Affordable housing competes with parking spaces in suburban Sonoma County
Six months after the Tubbs Fire, my then-husband and I received a registered letter from our landlady notifying us that we had 60 days to vacate our two-bedroom rental. We didn’t have to worry about cleaning up the linoleum in the kitchen, she wrote, since she was planning an extensive remodel that included new flooring.
It was the worst time to have to move. Housing costs were soaring, and our next rental had us paying 33% more—the same kind of illegal rent hike six local landlords were charged with, as reported by the Press Democrat in December of 2017. The community was overwhelmingly rallying to support each other, yes—and at the same time, the county’s economic stratification was coming into sharper relief.
Here we were, a social worker and an English instructor, with two kids under five, feeling far from Sonoma Strong. Behind this uplifting mantra was a housing problem that had ruptured into a full-blown crisis that few could ignore.
“In every single meeting, no matter who convened it, we were shining a light on a preexisting problem,” says Jen Klose, who was then serving as Santa Rosa School Board President and who now serves as Executive Director of Generation Housing (Gen H), a grassroots housing advocacy group that was seeded after the fires.
Of course, the housing crisis is the inherited, inevitable result of historical decisions and systemic issues that are far bigger than greedy landlords. Sonoma County was built on an idyllic, agrarian, suburban vision, not a more densely populated urban one.
As such, even as the population boomed in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, when about half of all housing stock in the county was built, the zoning vastly favored single-family homes. This has resulted in a county with 135,000 single-structure units compared to just under 15,000 du-, tri-, and quadplexes and under 11,000 structures that house 5 to 19 units, according to an extensive report released by Gen H this past spring.
Homebuilding stagnation since the turn of the century and the five thousand homes lost to the Tubbs fire have made Sonoma County an exceptionally pricey place to live, especially for renters. The median rent of $1,562 per month is almost $600 more than the national average (and surely you pay more than that, right?). Some 57% of renters and 41% of homeowners spend more than 30% of their income on housing. And there are fewer options available. Since the turn of the century, we’ve averaged 1,050 new units of housing a year, a dramatic decrease from previous decades.
“We need 14 thousand new homes, and more than a third need to be affordable,” says Klose.
“Without more housing, we’re gonna have a hard time finding the workforce we need. It’s easy to become complacent, but we need to be making every policy change we can so that as soon as interest rates drop, developers want to come to Sonoma County to make sure we can build housing quickly.”
But what happens when these much-needed housing projects are met with resistance?
One such project, emblematic of the obstacles that slow down or even prohibit higher density housing from being built, is a 36-workforce complex with four designated very low-income units located at 1650 West Steele Lane, designed by architect Ingrid Anderson and developed by Patrick O’Neill, who’ve already built several affordable housing complexes in the North Bay. The development, in an “infill lot” across from the Schulz’s Snoopy’s Home Ice, has sat empty for decades. Because of its proximity to the Coddingtown Mall and the Smart Train—which offer work, commercial and transit benefits for residents—this is the kind of project that state housing authorities, as well as Gen H, endorse.
But during the final zoning administrator meeting in January, O’Neill and Anderson were hit with an appeal from the Schulz organization on the grounds of insufficient parking. With some 300k visitors annually, “the international home of Snoopy deserves a little extra accommodation,” claims the Schulz’s lawyer, Erin Carlstrom. “The Schulz’s are very much looking forward to their new neighbors, but their chief concern is and always has been that the developer is not doing enough to accommodate parking for everyone.”
With a price tag of some $35k per parking space—which, unlike housing, does not generate a return on investment—accommodating parking for everyone is costly and, according to the state of California’s new policies, no longer required in places that are within half a mile of a light rail station, like West Steele Lane. Still, the complex plans to provide one parking spot per unit.
“We went to great lengths to do a focused traffic report,” says Anderson, adding that “the zoning administrator herself said she looked back at 10 years of aerial footage and never found a single case of their parking lots being full.” Anderson cherishes the beloved trifecta of children’s museum, art museum, and ice-skating rink that makes up the Schulz complex. “We all regard this area with great affection,” she tells me, “so it’s shocking to us that they would react so strongly against a family apartment building.”
“If we continue to build free/cheap parking for cars and expensive housing for people, we will not get out of this housing shortage,” says Josh Shipper, Gen H’s Director of Special Initiatives. “This is a great example of affordable, climate-friendly housing that is being helped by state incentives but is in jeopardy from local discretionary review.”
On August 8, after months of delayed hearings, the Santa Rosa City Council voted to deny the Schulz’s appeal. Santa Rosa was recently ranked second in the state for its pro-housing initiatives.
Another way to better streamline the building process, according to Shipper, is to phase out the design review board, a holdover from another era. “It’s not that intentions are bad, but you are seeking to please the personal preferences of people rather than objective standards,” he explains. “The more scrutiny you put on multi-family homes, the costlier it becomes. It’s more bureaucratic oversight not beholden to the public values of adding more affordable housing.”
Unlike, say, zoning administrators, these board members are not elected officials, but volunteers who exert considerable control over the aesthetics of homes and buildings. Currently, the board’s members are 25% women, 15% non-white, and 5% Latine—obviously not representative of the County’s demographics in which nearly 30% of our residents are Latine.
“Their scope of authority is only over matters of design,” notes Anderson, “but they are commenting on matters like parking and crime, which they have no expertise or education in. The impact is so negative and costs tens of thousands of dollars for every project.”
My husband and I are both still renters, though no longer together. I often wonder if, as a single mom, I will ever be able to own a home in this county, or if, like others in my age bracket, I have a 50/50 chance of leaving (as reported by Gen H). Spending $21k a year on rent does not afford me much to squirrel away for a future down payment, despite being fortunate enough to rent an under-market, light-filled two-bedroom duplex in a lovely downtown neighborhood.
My daughters and I love walking to the library, nearby playgrounds, and corner market for ice cream, and I’m grateful to be able to swap four wheels for two for an easy bike commute to the school where I teach.
Though mostly single-family homes, the neighborhood also has a nice mix of duplexes and multiplexes, which allows both homeowners and renters to live there. With an eye for the potential for greater density, Anderson remarks, “And that neighborhood could even go up a little higher.”