The 2017 fires resulted in a major loss of county housing stock, serious displacement of the most vulnerable populations, an inequitable recovery, and a local introduction to disaster capitalism. We heard calls for more fire-proof building, and rebuilding in central areas away from the wildland-urban interface. What happened for local valley Affordable Housing (1) in the ensuing two years? Not much. Mostly more unaffordable market rate projects, and seemingly endless strip and flip gussying up of for-sale properties for the high and ultra-end market.
Business as usual
The Springs Specific Plan (SSP) remains unfinished, under threat of lawsuit by low density neighbors, and with some against the 72- unit Midpen Affordable Housing project on Verano Ave. Sonoma’s UGB issue, as it pertains to Affordable Housing is deadlocked in a stalemate of rigid positionality, with UGB advocates against the possible 62-unit Habitat for Humanity Affordable project on Napa Rd. The county at-large is now just getting around to zoning changes for high density housing outside city limits, yet, market rate, unaffordable projects continue to dominate housing remedies, with a paltry, inadequate inclusion of Affordable units in with the market rate units, to putatively offset worker displacement.
In the midst of plenty, Sonoma apparently doesn’t have the money or, four months after the Housing Our Community series, the will to act quickly on Affordable Housing. Here and in the county, locals will argue endlessly, appeal plans, and sue about what kind and where to even put such housing. The upshot? Stalemate, checkmate, no action
Fire, resilience, and adaptation
Now with fallout from the Kincade Fire, it looks like we’re in for a replay of the exact same scenarios: more displacement, more inequitable consequences for the most vulnerable, shock to the housing market, inflation of housing prices, soaring rents, and an economic hit to tourism. This will all add up to make Sonoma and certain Springs areas even more exclusive.
If the recent fires can be framed as climate related, now it is all the more important to concentrate on climate justice. “Climate justice is a term used for framing global warming as an ethical and political issue, rather than one that is purely environmental or physical in nature. This is done by relating the effects of climate change to concepts of justice, particularly environmental and social justice and by examining issues such as equality, human rights, collective rights, and the historical responsibilities for climate change. A fundamental proposition of climate justice is that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest consequences.” Wikipedia
High-end consumers have created the energy and concomitant greenhouse gas demand that has caused all this climate change. In the world, these high-end consumers are Americans. In America, Sonoma County and Sonoma stand as the most responsible, the cream of the crop of high-end, GHG-causing consumption.
Full cost accounting
What’s needed now, and retroactively, is to make an accurate accounting of local workforce displacement, especially for vulnerable populations. Climate justice calls for Sonoma and the county to step and take responsibility for the aggregate negative externalities of a privileged lifestyle. Any planning for new and needed housing must target the displaced first. Why? Because permanent displacement allows Sonoma and sections of the Springs to become more exclusive and less integrated, which is the antithesis of sustainable.
Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA)
RHNA numbers, made by the Association of Bay Area Governments or ABAG (2) need to be framed to first account for past unbuilt Affordable Housing, and then for the climate displaced. This should about nix any more market rate housing period for the next 10 years.
Masking poverty with Business-as-usual measures
What we have had going on here in the city and county is a sophisticated, systemic effort to mask the true extent of local poverty. Inadequate and unenforceable RHNA, inflated AMI (area median income), market rate GMO (growth management ordinance) housing units, UGB (urban growth boundary) protectionism; all these status quo measures add up to reinforcing an unsustainable power structure that enshrines the wealthy at the expense of the hidden poor.
Past battles and memes against growth are still being fought when it’s time to change the channel and fight for climate justice. The anti-growth movement has had a blind spot for social justice anyway, as growth was and is simply accounting for the birth rate, one that some did not want in their back yards. In a BAU twist, gaining back the displaced working class is framed by some as “growth.”
Data and facts of inequity have been laid out
Externalization of social inequity has been happening here and in the county already, before any fires and climate changes. The disproportionate power and control arrangement between the city and the Springs is Exhibit A of a status quo that seeks to hide and mask poverty. Layer on frequent fire disasters, power outages, loss of work, unsupportable inflation of all prices, inequitable 2017 fire recovery, and we see existing human-made problems being exacerbated by natural ones. We see the result of failure to actively include minorities and the working class, and a contentment with, and resistance from a maladaptive, unsustainable status quo.
Blame PG&E or the Baby Boomers?
Capitalism just makes all these problems worse. We don’t need just PG&E reform, we need reform of the whole bloody system. Yet too many, with too many votes, the Baby Boomers, are wanting to hold onto what they’ve got, even if that drags the whole ship down with them. Now that Boomers have it all, they want others to conserve, others to live in 350 square foot stalls, others to not have comfortable high-resource-using lifestyles. This has to change. Young folks like HHHH (3) need to take over.
Everybody ante up for systemic adaptation
This time around, after the latest fire disaster, maybe we can start to actually change the channel, and do it in a way that zeroes in more closely to what climate justice, to what full cost accounting, triple bottom line sustainability actually means and calls for. We can do it together, or we can keep on fighting amongst ourselves as the Titanic goes down. We need a broad palette of alternatives so as to be able to adapt in multiple ways. Such a wide brush will require cooperation and flexibility.
Priuses, resolutions, and feel-good charity are not going to cut it for actual sustainability.
A good start will be for one, the city to get its Housing Action Plan off the ground ASAP; two, the county to finish the SSP; three, the city and county General Plan process include UGB alternatives in their year’s-long housing deliberations; four, strict local rent control protections be put in place; five, for those with the lion’s share of resources and wealth to start sharing it back by pooling their resources and buying central lots for high density, non-profit-built Affordable Housing; and six, all concerned citizens work together and step up to advocate and address climate justice and sustainability in the comprehensive ways it needs to be.
This piece was self-edited by the author, who is solely responsible for its contents.