The city Housing Element update is complicated, with a lot of acronyms and details. If you want to play, you have to learn the ropes and get into the weeds. If you aren’t at the table, you might be on the menu.
California, especially coastal California, has drastically underbuilt housing in the last 20 years. This has happened for multiple reasons, one of which is an abuse of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA law. CEQA has in many cases weaponized the threat of environmental impacts against “growth,” and this has served a burn-the-bridge-to- newcomers mentality. Supply has not kept up with demand. Social equity has ended up as collateral damage to environmental protection.
In the Bay Area, segregation has increased and many lower-income and people of color have been displaced. This has sorted towns like Sonoma more upper class and white. Despite the area’s touted liberalism, the effects of redlining and systemic racism have been hard to admit and address. The inertia of the good life seems to allay urgency for inclusion. Cities like Sonoma, Huntington Beach, and Carmel have become known for very high real estate prices, gentrification, NIMBYism, and under-production of affordable housing. As a result, the state has put in place stricter plans to increase housing production and to ensure housing fairness.
Housing Elements and RHNA
The Sonoma Housing Element (HE) update, and Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), a California state “fair share” housing program, are processes intended to further fair housing. The Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), gives Bay Area jurisdictions like Sonoma and Sonoma County a RHNA allocation of housing units that they must demonstrate the capacity and zoning to build that number of units.
Sonoma’s current 330-unit RHNA allocation is divided into income categories and percentages: very low at 27% of units, low at 15%, moderate at 15%, and above moderate 43%.
A housing sites inventory must be made determining where these 330 units will go. Segregation of income cohorts has to be avoided. For Sonoma, where to situate the inventory comes down to several alternatives: RHNA repeater sites, vacant and under-developed land, ADUs, sphere of influence annexations, and maybe urban growth boundary or UGB annexations. Most Sonoma repeater sites are ones that have been counted for the past RHNA allocations but cannot be counted again without automatic upzoning and by-right development privileges.
A take-home point of this whole process is that Huntington Beach-style evasions of fair share housing aren’t going to be tolerated anymore. This will serve to put the squeeze on Sonoma, where city planning staff have indicated meeting the current RHNA allocation won’t be easy.
Regional Housing Needs Determination
Apparently, many small cities objected to RHND options that gave higher RHNA numbers, and they succeeded in getting the allocations reduced. Sonoma’s was reduced from 480 to 330. The RHND methodology was ostensibly about arriving at a fair formula. At the end of the day, local cohorts differ on what is fair and why.
The game now is dealing with Sonoma’s 330-unit allocation and the city’s ability to fit this into a housing sites inventory, and to show a plausible chance to build them. Consistent with there being interest-based cohorts that view local housing fairness, numbers, type, and location differently, several Planning Commissioners seemed intent on finding ways to reduce the RHNA numbers.
Affordable housing advocacy
No Planning Commissioner has emerged as a clear champion for more affordable housing, while a number have emerged as clear housing limitation advocates.
The past 20 years show Sonoma has a 236-unit RHNA affordable housing deficit and a 293-unit RHNA market rate surplus. In the 2019 city Housing Our Community series, the public recommended 735 new units over the sixth RHNA cycle with 52% being deed-restricted affordable.
Sustainable Sonoma’s analysis and policy suggestions, in the soon-to-be released Homes for a Sustainable Sonoma Valley, sides with higher numbers and suggests the city take a Valley view, to take more of its fair share of Valley housing. Upshot, substantial public opinion supports more than the minimum for affordable housing and higher numbers of affordable types
The Planning Director gave the example of Huntington Beach as a city that did not comply with the HE and RHNA fair share housing guidelines, and was sued by the state. Huntington Beach went overboard on local control which seemed to serve segregation more than fair housing.
Thus, we see a power struggle between local control as a proxy to justify limiting suburbia and housing advocates who are trying to break in and integrate the inner castle compound. In Sonoma Valley’s case, the castle compound is 11,000-person Sonoma in the middle of a 32,000-person contiguous urban cluster that would be the fourth largest city in the county after Rohnert Park. This puts Planning Commissioner Jim Bohar’s comments, that higher RHNA numbers were “politically motivated,” in context. The Housing Element is political. This is an advanced chess game where code words like inclusion, equity, growth, sprawl, development, infill, congestion, density, and character cloak the values and planning preferences of different valley and city stakeholders.
If housing advocates are not at the table they will be on the menu, because RHNA and the HE is highly political, and now is the time when the rules are being made.
This is an opinion piece. The opinions expressed are those of the author.