Commentary: Why California’s ‘build, build, build’ housing bill won’t work here

The proposed Hummingbird Cottages housing development was recently debated before our Planning Commission in a thoughtful manner that would make any small town proud. Respectful neighbors supported housing but requested a site plan more compatible with the surrounding land uses. With a focus on the goals of our General Plan, commissioners encouraged smaller units so that the project could be more “affordable by design.” The developer appreciated the feedback and made concessions when possible, but also discussed the economic realities of today’s housing market, including the rapidly rising cost of materials.

In the end, however, the hearing was a performative charade. As a consequence of new state housing legislation, project approval was not discretionary, but required by law. If you’re looking for a new, cookie-cutter, tract home priced north of a million dollars, you’re in luck. But where does that leave the workforce and families that are continuing to be priced out of our Valley?

As we all know, the price of housing in a free market is determined by the law of supply and demand. The demand side of the equation is affected by a host of factors, many of which, like the federal funds rate and household composition, are beyond a town’s control. Sacramento, therefore, has decided to focus on the supply side, by zeroing in on what legislators perceive to be the biggest roadblock to producing more housing in our state: local land use authority and discretion. By taking away local control and unleashing market forces in an effort to build, build, build, the state hopes the market will solve the affordability crisis.

Perhaps this is the right approach for some areas of our state, but Sonoma presents a unique challenge for policy-makers. The reality is that the market will not create the type of housing Sonoma needs for our essential workers, teachers and first responders. Demand for our town and Valley far outstrips supply, and has been exacerbated over recent years by “amenity migrants,” residents who select places to live based on attractive landscapes, a favorable climate, and interesting social, cultural and tourist infrastructure.

The number of units required to meet this rising market-based demand could significantly change Sonoma’s character and sense of place, which in turn, could also have dramatic impacts on our visitor-based economy. While housing affordability also impacts our local economy, balancing these issues require the sophistication and discretion local control provides.

Rather than a roadblock, the irony is that Sonoma has become a regional leader when it comes to efforts to address our housing affordability challenges both through project approvals and inclusionary measures.

Sonoma doesn’t build housing, but though our zoning code, creates the conditions, parameters and incentives for the private market to do so. Specifically, the city has raised the inclusionary percentage of affordable units in new housing projects to 25%, the highest in the area, and has also added the “extremely low income” Area Median Income tier in an effort to expand inclusion.

Alta Madrone, the new affordable housing development on Broadway, was made possible only through city funding commitments and entitlements. The city also banned short-term vacation rentals and timeshares to protect our neighborhood housing stock. A percentage of our hotel bed tax flows into a recently created affordable housing trust fund, which will give the city more options to address these issues as the fund matures. The city is currently exploring a residential “vacancy tax” which would could be an attempt to address the proliferation of second homes in our community. The city is also strengthening a commercial project residential component that will provide options to further bolster our affordable housing trust fund. And we haven’t stopped there, as the city continues to explore and emulate approaches employed by communities around the country affected by amenity migration.

With all this hard work, housing still remains unaffordable for far too many, and illustrates the limitations of what a town of just over 10,000 citizens can realistically do to address affordability within a regional housing market. But it’s necessary and important work, as Sonoma is more than just our history and vineyards, but also our people. We must always look for creative ways to encourage more affordable housing opportunities for our workforce, families, and Sonomans like me who were born and raised here.

How do we innovate, change, and build for the future without losing what makes our town so special? I trust Sonomans to best strike this delicate balance. Navigating these waters and leaving behind a unique town like the one we inherited will always be my priority.

What I will never support, however, are policies that hand over local land use authority and control to Sacramento. The state’s one-size-fits-all approach will not work in Sonoma, and just as we saw with the Hummingbird Cottages, could make our challenges worse.

Kelso Barnett is the vice mayor of Sonoma.

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