The California housing crisis is widely recognized as a serious problem. From Governor Newsom tothe Bay Area, Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s CASA initiative, to Sustainable Sonoma’s prioritization of housing, the evidence is in. All that remains is how fast and comprehensively the problem can be addressed.
“Affordable” housing means, and is exactly equivalent to, what people who earn the area median income (AMI) can afford to pay. AMI for a family of two in Sonoma County is $68,000. Earnings for a majority of county workers are at or below AMI. Why? A relatively small number of very high earners distort the median income point upward. AMI-level earnings are not adequate, unfortunately, to afford area median rents and market rate home prices.
I can only conclude that the housing market has failed to provide for the well-being of society. The 2008 mortgage bundling fiasco, lack of adequate speculative regulation, and resulting recession is Exhibit A. The tremendous wealth coming from Silicon Valley and the inflating and buying up of rental housing units for investment purposes is Exhibit B. The result is to hang the AMI “middle class” completely out to dry with runaway inflation of housing costs. The icing on the cake? Market rate developers are unable, or unwilling, to build homes that AMI earners can afford.
It is government’s job to represent the people’s needs, and housing is a top need. To be truly representative, government can’t seem to always side with the money and not the people. What would helping people with housing look like in Sonoma?
It looks like getting non-profit developers involved, and finding money to build on and buy over-priced land. Otherwise the citizenry will be held captive to the extortion of high land prices, and to market rate developers who can’t or won’t serve real housing needs. Solutions are also to be found in principles of inclusivity, versus exclusivity.
High density housing along mass transit routes is the going concept from top regional planning sources, for a number of critical reasons. These reasons include: lower overall impacts from economies of scale, maintaining class and racial integration of Bay Area communities, reducing massive freeway congestion, mitigating high commute times, and reduction of damaging transportation greenhouse gases (GHG).
Affordable housing must also be coupled with rising wages, of which a raise to $15 minimum ASAP is only the start. People need to survive and not be thrown under the bus by a society that values profit over compassion. Fundamental equity problems need to be solved, not allowed to sink the whole ship. At this point it is plain stupid to put faith in free market processes, for any kind of widely beneficial salvation.
Pragmatically, Sonoma’s economy creates a nexus of housing and shopping needs for its workers and residents. It is reasonable to expect that Sonoma would meet this nexus, to serve not only tourists and high-end home buyers, but residents and workers too.
The current Sonoma zoning map shows that potential high density housing is limited, mostly to the Highway 12 corridor. This central location is called for by regional planning guidelines, but also has the highest land prices. Otherwise, a preponderance of low density zoning defines most of the city’s residential areas. The pleasantry and comfort of low density is something neighbors will fight to protect. Within neighborhoods, there are few if any dedicated high-density housing sites left. Given the facts on the ground, it’s easy enough to justify expanding the urban growth boundary to meet the city’s housing nexus needs.
With a housing crisis upon us, the current city Development Code is out of step, and makes it so lower density, market rate projects keep getting proposed, approved and appealed part-ways through inadequacy of appropriate housing. Sonoma has a glut of AMI-unaffordable market rate housing. One solution: overhaul the Development Code ASAP, on an emergency basis, to incentivize and require lower cost housing options as much as possible. AMI-level housing IS middle class housing. This means a change in business as usual will have to take effect, and ruffle a few feathers of actors who are counting on an unsustainable market rate stasis. If the market does not create a greater good, who is left to do it? Government.
Thankfully Sonoma now has a council that may be able to act in the best interests of AMI affordable housing. A reasonable ask is for our decision makers to push the housing affordability envelope as far as possible, and to direct city staff to support such an effort.