Connecting the Dots ~ Fred Allebach

Fred Allebach Fred Allebach is a member of the City of Sonoma’s Community Services and Environmental Commission, and an Advisory Committee member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Fred is a member of Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards, as well as Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley.


Housing as an entry to sustainability

Posted on June 15, 2018 by Fred Allebach

Planning for higher density urban areas is cutting edge policy for many good reasons, chief among which are saving on GHG transportation emissions and keeping whole communities by including their working class members. This is a sustainability paradigm basic.

A distinction can be made between higher density residential development and higher intensity commercial development, yet the two are linked. Commercial projects of some sort are a necessary component to give local jobs, and to provide tax/ fee revenue to support affordable working class housing.

To date, “the market” has proved to be more of a problem than solution. Wages are low, the COL too high. Non-profit housing developers are the ones who serve a housing social good, but under Trump the poor are vilified, and affordable housing tax right-offs, that were a main source of non-profit affordable housing funding, have been severely disincentivized. Efforts to shape the market for a greater social good are resisted as “regulation”, yet when deregulated or left on their own, markets inevitably head to more rip offs and monopoly, and a bust of excesses.

The overall refrain today: there is no monetary incentive to build affordable housing. No money, no action. Into this vacuum come business as usual, market rate developers, with units that sell for an average of $700,000, with just the minimum required inclusionary units. These inclusionary units are increasingly 400 square feet or less, and in the worst spots on the lot, with the cheapest materials, the bare minimum to meet the requirement.

The end result here is of a Sonoma Valley on one side with gravy train homes and properties, and another Sonoma valley crammed into granny units, tiny homes, or many into one apartment, or just plain run out of town. This Sonoma Valley is known, and has been substantively quantified in the Sonoma Valley Fund’s Hidden in Plain Sight study.

What we are doing for housing is not working. Our efforts to address housing problems are taking too long. Too many excuses, too much inaction.

The Area Median Income in Sonoma County is approx. $65,000 for a family of two. Any AMI-level income is not adequate to buy or rent a house here, or to meet other expenses like insurance, food, transportation etc. The whole package of exclusive, high end tourism promotion and its UGB-heated real estate speculation, and now the fires, have made Sonoma and much of the urban lower valley all but unaffordable except for people with incomes way above average.

Unfortunately for the Bay Area, and Sonoma in particular, a needed higher density infill is resisted in about all cases. Some may bristle at the term NIMBY, but it describes a real phenomenon, where it appears that protecting mine is the primary impulse, this under the guise of many logical, proxy arguments. More tourist-focused commercial development and more tourist rats in the cage are not wanted by many in Sonoma either. The high rate of appeals shows this. Higher density residential development was resisted heartily by the Clay Street/ South Sonoma group, and you can bet that any similar high-density, non-profit affordable proposal closer to the heart of town or on the East Side would face massive and well-organized push back.

More rats in the cage, for an equitable demographic doesn’t appear to be in the cards, for lack of money reasons, for protectionist reasons, and/or to hold onto a past Sonoma stasis. Most people who have a good thing going don’t want to change it. People are fundamentally conservative at heart. It is understandable that people make character arguments in defense against residential infill, as Sonoma has had a nice, small town feel that is very pleasant. Who wants severe congestion as their lifestyle? Sonoma’s “brand” depends on maintaining a bucolic, authentic feel, the only trouble is that this aspiration then necessarily externalizes all people, housing, and business that want to land inside the gates.

More rats in the cage here are resisted for commercial development as well. The reasons here are a bit different than for resisting higher density housing. With the wine-tourism-hospitality combine, massive congestion is rained down upon residents, but the benefits are hoarded by top players. Town gets overrun by tourists and only few benefit. Costs are externalized. Workers, homeowners, and businesses are squeezed out by gentrification. Those who value a small-town feel are overrun. Everyone loses except for a select few.

Upshot: All the factors brought to bear by growth and intensification in bucolic Sonoma valley, and ways conceived of to manage that or make it sustainable, create a complex brew that takes effort and open-mindedness to discern all the constituent flavors and aspects. It is easy enough to make this all into a zero-sum game, harder to devise a win-win for seeming disparate interests.

We end up often enough in a place outlined by Asgrim Ellida-Grimsson, from an Icelandic saga, “where fault can be found, the good is ignored.” It’s easy to look at other actors and cast blame, but at the end of the day, we are all stuck in cultural blinders and parochial views of our own that contribute to an overall checkmate.

A few points: one, in order for workers to make any money, there have to be jobs…  Two, there has been no will to raise, generate or create housing money for years. Where will any housing funds come from if market rate processes cannot meet the need? Three, if there was housing money, where would the required housing go to meet current needs and for the city and county’s RHNA backlog?

This all leads straight to questions concerning the UGB and city sphere of influence, and to what I call the green checkmate. You can’t push the edge because that impacts ecological values, ag land use, and open space, you can’t fill in because no one wants anything near them, and prices are too high anyway. Great open space, and severe social inequity: green checkmate. Green checkmate dynamics are seen in Marin and the Bay Area, and also have a strong presence in Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley. Marin and Sonoma counties, in this view, are essentially conservative bastions of nominally liberal privilege, strong on environmental issues, to a point, and weak on social equity issues. Bay Area: liberal but unsustainable.

When all the pieces get put together to conceive of and create a sustainable future, a combination of higher density living, with local jobs that pay to support the cost of living, is called for. This so all residents can be part of a genuine and diverse community, and so workers don’t have to commute long distances and create negative transportation GHG impacts, and so we all adhere to sustainable ecological principles to preserve and conserve open space, watersheds and species diversity.

We know the problems; we are supposedly intelligent species. Why can’t we manage out affairs in a smart, sustainable way?

When a triple bottom line method is applied to local issues, something has to give. Business as usual (BAU) is not getting the job done, nor can BAU it be looked to as a salvation. We need to get outside the box. The economic and environmental legs of the triple bottom line stool are out of balance with the social equity leg. And at bottom, the human system impact on natural systems is too great and needs to be scaled back, but in order to do that, people who have hoarded more resources need to share the benefits with those who have less, and still have us all come out with a dialed down collective impact. Prescription: More people need to get by with less, and those with severely less now need to come up to a basic sustainable level, this demands a more equitable distribution of wealth (resources) overall.

This will have to be consciously engineered, as leaving every dog for himself has only led us to the unsustainable place we are now.

In looking a little more closely at the green checkmate, certain coded, loaded words are used. All advocates of all stripes use coded words to reinforce their line. These words are tips of biased articles of faith icebergs, which make a rational discussion about them much harder. In many local disputes, what ends up happening is a collision of alternate universes of facts.

My bias? I’m trying to explain sustainability as a rational policy choice, but at the same time, I see it as a self-evident truth. So, as this community navigates conflicts and tensions brought on by what I see as unsustainable practices, other interests and factions frame things differently, with their priorities and code words. One thing here is to just get the language straight, to attempt to decode other interests and get to the bottom of what is really at stake. And what is really at stake? Whether we go forward in a zero-sum world and take the whole ship down in the process, or if we can wake up and deal with the cultural differences that lay behind our unsustainable situation.

Why couldn’t the Greenland Vikings just start eating seals and fish and take up an Eskimo way in the face of the Little Ice Age that eventually killed them all? Rather die than become a heathen? Are we smart enough to avoid the same cultural patterns that resulted in collapse and extinction?

OK, back to cultural decoding. “Sprawl”, “expansion”, “growth”, these have turned to weasel words that evoke the worst aspects of development. The terms now serve to prevent a reasonable discussion of the issues at stake. Sprawl does create many transportation problems. Unending growth and expansion for human systems are untenable from a sustainability standpoint. But, people had kids, and their kids are having kids, and these people need somewhere to work and live, and they don’t want to live in red state regressive Texas-type places. Growth is not some nebulous evil force, it is us having kids and having to deal with those kid’s legitimate needs. Growth is us needing services and us having to deal with the servants legitimate needs.

One aspect of the green checkmate: apparently now that the US gravy train is over, and those who got theirs, and who are well-educated on ecological problems and the roots of US social inequity, and who are comfortably ensconced in their nice, spacious homes on the east and west coasts, with all the accouterments, no one else can now get that? No one will horn in on these enclaves of suburban, class privilege without a fight? This is not just Sonoma and an issue if small town character, it is also an issue of sequestration of resources, segregation, racial prejudice, and down the line of my gallery of cultural self-evident truth code words.

What ends up happening is that alternate cultural universes collide, and dumbly, each side just endlessly repeats their discourse to each other, and calls it all “facts”, as if somehow this really works….

Now that I have tried to unmask the pitfalls, I’ll revert right back to endlessly repeating what I see as a self-evident truth. The upshot for Sonoma Valley is that social equity and greenhouse gas transportation problems get externalized to places like Vallejo and Lake County. Sonoma creates problems, but as a whole does not have the wherewithal to take responsibility for them, or even see that there are problems.

How do we as a community address our negative GHG transportation impacts, and the extreme social inequity if all arguments and financial limits add up to that no new housing gets built anywhere? And that only market rate developers build, and that only elite tourism purveyors get all the money and benefits? Even the “winning” actors who do get a house are resisted at every step. Meanwhile affordable housing needs are not met, and only more elite protectionists get in, or ones get in and then gate themselves off and live the life of Riley, and agitate for more fancy restaurants.

As some forward-looking Planning Commission members say, we need an economic development plan. As the incipient Sustainable Sonoma initiative says, we need to get together and figure this all out. I see a reason for hope with some of the actors we have in place now in the valley.

Why? It seems Sonoma and Valley is on a downward spiral for sustainability. A serious rearrangement of priorities is necessary to crack the shell of the overall systemic checkmate we have now. This is daunting, as powerful forces are not going to willingly give up their accumulated advantages, to take less and to share more.

The upshot here is that the new aristocracy won’t permit higher housing density and intensity within a town’s boundaries nor in the spaces adjacent to towns.  The city and county appear to be running on less and less money, yet commercial projects and possible added revenue are resisted with the same fervor as new housing, affordable or not. And even if there were more commerce, status quo commercial solutions only add to inequity, and the classic trickle down benefit promised never arrives. This all basically condemns the working class to long, GHG spewing commutes to work for low wages in places like Sonoma.

The environmental and social consequences of business as usual are unsustainable here. This hearkens back to a recent piece I wrote titled “We are the housing crisis”: the same greed developers are accused of is manifested by everyone; every dog is out for himself. The creation of a just society is met by a checkmate of interests and presumptions that can’t see out of their own box.

One possible solution is to surrender to and accept the high-end aspect of development and tourism here, and make it work for larger sustainable purposes. Make the engine work for everyone, instead of fighting everything and everyone getting nowhere. Let big commercial projects come in and sell out the Plaza to become an economic engine that explicitly provides social equity and environmental protection, instead of more elite segregation. Let the wine-tourism-hospitality combine loose, but make them pay a fair share to support workers and climate mitigation in the valley. Put a lien on the whole operation, to a community bank, that then will pay for our collective sustainability responsibilities, that we all have as members of the same local society.

If affordable housing and shopping need to be externalized to create and maintain the Disney tourism engine of an authentic small town, then assess this engine to pay for its externalized needs.

Another solution would be work with the existing UGB, as allowed, and expand into some strategic contiguous areas for housing, shopping, and mass transit, GHG-saving options. The city’s sphere of influence can be expanded to take in and eventually annex the 8th Street East commercial corridor, to be able to cast a net over municipal revenues now lost to the county.

Future annexation options can seek to unify the lower valley urban area and administer it as the collective unit it really is, rather than to have planning be fragmented by municipalities at cross-purposes.  Annexations, sphere pushing, and current UGB extension would include more developable land in Sonoma proper. Ahead of time, plans can be set with developers and landowners, to zone such land so as to meet the city’s RHNA and sustainability requirements. Zoning is a tool to realize sustainability, not a “taking.” This is not “growth”, sprawl or expansion, this is more efficiently using land within the current urban footprint of the valley. This is taking responsibility for what is ours and not externalizing the costs of Sonoma’s great lifestyle to other places.

An added benefit of full lower valley unification would be to enfranchise low-income residents in the Springs area and give them a chance to be better represented in government, especially if there were district elections.

Sure, there is a lot to overcome in fundamentally rearranging the status quo to being more adaptive and sustainable. Minus a perfect radical revolution, some bad will have to be accepted to get some good. Balkanized interests are not all of a sudden going to start singing Kumbaya together because they all saw the light of the eminently reasonable sustainability paradigm. However, the civic gridlock now happening in full force is so great, what we have really amounts to an impossible situation. What we have is not working; we need to change that. To change it, we all need to be flexible and examine areas where we may be part of the problem.

On a very important level, this is not a matter of facts, but of relationship dynamics and finding a way to get along. Alternate universes of facts will collide forever unless there is a will to see outside narrow confines of cultural primary assumptions.

I recall standing with Susan Gorin after a meeting at the Charter School, and looking at the Fetters’s affordable housing complex, and I noted that many objected to it, on appearance or other bases. Susan, said “well, we need 50 more just like it.” If we can’t get those in town, or out of town, where will we get them? If there is no good paying work, how will those people live here? Or is the Bay Area context to remain a checkmated elite area where liberals are a mile wide and an inch deep? Will the working class need to turn to Schwarzenegger Republicans for solutions? Will the whole house of cards need to collapse and out of the ashes, maybe sustainability emerges going forward?

I’m hoping that somehow, some way, the status quo, business as usual gets cracked open, and a grand systemic change takes places. Until then, the best I can do is advocate for sustainability and to chip away at the edges of the unsustainable.

Facts, consultants, studies etc. are important, but tend to devolve to zero-sum framing. First we need the relationships, and the desire for them, to alleviate our colective checkmate, to be able to agree on what maps to use to go forward and address any one aspect of a sustainable future.


One thought on “Housing as an entry to sustainability

  1. We seem to have a consensus on the big global issues, like a Nuclear Free Zone, Global Warming, Metoo, Limits on guns etc. But we cannot arrive at agreeing on what kind of community we want. Unless you are a Sonoma native, you probably stumbled on Sonoma, like me and fell in love with its small town charm and beautiful location. It is up to us to make a future which satisfies all.

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