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 maintenance chair of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards and an active member of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group and Transition Sonoma Valley. As well, Fred has a KSVY radio show on Sunday nights at 8:PM, participates in the Sonoma Valley Action Coalition for immigration issues, and with the Sonoma Climate Coalition.

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Ramping up Sonoma’s Housing Action Plan

Posted on April 29, 2019 by Fred Allebach

The city held the first public meeting on its Housing Action Plan. My words and focus here reflect my baseline advocacy for social justice, as well as a detailed awareness of the local political landscape.

I am simultaneously a social justice and Sustainability advocate, and an observer of local political tensions. I’m a poor renter; that’s where I sit and where I stand; that’s my spin.  

Groups and interests present at meeting #1: non-profits, grass roots, outside-area activists, developer(s), local government actors; the audience was made up not only of city, but many lower Valley residents as well.

Jim Heid is the consultant.

Present: Steve Ledson, Redwood Credit Union, Alliance for a Just Recovery, North Bay Organizing Project, Springs Community Alliance, Springs Municipal Advisory Council, Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission, Sustainable Sonoma, the I-T, the Sun, Sonoma Valley Housing Group, Golden State Manufactured Homeowners League, Impact 100, Planning Commission, Community Services and Environment Commission, Sonoma Ecology Center, Greenbelt Alliance, the full city council, architects, former Planning Commission members, and habitual meeting goers.

I estimate 10-15% of the audience was general public.

It’s the people who show up who run the world, and so it’s reasonable to assume that the above actors will be the ones at the table to decide the city’s Housing Action Plan. Many actors present are already up to speed, and/ or may be rigid and locked into their takes. It will take work and flexibility to shift the policy and action ground. Housing is the issue at stake in the HAP here, and the HAP is a special city dance worth doing, but we also have other serious deterministic land use Rubicons (General Plan, UGB, SSP) to have to cross as part of our collective housing planning future here. The HAP is a good strong nod in the direction of defining and addressing local housing problems

Part One, Housing IQ, defining terms

(These are not exhaustive notes. Please go to the city website to find a video of the presentation and for the PowerPoint slideshow.)

City Planning Director David Storer opening comment: refers to tensions between density and conservation, what I’ve called the “green checkmate.” The green checkmate is: no pushing the edge into open space or out of a rigid UGB, and no high-density housing inside the boundary. Storer would like to change the housing channel to solutions, and actions, with a willingness to experiment.

It took four years of agitating about housing to arrive at a collective place for this meeting. Will it take three years (as Jim Heid said for Healdsburg) to get everyone up to speed on the terms and housing lay of the land? I don’t think it will take three years for the above actors to debate the issues in a substantive way. It could take three years to make an effective compromise. Kudos to the city council for quickly getting this process agendized and happening. Regardless of where parties stand now, it’s worth it to give this HAP process a shot and see where we can all make it go. It has the flavor of Sustainable Sonoma, multi-actor, having to corral diverse views.

Heid said housing is a proxy issue for deeper issues of land use, zoning, transportation, local control, etc. which all lead to underlying values issues in society, and who is in control to enforce those values? Current housing issues are playing against a backdrop of a state-level power struggle about who’s in control.   

Heid made many statements that led to the impression of a developer-friendly point of view. For example, in his thesis re: affordable housing and resort communities (think Aspen), he said, “it’s not just about equity, it’s about having a sustainable economy.”  But, triple bottom line (TBL) sustainability does not put equity and economy against each other. The lack of adaptive TBL, Sustainabiity framing keeps people in the old way of defining one interest vs. another rather than trying to get them all under the same tent.  

Part of the debate is zero-sum framing vs. win-win framing. People are habitually stuck in interest-based zero-sum modes. It’s not just the perfect being the enemy of the good, it’s what’s able to be agreed as desirable in the first place.

Heid made multiple references to local paralysis, which I know cannot have made primarily locally-focused actors happy. Since there is currently no good word for NIMBYs that does not seem pejorative, and I don’t use the word as an insult, until we get a good word, I’ll call them Group X. One Group Xer gave the presentation a C+  The local housing lay of the land has Group Xers, equity advocates, and market rate developers as major invested parties. Sussing out all the nuances here is a topic for another paper.

Heid’s holding forth on the discretionary process as a negative had to rub multiple appellants and rural lifestyle-open space/ small town character advocates (Group X) in the audience the wrong way, bc this discretionary process is what allows the local control that is now under scrutiny as a negative by not being able to produce necessary housing…. (My take, market rate housing projects in an already wealth saturated area is not needed housing.) The current state interventions, SB-50, CASA, and the Wiener trajectory is one seeking to override local control. This mixes up many issues: UGB, growth management ordinance, green separators, and Sustainability. You can’t be sustainable without equity, and the economy is already going very strong, it’s just not benefiting those who need a fair share for housing, or building the deed restricted Affordable units for them.

There is a clear need for more Affordable Housing, and for the most part we can see why it hasn’t been done. The trick here will be how to get the right proportion of Affordable units for the city without having to eat an unneeded market-rate Trojan Horse in the process?

Whoever frames the local paralysis issue, (I have called it the green checkmate), the challenge is how to arrive at any middle ground (between advocates and power players with diff interests) is the challenge, or will framing stay as a zero-sum game throughout this HAP process?

Heid also said Sonoma is not an island, that “we operate as a region.” Yet the elephant in the room not touched by the presentation is the relation between the Springs and Sonoma. The Springs is an area of concentrated poverty next to one of the top most unaffordable cities in the state. The notion that Sonoma can address housing as an island, just because it has to adhere to its own budget and internal process, seems to be a maladaptive kind of business as usual, when we have a whole unhealthy lower Valley housing system staring us right in the face.  

Heid seemed more focused on the details of market rate affordable housing processes than to elucidate how to get the funding for deed restricted Affordable Housing. Since he is part developer, this may be expected. It’s valuable to have someone who is a developer and otherwise housing educated to frame the issues in this HAP, because partisans tend to stay in their own bubbles and ignore big chunks of the puzzle.

The city manager then spoke to how there is no money for housing, redevelopment funds are gone, seeming to maybe steer the track to market rate solution, or just making a statement of fact. Heid also qualified that he was not a developer shill.

Not being a shill for one interest or another, if Heid is able to see an overarching view of the whole housing landscape, means that he could be an equal opportunity critic and analyst, and a bridge to bring together more partisan interests. If you piss everybody off, then maybe you are doing something right, if middle ground is the goal.

Heid did a nice job defining AMI, or area median income, and how that is pegged to deed restricted Affordable Housing, and that Affordable Housing with capital letters means deed restricted, and affordable housing with small letters is market rate-related. There is still muddy water about who and what the “workforce” is; and Heid seemed to say that low and very low AMI categories were so poor they couldn’t be counted as critical workforce, to build local units to provide for these workers. But this is not true, as my household is less than 50% AMI, and I provide a lot of good house painting and repair service. With a rent less than half of the median, and low recreational, hard goods spending, my household can easily make this work and be happy, and be productive community members, and volunteer as well. An independently poor very low income person can contribute a lot. Don’t sell the low and very low short!

And as Heid said, there is pressure for the poor to stay poor, to keep benefits, benefits for health care or rent subsidy for example. The more you make in this capitalist society, the more entities try and rip you off for your extra earnings, hard to get ahead when each gain is sucked off, and you may end up even poorer even though you are in higher earning bracket. A critical point about Sustainability here: we don’t need to be aspiring to more now, we need to aspire to less material stuff. This sort of shift requires a fundamental rearrangement on ideas about growth, progress, and what thriving can be.

Subsidized, affordable, poor, people don’t want to say words that hit the mark; people seem to need euphemisms like “workforce.” Yet, “workforce” flattens off everyone into an anodyne class-analysis, and leaves out a whole history of racial segregation in suburbia. The AMI cohort may be a good term, as that implies a class and a racial/ ethnic spectrum. Affordable Housing is needed not just to house “the workforce” but to correct a whole history of segregation as well. Affirmative action is justified, not just keeping workers close by.

Heid said a lot, and he did say there is survival value in having a diverse, inclusive society. This is to say, it is the servants and workers who know how to do everything. The property owners can’t do anything in an emergency, have no skills, they’re used to being cleaned up after; a town wants all the pragmatic, skilled workers around in an emergency, to take the lead and help all out. Strength in numbers.

Heid’s “missing middle” annual income levels are actually what is nationally in the top 20% If we will make our own language here in Sonoma, suggestion, call this lower-end market rate, not “missing middle.”

For connecting the dots on building costs, the relation between capital costs, penciling out, percent of profit, Prop 13, and CA housing costs overall was a good eye-opener. Also interesting was how market rate units pay for inclusionary units, and that a 30% inclusion “shot the market down” in Santa Fe. Yet, with an actual need demographically, for housing to cover more than 50% (or even 80%) of the population that are on the AMI spectrum, a 15% to 20% inclusion then accepts a large displacement rate, if other forms of Affordable Housing and affordable housing (ADUs, cottage housing, high density deed restricted projects) are not provided.

If money is a core issue, a Public Banking solution, or co-housing, or non-profit developers, or anything to take the profit motive out and deliver housing at reasonable cost, is desirable. The market in general, is not serving anyone but insiders and the top 10%; the rest are losing ground or treading water, a perfect time to glorify a new paradigm that less is better!  

A city housing and economic development plan, to steer and make the tourism industry pay out more equitably, is something I’ve been working on and suggesting for years. It seems however, that business as usual is just plain not interested in Sustainability, and it will be ignored as long as possible. This pre-stilts the HAP process to an economic-only biased weighting that many see as maladaptive, or as developer-centered. Are we going to open up TBL Sustainability, finally here, as an apt frame for city housing policy?

As the presentation went on, the green checkmate issue came back around multiple times. David Storer said developers don’t want risks, and the discretionary process is fraught with risk, and it inflates the cost of projects, and the state is moving to take away discretionary authority from locals bc of too much Group X influence.

Part Two, measuring progress and emerging options

Single family homes and low density zoning have come to dominate suburbia. This pattern has become unaffordable to the AMI cohort, yet it is a fine lifestyle if you are able to buy in, or have an in otherwise. Looking for a mix of 50% multi-family units is now desirable, to allow the AMI cohort to live here. The goal is to have people who work here be able to live here, that is a primary General Plan aspiration. As Mr. Storer said at the beginning, sometimes the map and the policy are not congruent.   

The section on RHNA (Regional Housing Need Allocation) gave the impression that Sonoma is all set until 2023, and will even have an excess of 66 units. So what is the housing problem if all is officially OK? There is some disconnect here with RHNA justifying that all is good in Sonoma, and then not being able to account for displacement and an over-concentration of high end units.  RHNA is, after all, produced by the same people who made CASA, and if CASA is no good for Sonoma County, why should RHNA be accepted at face value? Whose interests does RHNA serve and why? Or is RHNA a generic measure that needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

How does the growth management ordinance fit with RHNA and then with actual AMI need?

The presentation did not address Sonoma’s wealth concentration and the effect that has had on housing. (The city stokes inflationary pressure with its tourism policy, and then has to mitigate that on the other end? Maybe a unified plan would be better?) Nor was city’s relation to the Springs covered. The city can be seen as externalizing its housing issues onto the unincorporated county and other outlying areas like the Central Valley. This does have the effect of making Sonoma an island. This is why the HAP process would do well to incorporate knowledge of the Springs Specific Plan, or SSP process, and the potential housing interrelations there. With no inclusion of a full lower valley regional context, the overall HAP effect may be to dial down a better regional approach. The SSP contains possible lower valley Affordable options of benefit to the whole system here. Sure the city has its own purview, but the city is indelibly linked to the Springs, and can’t act like an island. That’s just not right.

If the Springs is not accounted for in the HAP, as a regional representation of housing in the lower valley, Sonoma may need proportionally more extremely low, very low, and low income housing to make up its own fair share.

Heid showed how discreet halves of the population (diff generations) want different and even opposite things for housing, and that there are developmental, generational trends happening. The past model of single family home/ low density zoning, is not a solution for current housing problems and trends. Heid reframed high density as “density with amenity” and “friendly proximity.” No context of segregation was mentioned, nor the need for affirmative action  housing needs.

Density runs smack into a trajectory to want to preserve small town character and the “grain” of town, and how a small rural town is highly desirable, for those with the means to afford it. Again, this is part of the green checkmate. Lots of terms and code words to know. Density, for some is a code for forced integration of dark-skinned people.

Heid spoke of housing in terms of housing “products” of diff types. There could be intentional neighborhoods of cottage housing, duplexes, new styles to appeal to and serve diff cohorts, people at diff stages of life etc. Heid also said, as have others, the redevelopment is cheaper, and easier than building new projects. Heid citied San Anselmo, as a small, urbanist form; “this is where things are moving”, yet, Marin County is an avatar of unsustainability for its lack of equity and over indulgence of environmental protections at the expense of true TBL Sustainability. Or as an associate said, Bay Area liberals are a mile wide and an inch deep.

As Dave Ransom, Chair of the Sonoma Valley Housing Group noted, tenant protections were left out of the presentation, as they have been left out in CASA, the county, and everywhere else. The HAP so far has been informative, and about production and not protection, said Ransom.

There is a strong undercurrent of local debate and political positioning, as to what values will prevail in Sonoma. This goes on at many levels. The HAP process is bound to open all this all up, hopefully in a way that results in some changes to an unaffordable housing status quo in Sonoma. I’m hopeful and optimistic.

 



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