The City of Sonoma recently adopted its Housing Element, a framework for the ways and locations in which housing might be built over the next eight years. The State of California requires that each jurisdiction submit a revised Housing Element covering an eight-year period, and that it respond to the housing targets established by ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) called Regional Housing Allocation Numbers (RHNA).
State government does not force cities or counties to construct housing, only to provide sufficient land zoned to achieve the housing targets. Those who call on the city or county to create housing are missing the point; cities and counties don’t build anything. Cities and counties only adopt policies and plans that encourage and facilitate development.
Sonoma’s adopted Housing Element (so-called due to its being one element of Sonoma’s General Plan) is a fine document, the result of input by Sonoma’s staff, housing consultant, and the public. Its words reflect the intentions of this community to provide Affordable Housing for low-wage workers, seniors, and middle-income earners. The document references resources available for guidance and financing, and speaks to making Sonoma a welcome home to a more economically and ethnically diverse population.
We support these goals, and appreciate all the work many people put into them. But there’s one glaring problem – namely that it takes money, not simply positive thinking, to get housing built.
Creating rent-controlled, appreciation limited, deed restricted housing – the formal definition of Affordable Housing – has always required government help in the form of subsidies, land grants, or fee waivers. If the City of Sonoma wants more Affordable Housing to be built, it needs to put its money where its words are and pony up the funds to make it happen.
Fortunately, Sonoma created an Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF) in 2019 to do just that. Unfortunately, far too little money has accumulated in the AHTF to make a meaningful contribution to any housing. Projects get built in cities that make financial contributions; even nonprofit housing developers need their projects to pencil out.
Now that Sonoma has a plan, it needs financing, and the City Council should make funding the AHTF a top priority. That means identifying potential revenue sources, preferably ones that recur annually. There are lots of potential sources, and not all of them require increasing local taxes and fees. Redirecting budget priorities towards funding for the AHTF might include renegotiating the Tourism Improvement District agreement that expires in 2025 and presently generates nearly $1 million yearly for tourism promotion. Another might be increasing the real estate transfer tax that’s currently at fifty-five cents per thousand. Business license fees have not been increased in a decade, and are still another potential source of funding for the AHTF.
If several millions flow into the AHTF yearly, the city can then leverage those funds and issue long-term bonds from $20 to $50 million. With that kind of clout, we’ll attract the type of development we all say we want.
Initiating a public campaign to raise money for the AHTF has even greater potential. There is tremendous wealth in private hands in Sonoma, and if contributions to the AHTF can be made tax deductible, huge sums might be raised.
If in fact this community is committed to creating more Affordable Housing, these efforts will prove how deep that commitment runs. Affordable Housing gets plenty of lip-service – now’s the time to find out if those sentiments are more than words.
– Sun Editorial Board