Editorial: ‘Housing emergency’ demands response

For the first time in more than a year, the word “housing” was uttered at a Sonoma City Council meeting more times than the words “leaf” and “blower.”|

For the first time in more than a year, the word “housing” was uttered at a Sonoma City Council meeting more times than the words “leaf” and “blower.”

It’s been a long time in coming – too long, in fact – but it seems we might be getting our priorities straight. Or straighter, at least.

Now that the City Council has ostensibly managed to sweep past the ongoing leaf blower issue – in a 3–2 vote Feb. 17, council directed staff to create an ordinance to ban gas-powered blowers and restrict electric blowers; the final vote to come later – they’ll be able to take on more pressing issues.

One such issue was brought up repeatedly Feb. 17 by both councilmembers and the public as an example of what’s been neglected the past two years while the town has wrestled over leaf-gathering systems: Housing.

Members of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and the Spiritual Action Group of the Sonoma United Methodist Church have attended even more council meetings this year than leaf-blower opponents. They’ve had one simple request: for the Council to declare a “housing state of emergency.” And look – at the very least look – to see if there’s some way to alleviate what they describe as the city’s increasing housing inequality.

Their appeal has merit. At least it does according to numbers released this week by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The 2016 Sonoma City Report from the EDB reveals several concerning economic trends. Among them:

By 2020, the Hispanic population in Sonoma will increase by 4.1 percent over 2010 levels. The white population will decrease by about 2 percent in that time.

The population of Sonomans age 65 and older will see a sharp rise of around 4 percent by 2020 and those age 25 to 44 will also see an incremental rise. However, Sonoma adults 45 to 64 and kids 5 to 24 will see notable declines – read: families will be leaving the city.

The household income stats tell quite a tale: All five of the income brackets, broken down by the U.S. Census Bureau, below $75,000 in household income will decline in the next five years – while the $75,000 to $200,000 earners will see sharp rises.

The average sales price for a home in Sonoma in 2014 was about $836,000. But get this – after five years of rising home sales, the total number of houses sold that year in the city decreased by seven. Huh? What about the hot real-estate market? As to that puzzling stagnation, the EDB blames “rising home prices,” which found the city at about $264,000 more per house than the county average.

Bottom line: The middle class is fleeing Sonoma. And lower-income earners? What’s left of them won’t stand a chance unless changes in housing opportunity are made.

So what can the City Council do? Maybe a rent-increase moratorium like in other cities? Regulating rental markets can have legal ramifications and/or conflict with other regulatory bodies, so the council’s authority is unclear. And that’s partly because the council hasn’t addressed it. The Housing and Spiritual Action groups have politely asked for help at council meeting after council meeting – while louder, less consequential lobbies have dominated the city’s attention. But now is the time for the City Council to respond to the housing groups. A first step could be simply to acknowledge the validity of their plea and declare a “housing emergency.”

From what all five councilmembers have previously said, they clearly agree with that assessment. Another step would be for the city to hold a housing-crisis Town Hall – if only to put city leaders at the forefront of the ongoing public dialogue about housing in Sonoma.

To be clear: Leaf-blowing, dog-walking and A-frame-sign-posting rights have their place in the community dialogue.

But so does the ability for Sonomans to live in Sonoma.

The time to address the housing crisis is now.

Email jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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