Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


Acknowledging complexity

Posted on January 15, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun

We all prefer simple solutions and explanations for serious problems, but our world is increasingly complex, and so are its problems and solutions. As the anniversary of the Capitol riots reminded us, a significant portion of the population prefers conspiracy theories and alternative facts over truth. This makes it more difficult to solve problems.

Our community has its own share of truth deniers: people who think face masks infringe upon personal freedom, that Covid vaccinations are a hoax, that fractional home ownership is not a timeshare, that water is a never-ending resource. Such fictions distract us from addressing our real problems, by reframing them into a new set of beliefs that suck all the air out of conversation and deliberation. 

We live in tense and uncertain times. The pandemic has forced all of us to make major adjustments and has increased everyone’s level of insecurity. The polarization of right and left, a hostile online environment, and economic stress contribute to an inclination to hide behind false but comforting explanations that let us evade complexity.

California’s affordable housing crisis, for example, a combination of complex forces, is being addressed by simplistic solutions like SB9, which is a “one-size-fits-all” piece of state legislation that allows homeowners to subdivide their lots. While subdividing residential properties may have value in highly developed cities like San Francisco, its viability as a solution to housing affordability in Sonoma is questionable. 

Market rate housing is based on profitability. With covenants that last for the lifetime of the property and reduce its profitability, deed-restricted affordable housing projects have always required government subsidy. When funding was available, every higher-density, low-income affordable housing project application in the City of Sonoma was approved. Neighborhood objections were considered, but did not prevent approval. The key to the creation of affordable housing is money subsidies. The new multi-unit affordable housing development on Broadway is an example.

The excesses of both right-wing and left-wing extremism are making problem solving more difficult. Blame and shame do not solve problems, but exacerbate them. Hyperbolic language and accusations attract attention, but divert energy from collective decision-making. These forces threaten our ability to come together locally to address the serious challenges we face. 

Differences of opinion are natural and expected; they need to be expressed in a civil way, devoid of insult, threat, or intent to humiliate. Social media, in particular, invites personal attack, and inappropriate and inaccurate simplistic generalizations. If we allow this community to be riven with distrust, suspicion, and rancor, we will find ourselves unable to get anything done. The complex difficulties we face require intentional collaboration to solve them. 


2 thoughts on “Acknowledging complexity

  1. Fred Allebach
    Public comment on SB-9 agenda item
    1/13/22 Sonoma city Planning Commission meeting

    Members of the Planning Commission,
    The SB-9 process has been one where a significant disconnect emerged between many members of the PC and the public (SVHG, SVC, GenH, a 75+ person petition, La Luz, SV Hospital). I hope that this pattern does not hold for the whole Housing Element.

    All of us who took a different tack on SB-9 than the PC can’t be that dumb and deluded that we had no points worthy of consideration in the ordinance. Maybe on further consideration of the permanent SB-9 objective language ordinance, space can be found to include points many community members made. Maybe the intent of SB-9 and other housing laws can be honored, but that will require an admission that “local control” is part of the problem as well as something desirable.

    In light of who “local control” is for, please recall The Sonoma Way, adopted by the city council, where interests are supposed to be identified first, before arguing about positions.

    Part of the majority PC SB-9 thesis is that Sonoma housing policy and political will for the last 30 years has had nothing to do with the current sad state of housing affairs here, it’s only a matter of money, of things out of city control, and all housing advocates should put their trust and interests in the hands of low density, yellow-zoned Planning Commissioners; end of story.

    The SB-9 thesis of many PC members and a few supporting architects was that affordable by design housing is impossible in Sonoma. SB-9 was hypothesized to not apply in Sonoma because pressure from speculative capital runs up all housing prices. There is a grain of truth to that. Keep in mind though, that if your thesis is that affordable by design is impossible here, even for ADUs, then for your city RHNA inventory, all housing units will have to be classed as Above Moderate. How can you then meet the @ 60% needed for Moderate and below? If the market cannot create these unit types, then the city will need to get some plans on the ground with nonprofit developers to show that lower income units are possible.

    The SB-9 urgency ordinance establishes a precedent that the market cannot create anything except Above Mod, and that deed-restriction is the only path forward to equity.

    The PC approach was to create objective language to double down on more exclusionary Design Code to protect against “exclusionary displacement” (of future Main Street and Baltic Ave residents that SB-9 intends to include), this even as the new objective Design Code required affordability parameters that could never be met.

    Rationales given by PC members in changing subjective to objective values, were all about protecting existing low-density home owner’s neighborhood character and assets. PC members used justifying phrases that were identical to past coded racial exclusionary sentiments in the US. It is reasonable to see that and point that out.

    Steve Barbose alone cautioned that the sky was not falling with SB-9.
    In light of my pointing out racial context above, here is a comment from a top member of a local Special District who does not want to be named:
    “It is easy to label people or behaviors racist but often the label does not fit as the action taken is not racist but may continue to promote structural or systemic racism.  Past policies, Laws, and Actions concerning land use and ownership have clearly been racist.  Government loan guarantees would not be approved for housing that was not segregated, and CC&R’s restricted ownership to minorities.  Many lenders would not lend to minorities, and in many cases real estate agents would not sell a home to a minority.  These practices have disappeared or been outlawed but the effects of these practices are still in place with many communities having specific areas of mostly white residents and other areas with larger members being minorities. 
    Decisions being made today regarding land use can either continue to keep the status quo or make changes that allow more opportunities for minority ownership or residence in areas that have been unavailable to them in the past.  These decisions are not necessarily racist as they may be intended to keep the same look or density, but the effect of the decision is to keep the status quo which results in the same structural or systemic racism.  Members of agencies or commissions need to understand the impact of decision not just on the existing look or feel of the item or area but what impact will it have to correct the impacts of decision made years ago that have lead to the issues of structural or systemic racism.
    I do not believe that people that want decisions made that keep the same look, density and ambiance of their current homes are not racist and do not make this request to keep minorities out so labeling individuals is wrong.  That being said in would behoove people to understand how our cities became segregated and start working to breakdown some of the barriers to offer move movement of social economic classes.”
    For your SB-9 discussion, I ask that you review the deed-restricted affordability requirements set in place and have a neutral-party economic feasibility study as to what income levels can afford what for SB-9 units, and then see if current city requirements are realistic for your targeted deed-restricted cohort. If Main Street missing middles are seen as unable to compete for prices, does the deed-restriction cure you put in place make it so no one will be able to build any SB-9 units and have the investment paid back by Baltic Ave-level renters?

    What if this SB-9 process’ protecting existing stakeholder’s claims to gentrification’s benefits makes it so nothing can be added to integrate low density, R1 areas, i.e. single family zoning? The amenity migrants, the missing middle, and Baltic Ave. will all be kept out. What about the rest of the Housing Element, AFFH and state laws calling for areas just like the east side, yellow and historical overlays to be integrated? Where in Sonoma is the 300-something 6th cycle RHNA supposed to go, with near 60% of units targeted for VL, L and Mod?

    On one hand you’ve made a death loop precedent with SB-9 for a large area of the city, and on the other you’ll need to show where housing can go for RHNA and the HE.

    I heard a glimmer of innovative pro-housing talk from Commissioner McDonald and I would encourage this glimmer to be amplified as much as you can. Take Bob’s lead and put some daylight on pro-housing messaging and action. Let Mr. McDonald lead out on some of his ideas for affordable housing on a future agenda.

    A word of caution. Let’s not make the HE process a game of trying to avoid the intent of state laws that we as a community really need to be going straight into. Remember that local control is for tenants too. Be careful not to box yourselves in with the Housing Element by closing off too many affordable-housing-deficit areas/ opportunity areas to plausible development. With the SB-9 limits and the historical overlay being in many cases identical to yellow zoning, which is essentially single family zoning, the city has acted to close off a large percent of the east side moderate-rapidly changing to high opportunity area that AFFH calls for to be integrated. The end game of this kind of land use chess looks like past patterns of segregation, only with new rationales.

    Then you will be left only with red-zoned areas to try and fit unproven, implausible dense housing plans on commercial parking lots even as AFFH says you can’t keep stuffing poor people in all the worst air, noise, and light polluted areas like Highway 12, and you can’t keep counting past-unused RHNA sites. Maybe annexation of sphere areas will need to come into play to get a 6th cycle housing element?

    To avoid future exclusionary displacement in possible annexed areas, AH overlay zones may need to be made. To make such zones and lower AMI requirements actually work, the city needs to use its regulatory policy powers to steer towards more inclusion everywhere. This requires will on your part that policy is a valid piece to play, and that it can make a difference for a wider sense of local control. Policy is inside baseball and changes can be done. We are all just people, and people make the rules. People can work the system to whatever end they want.

    As I see it, only certain foxes lay claim to hen house policy rules in Sonoma, and then they try and set the parameters so no one can challenge any of the rules, or say the rules are even in play.

    Who might propose such rule changes and actions? Who will open the gates? The only way for policy work is to know all the inside baseball. Can the PC be more activist and not just respond to what is brought to you? No one can propose to put items on the agenda?

    I hope some members of the PC and/or staff can act to bridge the disconnect on community perception of housing issues that emerged with SB-9, and if the 1% is all of our enemies, how can we focus our energies collectively as a community to get lower income housing where it needs to go?

  2. “California’s affordable housing crisis, for example, a combination of complex forces, is being addressed by simplistic solutions like SB9”

    There is a lot of fear and apathy around SB 9, but I think it has the potential to help address the housing crisis. This blog post does a good job debunking some of the common fears and misconceptions about the law: https://www.homestead.is/learning-about/5-sb9-myths

    Of course, SB 9 is a band-aid and doesn’t address the root causes of the issue. However, I do believe that these laws are a step in the right direction. Removing some of the hoops in the permitting process can allow for smaller, more affordable housing units to be built. Most importantly, it can allow for more housing overall. SB 9 alone won’t solve the housing crisis, but it can help alleviate it.

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