The Altamira Apartments affordable housing development on Broadway brings to the fore many salient regional planning and climate, sustainability and transportation priorities. Two of these are: compact, high density infill to offset county land use environmental protections, and low-income housing to provide workers in Sonoma a place to live.
AMI is a critical threshold
Hospitality and service workers make what is called Area Median Income, or AMI. This is an average of $60,000 a year. Low income is defined on a gradient below the median, such as 80%, 60%, 40% of AMI. Given that the average rent in Sonoma is $1,800, and the median home price is $600,000, it is clear that anybody who works in hospitality and service, our prime economic driver, cannot afford to live here. That’s a problem, for the planning reasons given in the first paragraph.
The above paragraph illustrates why a disproportionate amount of market rate housing in Sonoma works against regional planning and sustainability goals.
High density is called for
With high density affordable housing, workers are included in the community, and help Sonoma to maintain a diverse demographic, and workers don’t have to commute from Vallejo and generate more transportation greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts. This all adds up to choosing climate and social justice as community values worthy of support. This is why the project is eligible for a density bonus.
What are the advantages here? Lower Vehicle Miles Traveled, (VMT), lower transportation GHG, emphasis on local economy, inclusion of low-income hospitality workers in the Sonoma community.
Initial project objections untenable
Project objections initially began with complaints about potential higher crime and lower property values. These were racially coded type of arguments in favor of white suburban redlining against minorities. Given a little pushback on this, the neighbors dropped these arguments as socially untenable.
Demographics and segregation
In reality, Sonoma proper, is a quaint, rich white people’s haven and get-away, with a demographic shifting to more wealthy residents, and also transient second home owners and vacation rental uses. Demographically, Sonoma is, and has been, segregated. Sonoma lacks demographic diversity because of conscious manipulation of zoning that then effects real estate values. This is a pattern in common with much of suburban white America.
This same pattern, and inflation pressure, and subtle manipulation of demographics is now coming to the Springs, which has been “the other side of the tracks”, a place housing a population of workers. Although certainly that is not all the Springs is or was. Current census figures show a shocking divergence of wealth between the Springs and Sonoma.
The upshot? There is systemic economic/ real estate pressure to externalize all valley workers to locations like Fairfield. Any socio-economic issues that accompany such people are also externalized, and the city and county thereby avoid taking responsibility for their own demographic milieu.
Current objections = 8 units
For Altimira Apts, rather than crime and real estate values, objections now center on parking, traffic, density, design, and small town character as proxy, or new primary reasons for not wanting the project. The neighbor’s basic strategy is to get rid of the density bonus and have eight less units. That’s what all the objection centers on now, eight units. If any horse trading is to be done, it will be over how many of the eight units to possibly eliminate? Each unit eliminated, however, will have a proportional effect on raising the rents of the remaining units.
The area on Broadway where these apartments will be located already has quite a bit of high density development nearby. Google Earth photos of this and surrounding areas show the houses to be packed in quite tightly. The immediate homes adjacent to the project barely have space between them. And look at Moon Valley and Pueblo Serena nearby: dense! The Altamira area is hardly pastoral: Broadway Market, Four Corners Service Station, Salsa Trading, Friedman’s, Train Town, the Lodge hotel, Pizzeria Capri, Sonoma Valley Bike Tours and Rentals, Broadway Villa Post-Acute healthcare, and the high school and middle school.
The addition of an apartment complex pretty much continues the residential uses already in place. Having the density bonus, which amounts to eight more units, is hardly a drastic difference, especially when balanced by all the upsides for less transportation GHG and necessary housing/ demographic equity.
Inclusive is right for the right reasons
As this Altimira housing project makes its way through the process, expect environmental, climate, labor, and affordable housing advocates to support the project as is, with density bonus. Failure to open up Sonoma to additional housing will amount to continuing to make Sonoma exclusive and increasingly elite, an unaffordable place to live and work. The project is right because it is inclusive, not exclusive; it’s a small step in the right direction. We need many more steps just like it.
Sonoma has precedents for high density infill, both market rate and affordable: Nicora Place, Boccoli Street, Valley Oak Homes and more. The Springs Specific Plan has had the public weigh in with substantial support for high density infill. Numerous properties around town and in the valley, are being eyed for affordable housing. Note that affordable housing can be used as a weasel word phrase, and unless the price is explicitly tied to the AMI, then the price will likely be “affordable” by market rate standards. Market rate affordable is thought by some to be $600,000.
High density = more traffic and parking problems
Parking. If higher density is allowed, where will everyone park? What about the traffic? Well, why would over-parking and traffic not be planning issues for the Plaza? If Level of Service metrics for intersections can be waived, in favor of stoking the economy with tourism, but also keeping small town character by not having a parking garage right next to someone’s historic Sonoma dream house, what gives? If the core of town does not need to account for more and more parking and traffic, with stoplights, signaled crosswalks, all to preserve the sense of the pastoral, pedestrian-oriented Plaza, why wouldn’t the same type of waivers apply in principle to dense affordable housing? Planners can’t have it both ways here.
At the end of the day, higher density infill of all types will turn Sonoma into a clusterfcuk of gridlocked traffic without enough parking. This seems to be the price the whole Bay Area has to pay for being so nice geographically, and maybe for being a last refuge those of liberal persuasion. And if we are mostly liberals, why wouldn’t we want social and climate justice? Maybe better get a bike, make some more bike lanes and encourage some stores locally where working class people could afford to buy anything when they bike there.
Character as the ultimate weasel word
City, small town, rural, and historic character are all invoked as reason to not make any big changes. Yet, this very character is what ends up costing so much and what externalizes all the workers, and what creates GHG transportation issues. This pits character vs. equity and climate justice, as Sonoma and Sonoma Valley’s central issue. This pits necessary pragmatic planning changes against clinging to a Leave It to Beaver, small town past. Character in some ways stands for white wealthy privelege. Perhaps the real character is not frozen in the past, but is the flavor we all make now, as we debate all these issues and co-create Sonoma’s desired future.
Change: good or bad for who?
This opens up an additional piece of this puzzle: change. How can Sonoma maintain the sense of what it was, while at the same time advertising itself as such a great place to come and live, and deal with the nexus that such greatness creates for AMI affordable housing? The same character (goose that laid the golden egg) that made Sonoma great is now being killed by the changes wrought by its very attractiveness. Currently, the problems of change, rather than be taken on fully, are tacitly externalized.
Since building a moat around town is not a viable, or legal option; and since commercial forces are not going to stop hyping Sonoma, and since it is not viable for Sonoma to externalize all its climate and social equity impacts and problems to other municipalities, change is going to have to be dealt with right here and now, by us, the actors on stage.
One change we need is low-income affordable housing, with goods, food and services affordable at AMI levels as well. If planners, electeds, and the private sector can steer outcomes to higher values, they can also steer society to more equitable values as well.
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