As an Affordable Housing advocate, I hope the city will follow through on creating this much-needed type of housing. (Affordable Housing is deed-restricted for those who make the area median income or AMI, people who can’t actually afford Sonoma rents or home prices.) However, for various realpolitik reasons listed below, I don’t see this or any high-density infill as ever happening. Given Sonoma’s small size, infill means anywhere out to and adjacent to the city margins.
Low density neighborhoods will fight hard, and find any reason to be against high density infill. The Donald Street neighborhood’s reaction to the Springs Specific Plan is Exhibit A. Planning and rezoning, to achieve local housing goals, and to make for more just land use, will be fought every step of the way. Lawsuits will gum up the works for years, even though everyone says they are for Affordable Housing. Core reasons are: fear of low-income, possibly brown-skinned neighbors and loss of property values. There are words for this, segregation and NIMBYism.
That there are no central, Affordable projects with any numbers anywhere in sight is Exhibit B. It has taken 15 years for the Affordable Housing project across from Traintown to even be close to a shovel. There’s no momentum. Beyond more projects like this, relying on the city inclusionary ordinance to produce Affordable Housing is too little, too late. In the meantime, the Springs has become the overflow for Sonoma’s lack of housing action.
All the current lawsuits, appeals, and paralysis over Plaza-area commercial and market rate housing projects is Exhibit C. This goes along with Exhibit A, showing that any change to Sonoma’s central and east side low density and historic character will be resisted greatly. With traffic already badly congested (mainly from displaced Bay Area workers trying to get to work), who thinks that some locals won’t fight and sue to prevent West Napa Street, Broadway, and Napa Road from becoming even more congested? Count on it. Additionally, lawsuits addressing the climate impacts of wine tourism will result in low wage workers becoming collateral damage from both displacement and a progressive loss of jobs, with no alternative economy anywhere in sight.
Urban growth boundary (UGB) and “smart growth” inflexible dogma is Exhibit D. This will ensure that no edge or low-density neighborhood lands will easily be freed up for Affordable Housing. This is one prong of what I call the Green Checkmate, environmental advocates protecting the boundary, NIMBYs protecting the interior, all momentum to include the working class stopped. For example, the possible Habitat for Humanity project on 285 Napa Rd. was opposed by UGB environmentalists and NIMBYs alike, even though high-density infill smart growth near transit shows no signs of ever happening.
Exhibit E is the lack of follow through on the city’s Housing Our Community (HOC) series concluded four months ago. Where is the Housing Action Plan? One reason momentum has stalled is staff time and fiscal resources taken up by all the lawsuits and appeals about the Cheese Factory and other non-housing land use disputes. The “deliverable” from the HOC was that the public called for 275 deed-restricted Affordable Housing units to be built in the next 10 years. A great hope but not even likely.
The City Manager has signaled all along she doesn’t think Sonoma can affect the Affordable Housing problem that much. This is Exhibit F. Lack of full backing by the most powerful city official, even if the city council is directing action. The will and urgency just doesn’t seem to be there. Concerted action gets swallowed up by business-as-usual rationales.
Exhibit G. Demographics is destiny. As Sonoma becomes wealthier and more elite, there will be less voters to support any liberal council members who might stand for social equity. The current city demographic already puts pressure for council members to protect wealthy homeowners. By the time any Affordable projects of any scale are built, about all current workers will be displaced anyway.
Conclusion: Territoriality of powerful, moneyed stakeholders, at the edge and the center, will ensure that a common good to include Area Median Income workers will not be a priority. Exclusion is the operative word. Lack of social equity and lack of climate justice will continue to be inconvenient truths papered over with a putative “sustainability” that leaves out the worker bees and cleaner fish.