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A new housing idea for Sonoma’s ‘missing middle’

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County officials are moving forward aggressively on a three-pronged approach to alleviating the local housing crisis. Permit Sonoma, the county’s permitting agency, has been tasked with taking fast and bold action to unkink the county’s housing construction pipeline, whose logjam has been exacerbated in the wake of last year’s wildfires.

In 2017, the county implemented measures to reduce housing permitting constraints and fees on accessory dwelling units like guest houses and granny units, and to remove use permits for single-room occupancy rentals.

Its latest package of initiatives, being considered today, Oct. 23 by the County Board of Supervisors, is to create new types of housing through housing code changes.

A key component of this second phase of housing initiatives encourages a new housing model dubbed “cottage housing developments,” which would provide multi-unit housing in the style, scale and size of single-family homes, in low- and medium-density neighborhoods.

With a goal to encourage a wider variety of housing options, beyond single family homes, Permit Sonoma Planning Manager Jane Riley is presenting to the Supervisors a proposal outlining how cottage housing developments might help solve the county housing shortages for what’s being described as the “missing middle.”

People who live in “missing middle” have been priced out of the market but don’t qualify for affordable housing.

“We all know and may ourselves be, people who are in this ‘missing middle,’” said Riley

The Sonoma County Planning Commission on Aug. 30 recommended approval of the code changes to allow for cottage development housing. If the Board of Supervisors approves the initiatives at today’s meeting, the housing code changes will take effect in 30 days.

The proposal was presented to the Sonoma Valley Community Advisory Commission on Sept. 26.

“This provides another tool in the toolbox for creating more housing,” SVCAC chair Ryan Lely said about the proposal.

When Permit Sonoma refers to “cottage housing developments,” they are describing allowing three small cottages, with off-street parking, on single lots in family neighborhoods.

The small units, or pocket neighborhoods, would be clustered around a courtyard, with common parking, designed to match the surrounding neighborhoods.

On a minimum parcel size of 8,000 square feet – about .18 acre – there could be three cottages, up to 900 square feet each. The point, said Riley, is to encourage small-unit-size rental housing, with stated occupancy limits. Tiny houses will be allowed, so long as they meet building code requirements.

Vacation rentals would be prohibited in the cottage units. Riley expressed confidence in Permits Sonoma’s current enforcement procedures which use web scrapes to identify vacation rental listings.

Cottage Housing Developments in burn areas would be limited to one per 400-foot block, to provide a balance with existing single family houses.

Riley explained at the Citizens Advisory Commission’s Sept. 24 meeting that CHD units would be much easier to get approved than traditional affordable housing, which is heavily regulated by state and local authorities.

She couldn’t cite any current cottage developments in Sonoma Valley but she noted that a few were already in the works in other parts of the county.

Permit Sonoma will present this initiative to the City of Sonoma in late 2018, and Riley hopes that Sonoma’s City Council “and all the other cities in the county” will consider adopting the same measures.

“The Board of Supervisors directed us to go out and be bold (in addressing the housing shortage),” said Riley.

Jennifer Gray Thompson, executive director of Rebuild North Bay, is pleased that the county is thinking outside the box to address the housing shortage.

Gray Thompson says Sonoma residents need to be more open to ideas and solutions that provide housing “for everyone from farmworkers to cardiologists; those new to the workforce and those retired, renters and homeowners.”

“We are faced with a critical moment in our history that will determine our future: find a path toward housing solutions or revert back to our old ideas and positions,” said Gray Thompson. “If we choose the latter, we ensure diversity declines, our pool of talent drains, and our community is increasingly bifurcated between those who can afford a single family home and those who cannot.”

The County’s third phase of housing initiatives will be to identify additional sites for housing near jobs and transit. That process is expected to begin next month.

Email Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.