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Editorial: Affordable housing the key to a sustainable Sonoma

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“I like toys.”

That was perhaps the most surprising response to the survey question “What is most important to you?” asked earlier this year at one of the Sustainable Sonoma “listening sessions,” held to solicit community feedback on the issues most concerning Sonoma Valley residents.

The pro-toys comment means one of two things: Either an event participant couldn’t get a babysitter for the evening, or Sonoma’s priorities are more seriously out of whack than we’d previously believed.

In a way, the response wasn’t so much playful as it was prescient. After all, “more affordable housing” topped the survey’s list of the community’s most pressing concerns – and at the dismal rate it’s being added to the current housing stock, we may be issuing building permits for Lego playhouses before making any meaningful headway into mitigating the housing crisis.

Sustainable Sonoma is a fledgling program, launched more than a year ago by the Sonoma Ecology Center, with a mission to harness the efforts and talents of a variety of local organizations to collectively realize shared goals of sustainability. In other words, if all local interests – whether they be individual, business or philosophical – benefit from a clean, healthy, livable community, why flail toward those goals separately when an organized effort has a better chance of realizing tangible results? At least that’s the working theory; how it plays out in practice is another matter. And with the recent release of the results from the “listening sessions,” Sustainable Sonoma is ready to find out.

The 20 listening sessions conducted over the past year recorded more than 1,600 comments from community members on a variety of topics: health, youth, transportation, the environment and housing among them. Affordable housing outdistanced the pack of concerns by a long mile. The three priorities after housing weighted about equally: a more bike friendly community; the protection of open space and rural character; and that the community has a sense of fairness and opportunity for all.

The least-mentioned priority, finishing 86th on the list, was “disaster prep” with only three mentions – a somewhat surprising finish given that we clearly have an ongoing and ever-present wildfire danger in the Valley. But perhaps losing sleep over a house fire only comes when you’ve stopped losing sleep over having any house at all.

About four of the listening sessions were conducted at La Luz Center and a back-to-school health fair – those were aimed at gathering feedback from the Latino community, that sizable demographic too often underrepresented in Valley corridors of power. While many of the responses from Latino session attendees were relayed in Spanish, one doesn’t need bilingual fluency to understand the quiet desperation of the numerous pleas about “cara la renta” and “respecto, por favor.”

That there is a housing crisis in the North Bay should come as a surprise to no one. That it is now linked in the minds of the average person to “sustainability” should be a wake-up call.

In the decades since books like “Silent Spring” launched the so-called environmental movement, conservation models have largely focused on protection of open space, wildlife corridors and the avoidance of dense development – all concepts which, when taken individually, seem right on the money.

But decades of over-reliance on that three-pronged conservation stool have had consequences, not the least of which has been saddling lower-income earners with the fallout. As development spread to outlying communities, further and further from regional economic centers, the results have been vastly increased commutes, horrible traffic conditions, climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions – and swiftly rising rent and home prices in the desirable communities most benefiting from such a conservation model.

For years, planning experts have acknowledged the reality of population increases and how they result in a need for transportation-oriented and commute-mitigating – read: anti-sprawl – development. Now, at least according to the Sustainable Sonoma survey, the idea has reached the office water cooler.

Sustainable Sonoma, with the help of the community, has identified the Valley’s key issue. The question now is how to confront it. That’s not something Sustainable Sonoma – with its all-of-two staff members Caitlin Cornwall and Kim Jones – can do alone. Nor should they. The whole concept is to galvanize the community as a collective force to direct Sonoma toward a sustainable future.

The next step, according to Sustainable Sonoma, is for the Sustainable Sonoma Council – a collective of about 30 or so community stakeholder organizations that have signed on in support of the program – to develop a course of action to embark upon this year to confront the housing crisis. While the specifics of a course of action remain to be determined, the need for such does not.

Sustainable Sonoma’s efforts deserve the attention of the entire community.

We like toys, too. But what the survey results are really saying – is that it’s time for Sonoma to stop playing around.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.