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.


Thoughts on the Sonoma’s ‘Housing Our Community’ series

Posted on August 6, 2019 by Fred Allebach

Kudos to the city council, the council housing ad hoc, city staff, and the Housing Our Community (HOC) consultant Jim Heid, for making possible a great community educational series on housing issues. This was very well done! This essay was originally going to be a public comment for the city council hearing where Mr. Heid presented his final HOC report. I didn’t get that done, so here is an expanded set of comments, thoughts and suggestions. 

People who show up run the world

The HOC series was as well-attended as any city process. It always tends to be the same people who go to all meetings and the HOC had all the usual suspects. In his report to the council, Jim Heid noted that the opinions of those who showed up was not an accurate sample of where the community stands. 


I would say yes and no; technically speaking, the 120-some people total attendance is a small fraction of Sonoma’s 11,000 people. Yet, every member of the council has housing as a priority issue, and, the people who show up are the ones who run the world. There is a Mexican phrase for those who don’t pay attention to public process, and who don’t show up: “camaron que duerme, se lo lleva la corriente”, the sleeping shrimp is carried away by the current.


What did the people who showed up choose?  735 housing units in Sonoma over the next ten years, with 52% of those as deed restricted Affordable Housing (AH) aimed at people who make a range of the area median income or AMI.


Next steps

City manager Cathy Capriola said the next steps are to, create a housing vision, maybe a housing Specific Plan, do a Development Code update, protect existing deed restricted housing, and know how much capacity the city has for housing within the current boundaries.


Going forward, the council and public expressed the desire to keep the housing momentum going. From where I stand, the stars are aligned for a significant effort that will address this long-term issue of major importance. We’ve known for a long time the kind of things we need to do and where to get our ducks in a row; it seems we need a formal plan to do anything, and the HOC sets the stage for and is the immediate precursor for that plan. 


Trimmed mean

In his final HOC report to the council, Heid “trimmed the mean” of the housing numbers chosen by the public at the third HOC meeting. What does this mean?  According to my in-house math expert, a “trimmed mean” is not statistics, it is getting rid of valid outliers. For example, a really dry year of a drought is part of the drought numbers population, trimming (eliminating) outliers is not accurate, it’s not your full bell curve. 


This trimming also doesn’t account for that each table (at the HOC third public meeting) already trimmed their high and low estimates, for example, my table started with 1000 plus deed restricted units; we had negotiated down already. If I wasn’t a nice guy, our table would have gone for a higher number. 


In stats, when you choose your numbers population, that’s your population. The consultant’s trimmed mean insults the intelligence of the participants by assuming we don’t know what we’re talking about or what we want. The people who show up decide things, and the people who showed up for three housing meetings don’t need to have our call trimmed back by one person. 


I suggest to not take the consultant recommendation for a trimmed mean of 42%, and stick with the full aspiration of 735 units over the next ten years at 52% deed restricted AH. Call it 50% AH if you need any trimming.  


Deed restricted, AMI sleight of hand

What we see in a current Healdsburg proposed housing project, is terminology that sounds good for affordability at the start, but is really not so good when you look at the numbers. The project calls for 352 units total, 220 senior units and 132 deed restricted units. On the face of it, this looks like around a 38% inclusion, while also serving needy elders, something bold and really worth backing.


Looking closer, only 30 units of the 132 are proposed at levels affordable to people earning 50% through 110% AMI or area median income. 102 units are proposed at 120% – 160% AMI, aimed at a “missing middle” cohort. This makes the deed restricted inclusion stilted to the highest end of the AMI. 140- 160% AMI goes over any notion of “middle” into the 10% territory of national wealth. Is serving the 10% serving the “missing middle?” I don’t think so, the middle is the median, not 120% – 160% of it. The project’s lack of covering the lower ends of the AMI, where all the service worker’s annual incomes really are, and where they are projected to stay, shows that this project is smoke and mirrors when it comes to addressing the affordable housing crisis. 


Then, of the 220 senior units, 20 are proposed at 50% AMI, for people who will serve these elderly. What about elderly who can’t afford market rate prices? None of those in Healdsburg?  


This all means that for this Healdsburg project the spread of extremely low, very low, and low AMI housing price points overall is going to be maybe 35 units out of 350, which is a paltry inclusion rate. This makes the project not worth backing, from an affordable housing advocacy standpoint. Too bad, because the project is being sued for CEQA transportation GHG accountability issues (that a mixed-use hotel will pay for the AH units), but there is not enough equity proposed to make this project worth fighting for. 


This also shows that relying on inclusionary ordinances to address the affordability crisis does not get anywhere close to addressing the scope of the issue. Why? More than 50% of people in the county need AMI-level housing, at the full spectrum of the AMI.  


Strict UGB and Housing Our Community dissonance?

The public who showed up at the recent Housing Our Community meetings proposed a much higher growth rate than the city has seen. This is in an effort to re-balance the demographic here from market distortions that have made housing into an elite commodity. How will strict UGB advocates, whose top talking point besides “sprawl” is “small town character” finesse the call for higher growth rate, 50% for poor people, and higher density? Where will the density go? What will it do to property values? What will that do to small town character? The Highway 12 strip on West Napa Street is already massively congested, forcing a higher level of growth into the core will about result in traffic gridlock, not to mention there is no food or products sold in Sonoma that area median income people can afford to ride their bikes to buy anyway.  


This is why we need time to publicly assess the land/ housing inventory puzzle, and why extending the current UGB by two or three years is a good idea. Unfortunately, strict UGB advocates don’t intend to discuss anything; they intend to force a vote to have the same exact UGB for the next 30 years! 


Working a flexible, open-minded approach to a UGB and housing, as part of the General Plan process, is what the city needs, not to have a gun pointed to the city’s head that says we are running out of time. If we need time, we can make some, and assurances can be given that market rate developers will not all of a sudden run rampant and continue the unsustainable upward spiral of rents and home sale prices.   


Housing spin and weasel words

Two recent local projects in Sonoma claim to be “workforce housing”, or “affordable”, and terms like “attainable”, and “family housing” are used as well, but this turns out to only account for the required 20% inclusion. The city 20% inclusion, for projects over five units, calls for affordable inclusionary units to be at the 120% AMI level only. The bulk of the units in these two projects are market rate.


What we are seeing is a trend, for developers and municipalities to try and respond to and use the terms people are calling for, to try and appear responsive, but in the end, the numbers are twisted and repackaged so that the population served ends up being mostly at the highest ends of what could be termed “affordable.” (1) 


This kind of spinning and repackaging of numbers is typical for marketing strategies, to try and fool people that less is more. For example, a gallon of paint is no longer a gallon. Many common measures and packages are like this now. In our complacency, we’ve been fooled and hoodwinked into believing things which are not coming as they appear, or into partial political views that don’t account for more than strict partisanship.  


Spin has a tendency to move in and capitalize on people’s hopes and fears. The people who don’t show up to run the world are then spoon-fed a fast food diet of buzz and weasel words that substitute for a well-considered opinion. And now that people can’t read more than a tweet or a text at a time, and need to see a graphic instead of read three pages, the masses are vulnerable to the Big Brothers of the world controlling what people think. 


Winning has trumped discussion. People stick to their taken-on-faith buzzwords as true believers do; no discussion possible. Now, housing prescriptions and land use policy are following this same formula. 


Affordable is only 120% AMI?

I suggest that Sonoma re-do its Development Code so as to make the inclusionary ordinance more than just 120% AMI. This is Sonoma’s “affordable” sleight of hand.  Code needs to be gone through with fine- toothed comb, to remove barriers to serving the full spectrum of deed restricted Affordable Housing. And if the pragmatic inclusionary rate “sweet spot” is too low to meaningfully address the housing crisis, we can’t look at this inclusion as any kind of meaningful remedy. The market is not going to produce equity.


Note, the lower you get on the AMI spectrum, the browner people get. It is historically accurate to peg the current system as discriminatory and systemically unjust. Just like fancy glasses and white table clothes legitimizing wine alcoholism, all manner of apparently reasonable zoning, Development Code, and RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Assessment) numbers, the system subtly masks a segregationist system.  


The “sweet spot” for inclusion is 20% in Sonoma, because it is all 120% AMI. The “sweet spot” is about what “pencils out” for developers, and nothing below 120% AMI pencils out? Hmmm. If I see the sleight of hand happening with affordability terms, and the will of the public “trimmed”, why would I not suspect that penciling out claims were not equally contrived and self-serving?


When actors are seen to be spinning and even worse, then the whole house of cards gets called into question. Spin is not going to address severe systemic social inequity. 


Unit cost inflated by developer

$450,000 a unit is said to be the actual cost of building an Affordable unit. When we are talking about affordability, a capital A means deed-restricted housing, a small a means affordable by market rate measures. This a ridiculous number, somebody needs to get real here and get these prices under control. Again, when we see terms manipulated by those in control, and by those who stand to make or lose a percent of profit, then we must suspect that all affordable housing discourse originating with market rate developers and their boosters is going to be skewed, or even worse. It’s common sense to not trust foxes in charge of the hen house. 


Non-profit, 50-unit, high density projects are the answer 

The take home point here is that counting on mixed-use funding and inclusions to meet Affordability needs is too elusive and open to abuse, and vulnerable to unsustainable Faustian bargains with the all-corrupting money. The only way to really address the Affordability need is to have non-profit builders do the whole job. These non-profit projects have to be about 50 units to have a scale that does pencil out. (2) All that remains is for the political will and money to procure the land.


The school district has land, and they could hit a major home run for the community (the community here is not just the city) by freeing some if this land up for deed-restricted housing for teachers, and other critical public service workers. Teachers don’t even earn the median income until the end of their whole career. What will a 120% AMI inclusion do for a local teacher? Nothing.



I happened to be at the hospital the other day and in every hallway there are pictures of the generous people who donated money to this room or that, or to whole wings. The hospital is a great service and I’m glad they are there just down the street. After seeing gallery upon gallery of wealthy donors, I wondered, why stop there? Why can’t these exact same people get together and buy a few lots and give the lots to a non-profit builder? Two, 2-acre lots would be @ 100 units of full spectrum Affordable Housing. This would go a long way to realizing the Housing Our Community 10-year plan. C’mon guys, do the right thing. Don’t stop now and rest on your hospital laurels. Full-spectrum AH is the greatest need of the community here, this has been shown to be true, and is the will of the public. If government has no money, the public needs your extra money and generosity, now.  


The Hidden in Plain Sight study showed that philanthropy was ignoring the greatest community need, housing. Is philanthropy going to continue to ignore this? The study was done by the Sonoma Valley Fund, where many of the local big money insiders are involved, it’s not like the Hidden in Plain Sight conclusions came from strangers. C’mon people, get going, you’ve already done the hospital right. Housing should be next. 


Less expensive land could be bought on the edges of town so that poor people, i.e. teachers and firemen, could have some nice greenery around them, and so that the prescription from the people who show up to change the world will not be “do as I say, but not as I do.” But if we pragmatically need human system limits, and need high density to save resources and energy, this should be for the whole town, the haves can’t keep low density paradise and force the others into cubicles. Equitable sacrifice is called for in housing.   



I agree with the consultant report, to re-secure existing deed restricted AH, to look at fallow lands like School District property, and to make an Affordable Housing Specific Plan that will make permitting ministerial. There are things the city can do to act on this HOC process as it pertains to the General Plan process, and not allow the whole thing to be a simple feel-good exercise that ends up like many resolutions, words and no action.  


What now?  

Now that we have burned six or more months on the HOC housing education process, and the public has called for 735 housing units over the next ten years with 52% of them deed-restricted Affordable Housing, what is the city going to do next?  Will this all fold back into an interminable slow-walking of talk, talk, talk, and no action? Will the city continue to rest on the laurels of the Broadway SAHA project when we need to be moving forward, and striving for more of the same? Hopefully not, and we will trust that the will of the council will be taken up by the city. 


It has been the city and county that have pushed high-end tourism, that allowed second home speculation and vacation rentals to displace a normal amount of local housing stock, and now it is municipal, authorities that must mitigate this Faustian Bargain, with policies to preserve the social character of the town, by creating housing for the full-spectrum of the workforce. 


The trajectory is very good with the HOC process, we just need to finish the job and loop into regional cooperation with the county. Bold action is called for, to continue on the HOC momentum, take the next steps laid out by the city manager, and to integrate these steps into the General Plan and Housing Element. 


  1. This same sleight of hand has happened with “green”, “organic” and “sustainable” marketing, or with “free range” chickens. It turns out to be lies and spin. It’s smart to look deeper than what foxes tell us about the hen house.  


  1. This is not to say that unit price can’t be lowered for non-profit builders too. Price is a mix of fees, materials costs, time, regulatory impediments, green requirements, CEQA stalling etc. Lowering the price point means having to account for all these things. One aspect, materials and design, can surely get a livable amount of square feet in more innovative ways for less money. For example, a 500-square foot space does not need walls for every room, use curtains. No interior walls except bathroom reduces costs. This then makes a house into basically a roof with four exterior walls, and utilities. Water can go in one corner only etc., economize. The house basically just keeps you out of the weather, doesn’t need to follow set patterns. With out of the box thinking, materials prices can come down. 


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