Editorial: Will city housing fund be a ‘pocketful’ of miracles?

Last week’s minimum wage hike got all the eyeballs at the May 20 Sonoma City Council meeting, but a tidy bump in pay for the city’s lowest paid workers that evening wasn’t the only salvo aimed upon the housing crisis.

At around 9:45 p.m., nearly four hours into the proceedings, the room cleared after the headlining act – a rising group called Minimum Wage – played its final encore for the night.

But still on the bill was Housing Trust Fund, a performance that only the lustiest of council meeting groupies stuck around to enjoy.

But it could very well be that in the long run the housing trust proves more significant in the struggle for housing opportunity than a couple bucks more per hour for Sonoma workers to move to a nicer apartment in Santa Rosa.

And so the City Council on May 20 unanimously approved the establishment of an Affordable Housing Trust Fund through which the city hopes to provide monetary incentives, financial assistant and other concessions to encourage the development of low and moderate income housing in Sonoma. The city plans to seed the fund from myriad sources: state grants, fees charged to developers, even donations from the public.

Possibly the fund’s biggest source of revenue will come if and when the city raises its transient occupancy tax – i.e. the hotel tax – another 1 percent, as its likely to do in June, bringing an estimated $1.2 million to the city coffers.

City Manager Cathy Capriola described the housing fund as “basically the umbrella” under which city affordable housing objectives will be made possible.

Such objectives, according to city staff, include not only the eventual construction of new housing units, but the preservation of existing affordable housing, conversion of market-rate housing to affordable, the creation of accessory dwelling units on residential property, first-time homebuyer loans, loans or grants to nonprofit developers in the preliminary phases of a project – and the actual purchase of land by the city for the development of affordable housing.

“This is just creating the mechanism – the fund,” Capriola told the council. “The broad policy (guidelines) we can tweak (later).”

Councilmember Logan Harvey compared the fund to pocket change.

“We’re building the pocket,” said Harvey. “Later on we’re going to figure out where the money is coming from; later on we’re going to figure out how the money comes out of the pocket to pay for things.

“But right now we’re just making a pocket.”

The pocket, meanwhile, will be hemmed into David Storer’s slacks, as the Sonoma Planning Director will serve as manager of the fund.

And the pocket won’t be empty for long. After approving the Housing Trust Fund, the council’s last item of business that night was to extend to June of 2020 the city’s waiving of fees for homeowners applying to establish accessory dwelling, or in-law units on their property – the program is worth up to $5,000 toward the costs of building an ADU. But only one homeowner has requested a waiver since the city stashed $30,000 in the program; as part of the extension, the city will put whatever’s left of the remaining $25,000 to the housing trust fund next year when the program expires.

It’s not a huge amount, but it’s an important start; dumping money into that fund should be a fast-tracked priority.

As Suze Orman likes to say on CNBC: “People have got to learn: If they don’t have cookies in the cookie jar, they can’t eat cookies.”

The housing trust fund is Sonoma’s housing cookie jar.

But what the council needs to take to heart: Is it’s going to take a bakery’s worth of cookies in that jar to make any real difference in curbing Sonoma’s deep hunger for moderate income – let alone lower income – housing opportunity.

The Housing Trust Fund can work – but only if Sonoma is willing to feed the beast.

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