Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun

Sonoma Valley Sun


The changing face of housing in Sonoma

Posted on June 1, 2023 by Sonoma Valley Sun

For the first time in its history, the City of Sonoma has enacted land-use legislation that mandates the construction of housing when commercial development is built on parcels over one-half acre in size. In such cases, the housing square footage built must be equal to that of the commercial square footage. Moreover, 25 percent of that mandated housing must meet the city’s affordability requirements, including units for low and very-low incomes.

For nearly twenty years the city has permitted the inclusion of housing in commercial developments. However, commercial parcels and their parking lots continue to serve only a daytime purpose and are essentially all but abandoned at night. The city’s new Housing Component regulations mean that, in the future, large commercial developments will no longer be darkened and empty when daytime shopping ends. Regulations that once read that housing “should” be built now read “shall.” The multi-family housing that will be created will help satisfy both missing-middle and lower income categories and will enliven spaces that otherwise sit quiet and empty when business hours end.

Although required of developers, Sonoma’s Housing Component can be partially or entirely satisfied through the payment of a Housing Component in-lieu fee to the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. This option is available, however,  only after it is determined that housing is deemed infeasible by the Planning Commission and/or City Council due to an existing condition, incompatible use, or disqualifying circumstance. 

The fee is not a simple or convenient way for developers to opt out the Housing Component. It is a last resort, and a high-bar must be met to qualify. The same provisions apply to parcels located in Mixed-Use zones.  

The City of Sonoma is too small to continue to develop by strictly separating housing and commercial uses; the land is too expensive, and our recently voter-renewed Urban Growth Boundary prohibits urban sprawl into open space. By building housing where people work, commuting will be reduced, along with the greenhouse gasses it produces. There’s no reason why hotels and shopping centers can’t include housing, and with the adoption of the Housing Component regulations, from now on they will. In the future we might even see multi-family housing and apartments added to existing commercial locations, such as strip centers. 

Sonoma’s recently adopted Housing Element, now certified by the State Housing Authority, outlines goals and policies that facilitate housing creation at all income levels within the city, particularly for low- and middle-income households. These new Mixed-Use and Commercial Housing Component requirements represent a significant implementation measure that supports Housing Element goals. Additionally, new state housing laws now permit increased density in what have been low-density housing zones. The full effects of the Housing Component regulations and other state-mandated housing regulation changes won’t be felt immediately, of course, but will incrementally affect our city’s future housing diversity as new development ensues. 

For far too long, large commercial developments that create an increased need for service workers have been approved without requiring any new housing. Through the efforts of the city’s Planning Commission and City Council, that era has now ended, and we applaud and support Sonoma’s efforts to balance commercial development with new, and more affordable, housing. 

— Sun Editorial Board

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA