Public Citizen ~ Larry Barnett

Larry Barnett Larry Barnett lives in Sonoma where he was elected to three terms on the City Council and served twice as Mayor. A thirty-three-year resident, he currently serves as Chair of Sonoma's Planning Commission. He has been married for 48 years, has two daughters and three grandchildren.


Desirability and housing in Sonoma

Posted on April 3, 2023 by Larry Barnett

What makes the City of Sonoma a desirable place to live? The answer is a matter of preference. When preferences match character, the result is desirability, which results in a steady increase in real estate value. What’s desirable is popular, and popularity increases value.

Not located on a major freeway, Sonoma’s character is semi-rural. Set within one of the finest agricultural regions in the world, it’s accessible via two-lane roads traversing vineyards, farms and pastures. The urbanization typical of much of the Bay Area – multi-lane freeways, acres of tract homes, and dense commercial development – has not happened here. Sonoma’s evenings and nights are quiet. The sounds of nature – wind in the trees, babbling creeks, morning birdsong – can still be heard. The stars in the night sky are visible. The crime rate is low; one can safely walk through town without fear of being attacked. Streets are clean, in good repair, and sidewalks offer safe passage. Street light fills our neighborhoods. Busy during the day, Hwy 12 quiets down each night.

Character preference plays a major role for those who can choose where they want to live. Not everyone can be choosy, of course; often budget, family or job requirements are deciding factors, leaving some unsatisfied with their living situation. In a desirable place like Sonoma where real estate is pricey, lower-cost housing is scarce. Market forces and the profit motive drive prices to their maximum.

To provide housing for lower-wage earners, government subsidized housing, what is now called Affordable Housing, has been created for many decades; appreciation is capped, rents controlled, and resident incomes qualified. For decades, funding for such housing was largely provided by the state through redevelopment agencies, but that funding ended in 2012. To date, no comparable state funding is automatically provided; each locality must first devote revenues to subsidize an Affordable Housing development then apply for state funds. City regulation requires that 25% of any housing development over four units must be Affordable at the developer’s expense.

Preferences about where to live are not limited to price; cultural factors also play a role. Many people want to live in communities with shared values and habits; the character of a neighborhood is sometimes secondary to who lives there. For better or worse, America is less a melting pot than a mix of diverse cultures; those cultures often aggregate into their own communities.

Housing laws prevent excluding populations due to ethnicity, sexual preference, or place of origin but do not command who lives where. Neither can virtue be commanded; the state instead relies on regulations that streamline and facilitate housing creation in hope that diverse populations will be accommodated. Such hope, however, always flies in the face of the real estate market’s profit motive; like acquisitive supply-side economics, Affordable Housing does not trickle down naturally.

Well-intentioned people complain about a lack of fairness in housing; capitalism is very unfair, indeed. America’s economy is unfortunately built on winners and losers, but we’re stuck with this economic system until it changes – if it ever does. Subsidized Affordable Housing is one way to make things fairer, but it too must “pencil out.”

Communities grow in part through networks of relationships, a social process that reflects human nature. Buttressed by regulations that encourage inclusion, cultural attitudes can evolve over time. Meanwhile, when it comes to creating Affordable Housing, local government’s commitments to funding, fairness and generosity are what’s required.

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