.

Other priorities included de-emphasizing single-family home construction in favor of apartments or cottage courts, and greater allowable density for certain areas – including looking at school-district or city land for housing opportunities.

“I think that the other thing that I was encouraged by and I thought made a lot of sense was a number of the tables reporting that they really wanted to see the city become more proactive in identifying potential housing sites,” Heid told the Index-Tribune.

Some of the low-hanging fruit that both public and council comment identified following Heid’s presentation included updating the Development Code and incorporating new goals into the Housing Element and General Plan, both of which are due for renewal.

“If the Housing Element is really a policy tool, the Housing Action Plan is kind of a business plan,” said the consultant.

“We are halfway to having an action plan of our own,” summarized Hundley, “and the themes that emerged from the third town hall are going to help us with some quicker fixes we can do now, as well as some holistic changes we can consider as we move forward with the General Plan update.”

Considering the potential impact of a unified Housing Action Plan, a refocused Housing Element and updated General Plan, the $25,000 the city allocated for Heid’s UrbanGreen consultation was “well spent,” in Capriola’s view.

Added Hundley, “It took an outside facilitator to uncover the common themes on what do we mean when we say we have a housing crisis and what can we do to address it.”

For his part, Heid was positive about working with the city and citizens of Sonoma, even in comparison to his experience with a similar process in Healdsburg, where he lives.

“There were different drivers, but there was more hand wringing (in Healdsburg) around how much growth is too much,” Heid said.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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