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Who cares about renter’s issues?

Forty percent of Sonoma County residents are renters. The rental vacancy rate is 1%. The area median income (AMI) is $58,000 a year for an individual. The median rent is $1,800 per month. For rents to stay at 30-35% of annual income, those at a range immediately above and below the AMI can afford rents roughly half of what they are now. The median income itself is skewed higher by a smaller number of very high earners, so in reality, the majority in the county do not make the AMI. Following the 2008 real estate bubble collapse, former rental properties and underwater homes were snapped up by speculators, and have now become vacant second home remodels and vacation rentals. This process has been aided by a full-court press tourism marketing campaign. Today, Sonoma and Sonoma County, are among the least affordable places to live in the USA. Upshot: The majority of the population in Sonoma County is spending a very high percentage of income on housing costs. These high costs hit especially hard on vulnerable populations such as seniors, Latinos, and the working class in AMI income ranges. The housing stock is tightly restricted and increasingly controlled by a small percentage of wealthy investors. Any renters who get nudged out will find it nearly impossible to find a place to live in their own community. Given the rental situation as it stands today in Sonoma County, the conclusion that the market will somehow create a greater social good are entirely false. It is the market that has resulted in crazy unfair rents. The county renter population is slowly being externalized and disenfranchised. Municipal differences Sonoma Valley has two different municipal jurisdictions even though the bulk of the people live in the same concentrated area. The county has way more resources and programs than the city, and frankly, seems quite a bit more responsive to the housing crisis issue. For example, after a  recent Hidden in Plain Sight public presentation, Susan Gorin convened a group of housing professionals and stakeholders to address this serious issue. The city, while acknowledging the seriousness of the housing issue, begs off doing much due to lack of funds and staff. In a town noted as one of the most wealthy and desirable in the country, it is unfathomable the city does not have the money to address AMI housing issues in more ways. It is easy to conceptually conflate the city and county government responses, as the valley as a whole has a unified housing crisis. Basically, vulnerable AMI citizens would just like to feel that their representatives are going to the mat for them. Legal rights Tenants have very few specific legal rights or protections in Sonoma or the county. Tenants are protected by law against the grossest forms of discrimination by race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability, familial status, sexual orientation, marital status, source of income, or any other arbitrary characteristic such as age or occupation. However, landlords easily work around these protections against discrimination. They currently have the right to evict tenants and raise rents as high as the market will bear. Rent is commonly raised to force de facto eviction, and then a remodel. Much new property ownership and remodeling in Sonoma is tainted by eviction. With a current and ongoing series of boom and bust bonanzas standing in place of economic planning ahead, AMI tenants, it seems, are just an inconvenient impediment to maximizing profit potentials. A case could be made that the existing housing stasis is discriminatory. The discrimination is only pulled off in such a way as to be plausibly justifiable by market-based rationales and inertia. The end result, of tipping housing away from certain classes and types of people, is the same. More tenant protections needed Tenants rights, and laws with tenant-protecting teeth, are now needed more than ever. If landlords have rights to -and expect- a return on investment, why don’t tenants have a right to wages tied to inflation so they can meet the higher rents? Why do property owners appear to have more rights than citizens who are renters? Some suggestions: put in place a “Just Cause” eviction law; there has to be a good reason to evict. Enact a rent freeze to cover for the lack of tenant wages needed to pay the higher rental costs. Peg all rent increases to a reasonable annual rate, and ensure that minimum wage adjustments are also made annually to keep up with inflation. Provide relocation assistance for displaced tenants to cover costs of their move. These are action items that local elected officials could pursue. Rental evictions and circumstances should also be tracked to quantify the scope of the problem. Perfect storm The forces at play amount to a perfect storm against the bulk of the renter populace. It is very unfortunate that those who make the median income are all now a vulnerable population. A Latin phrase comes to mind: homo homini lupus; man is a wolf to himself. Laid on top of the above-mentioned systemic injustices that keep pay low and keep neighborhoods segregated, is the fact that rent is an unbearably high percentage of income.  Renters cannot save for a mortgage down payment. Renters avoid complaining about substandard living conditions for fear of an arbitrary eviction. Externalized renters then have long commutes that create high greenhouse gas transportation costs to society. At the end of the line is homelessness. National inequality metrics have grown to extreme levels. In Sonoma Valley, this inequity is painfully evident, yet remains hidden in plain sight. Relationship with tourism promotion The amount of city-controlled money dedicated to tourism promotion ($1 million per year) has a direct relation to the housing and rental crisis. The Sonoma Valley Visitors’ Bureau’s advertising campaign makes Sonoma appear to be the greatest small town ever, and makes more people with the means want to live here. Wealthy tourists buy second homes, turn them into vacation rentals, or have the homes mostly sit empty, thereby displacing former and potential renters, all of whom are now part of an aggregate vulnerable population. Yet, if Sonoma and the valley were not advertised so heavily by government-sponsored agencies, there would not be such crazy demand. Blame the victim and strict-father ideology Many who benefit from the current economic bonanza have a world view that anyone who is poor (median income now counts as poor) is just not working hard enough. Whatever social outcomes happen, people deserve what they get. Let the market take care of it. Nationally, those in power want to strip health care and housing aid to the AMI population. It would follow that local free market adherents don’t care about AMI people either. Hidden in Plain Sight noted there is disconnect here in Sonoma Valley. This disconnect manifests as one, between the haves and have nots, and two, by the fact that housing issues are not addressed at all by the valley’s non-profit industrial complex. In important ways, this is a disconnect of values, and of assumptions about how the world works. Sustainable and for what? A significant portion of the local housing crisis has been manufactured by a calculated tourism-hospitality advertising campaign that has disenfranchised the most vulnerable community members. This is all done in good faith by actors who buy into values centered in market economics. Ironically, these actors see a greater good in what AMI renters see as tragically predatory and unfair. While renters frame issues in terms of needed social justice, the landlord cohort frames the same set of issues a matter of maximizing investment returns. This illustrates the difference between those working from economic bottom-line-only precepts, and those who advocate a triple-bottom-line which is a core precept of sustainability studies. Unfortunately for renters, the economic bottom-line-only cohort has all the power, and all the reasoned systemic cost/ benefit argument in the world makes no dents in opening the power players’ eyes toward working with a triple-bottom-line conceptual framework. Loss of social diversity is the result of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley’s economic-bottom-line-only gentrification. A homogenization is taking place that ruins the former rural, cultural, and working class characteristics that made this area authentic and attractive from the beginning. Externalize the costs The tourism economy is supposed to be so great, and brings in so much money, yet the overall costs to society end up being unconscionable and unaccounted for. These costs are swept under the rug by ignoring and failing to engage systemic sustainability issues. Instead, short-term, narrow-scope boom and bust public policy rationales prevail, mainly revolving around showing how tourism pays for local government. The city and county end up with a schizophrenic policy of trying to address the affordable housing crisis while exacerbating the problems with tourism bureaus at the same time. Systemic costs for vulnerable populations must be paid somehow, but apparently not by wealthy Sonoma, those who are content to externalize the issues to Lake and Solano Counties. The Sonoma gentrification pattern is spreading to the Springs, where rents have also gone haywire. A realistic regional cost benefit analysis shows that taking care of issues like homelessness before they happen costs less to society overall. Sensible courses of action like prevention, for overall public benefit, are inexplicably framed by conservatives as negative “regulations”, or infringements on landlords’ liberties. Hopefully the Springs Specific Plan will serve as a planning blueprint, a litmus test and positive example of balancing societal values as they are manifested in the planning process. Covert white identity politics Sonoma-proper is lily-white, like many other wealthy suburbs, due to generations of real estate redlining and white-protective zoning schemes. Neighborhoods elsewhere in the valley are segregated by race. Like it or not, tacit and covert racism and white privilege is part of the current housing crisis. Small town character and its associated preservation rationales may be a well-hidden code for a white Sonoma stasis. Incentive to represent renters? Sonoma is almost at the state now where council members have no incentive to represent renters, as the bulk of constituents (and campaign contributors) are wealthy property owners. The city is on an inexorable trajectory of serving more landlords’ interests than that of renters. If effective redress to renters’ issues and injustices is to be taken up by decision makers who have little incentive for change, then we can see where this is all leading: to the Napafication and Marinification, the Tiburonization of Sonoma. Lack of city action is derived in some respects from this exact same formulation of interests and values. The city is going for the money-to fund its own operations- through more market rate housing, and more hotels, to further bring city values in alignment with a progressively wealthy stasis. To date, the lack of action to protect renters and to secure more affordable rental housing can partly be attributed to the problem being much larger than can be solved locally, the demise of redevelopment funds and current lack of money, and in the case of the city, to lack of staff to address the issues. Given that plenty of time has gone by to develop new funding sources for affordable housing, and for the council to direct staff to act, the current lack of action appears to be one of lack of incentive. It is reasonable to conclude that AMI renters’ issues are just not that important to the city. The housing crisis has been on the front burner for years; the slow pace of response grows more evident all the time. The AMI public gets city talk, but not a lot of action. Compassion fatigue With the housing crisis being a salient issue for so long, compassion fatigue sets in. This is unfortunate, as much time has passed when actions could have been taken, and now a stasis of acceptance of unsustainable conditions has set in. Housing Element, buildable land, default policy For various reasons, the city Housing Element is only required to show that it is possible to build a certain amount of affordable housing to meet demand. Market rate developers have not built this type of housing, and a backlog of AMI housing exists. Market rate starts have far outstripped built AMI-level housing. In the unincorporated county, green separators and open space provisions seek to put limits on buildable land adjacent to urban areas. In the urban core of the valley, high density infill is anathema to any neighbors who value the small-town character. Thus, AMI affordable housing is pushed to the physical and conceptual edges, as far away from small town character and green open space as it can get, or preferably, externalized completely to Fairfield. Housing issues are wrapped up in questions about supply and demand, where to build, by whom and for whom. The whole ball of wax amounts to a multi-level checkmate by powerful parties, who invoke their specific interests as primary. The result is a wholesale devaluation of the less-powerful median income population, no action, paralysis, and incrementally externalizing renters, as surrender to market forces becomes the default policy. State actions are a mixed bag California does have some remedies. One is an effort to preserve existing affordable housing. This is good. Another is a bill to streamline CEQA to allow market rate developers to quickly build more units. While there is demand for market rate housing, this CEQA streamlining bill proceeds under the premise that affordability is primarily a market-driven phenomenon of supply and demand. As we can see from the current inequality, rental and housing crisis, the market does not make for a greater good. That is a lie that serves the already powerful. How thoughtful people would put their faith in a process that has produced the current crisis, indicates that an honest assessment of the world as it is has not taken place. This plays back into a struggle of societal values, power and control. The market will supersede greenhouse gas mitigations, and money (economic bottom line only) ends up ruling all in the end, as if money is the only incentive people will respond to. More housing needed The only real way to achieve the scale needed for AMI affordable rental housing is to have a high-density project of at least 50 units, built and maintained by a non-profit developer. However, the incentive to fund such enterprise has very low attraction in the current national political climate because the beneficiaries of affordable housing are in many ways, entirely devalued by the current conservatives in power, and by the financial class of investors who build housing. Proposed cuts to the HUD budget, and adjustments to interest rates to make non-profit housing development less desirable to financiers, are two concrete indications of a partisan war against the country’s AMI urban population. Housing and health care are at ground zero of this war. Is it any wonder there is a disconnect here in Sonoma Valley? Answers to Sonoma Valley’s peculiar housing and rental issues will have to come from a combination of state, county, and city government, from local philanthropy, from non-profits, and from the public agitating for a just society. What to do? This Renter’s Week of Action, September 18-24, can serve as an opportunity to ante up one more time and re-energize a push for more AMI affordable housing across the board in Sonoma Valley.        
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