State and local jurisdictions are spending gobs of time and money on accelerating the pace of creation of affordable housing. While not specifically mandating affordability, new state laws allow single-family lot splits, the building of ADUs by right, housing on commercial parcels, and shortened paths to housing project approvals.
Locally, affordable housing trust funds, new zoning regulations, and mandated affordability of a percentage of new housing units have all been enacted. Time will tell whether or not all this makes a difference.
In the meantime, low wage earners in our region are struggling to pay rent. A good case in point are the hotel housekeepers at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn; it’s nearly impossible to make it on their average $21/hour pay. The inn is owned by Brookfield Asset Management, an $800 billion private equity firm, which has been actively opposing the effort of the Inn’s employees to join a union. It’s worth noting that the Fairmont San Francisco pays its housekeepers $28/hour.
We support the efforts of Sonoma Mission Inn’s employees to join a union; it’s one way for their wages to increase and make it easier to pay the rent.
The State of California recently classified single individuals making less than $70,000/year as low income earners. This works out to an hourly wage of $36/hour, yet the state’s minimum wage is only $15.50/hour. See the problem? We will never solve our housing affordability problem until we bring costs down and wages up.
Government subsidized housing, what we now call Affordable Housing, helps bring the cost of housing down by limiting the amount that residents can be charged. In order to qualify as residents, a process of income verification must be conducted. Now that low income has been redefined by the state, more people can potentially qualify, although the metric used locally is a percentage of the Area Median Income, which might skew the qualification process.
Supply of affordable housing is already lagging behind the demand. All this takes time; getting permits, project approvals and building homes are all slow processes.
A much faster route to solving the problem is to raise the wage floor by dramatically increasing the minimum wage. In the City of Sonoma, the minimum wage, effective January 2023, is $17 for large employers and $16 for small employers. That’s only 50¢ and $1.50 higher than the State of California minimum, and doesn’t come close to meeting the increase in rent and home prices. Those wages are less than half of the state designated “low income.” And of course, city regulations do not apply to county businesses outside of city limits.
Unless the people who work here can live here, we also absorb the effects of increased greenhouse gas emissions from their forced commute. While the big hotels in our valley seem to have plenty of money available to build new guest rooms, they don’t appear to have any interest in housing any of their employees, and prefer to defer that expense to local government. It’s a systemic problem which requires systemic solutions.
Empowering workers is part of a systemic solution; the right to organize is an essential part of the solution. So is raising the minimum wage. Money for subsidized housing, which used to be provided by the state to redevelopment agencies, should be restored so that local jurisdictions like the City and County of Sonoma can meet local needs. The system needs to be reconfigured, from top to bottom.