The Kenwood Press
News: 03/15/2018

Permit Sonoma is ready to tackle housing crisis

Jay Gamel

A perfect storm is brewing for housing in Sonoma County: there aren’t enough affordable units on a good day, there certainly aren’t enough units on any day to accommodate the more than 5,000 families burned out by last year’s fire, and there aren’t enough units to house the workforce needed to build what the county needs to keep its economy healthy.

The county’s affordable housing crisis has been the source of public outcry and official hand-wringing for 20 years or more, but faced with the fire-induced crisis of relocating and rebuilding, prolonged discussion and debate are no longer options.

An Economic Recovery Plan commissioned by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, released in February, said the housing problem is dire enough to pose a threat to the local economy.

“By 2020, Sonoma County will need to construct 8,143 new housing units to accommodate forecast employment growth, 5,300 to replace homes destroyed by the fires, and 12,631 units to address preexisting affordability and crowding concerns,” the report concluded.

Solving the housing problem will take cooperation on many fronts: political, economic and social, but one factor that relates directly to all housing is the process of getting anything built in Sonoma County. Permit Sonoma, the rebranded PRMD (Permit and Resource Management Department), is the pipeline through which building projects must pass in unincorporated Sonoma County. Cities have their own permit departments and requirements.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin knows it’s a tough road ahead.

“There are other challenges to succeeding in the building effort – skilled construction workers to build housing are in very short supply, and staff resources at the County and City may not be adequate to entitle projects at a pace fast enough to build even a fraction of the 30,000 units in this goal.”

“Nobody wants to get a permit, but you have to,” Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said, noting that 90 percent of the county did not burn. Permit Sonoma was already doing record levels of business the week before the fire broke out on Oct. 8.

“This agency is important to the economy and has to do its job and do it better. Professional practice is about constant improvement.”

For example, Permit Sonoma is working to implement electronic plan permits and digital scheduling software. “We’re trying to move as much of our business onto the web as possible so you don’t have to commute to Santa Rosa, and 2018 is going to be a big jump in that direction.”

The rapid expansion of housing is also being helped by more efficient construction. “Builders are going out of state for panelized and hybrid construction,” he noted. Panels are just one of several modular building types which are sometimes combined to produce a hybrid type of structure.

And some major contractors have arranged to pool transportation for out-of-county construction workers. There is also a possibility that temporary labor camps can be set up, though that is in the planning stages with no definite solution, Wick noted.

County says it’s up to the challenge

According to the Economic Recovery Plan report, the county has issued a maximum of 1,000 permits in any single year up to now, with a staff of 120 and a $27 million annual budget. Based on the recovery plan’s figures, the permit agency will need to process significantly more to meet the demand.

Keep in mind that both the county and its nine cities are responsible for housing. Permit Sonoma is the county agency; each city has their equivalent department. As county policy calls for city-centered development, the Permit Sonoma will not have to process the bulk of the new housing plans.

Wick says his department is up for the challenge with the resources on hand, including a recent $20 million, three-year contract with an outside consultant to operate the Resiliency Center, a special fire-related permit processing group, housed in modular offices next to Permit Sonoma’s county center offices in Santa Rosa.

Time and money have been the greatest sources of discontent with the planning process, with permit fees running to tens of thousands of dollars and taking months and even years to wend through the county’s multi-stage permitting process.

Permit Sonoma depends on fees and service charges for the major part of its $27 million budget. The county general fund accounts for less than 20 percent of that. For fire victims, fees have been reduced as much as 30 percent and many of the larger impact fees have been waived.

“It will not require any increase in our budget to do what we have to do, Wick said. “We are restructuring the planning division and creating a housing team for project review, long range planning, and natural resources. We can take a project and evaluate it in more coordinated and meaningful way and get it through the system faster, offer support, modifications, or deny it.”

Wick cited the Boyes Springs Food Center Mixed Use Redevelopment project as an example of the accelerated permit process. The major subdivision is situated at Highway 12 and Arroyo Road in El Verano and involves both living and commercial units. Another project in Fetters Hot Springs is already complete.

“It’s an example of how we can work with the market to create a regulatory environment where we can get affordable, market rate rentals without government subsidy,” Wick said. “We are not going to be able to subsidize our way out of it to create the number of units we need.”

Permit Sonoma proactively sought out the owner of a 74-unit apartment complex that was destroyed last October in Larkfield-Wikiup.

“Instead of waiting for an applicant, we reached out,” Wick said. “Instead of 74, we asked them to build 120 apartments, saying, ‘We need the extra housing; we’ll help you through the system quickly.’”

The owner, more familiar with management than development, came up with a 96-unit plan. “He submitted his application in December and it was approved in late February. He’s now gotten unanimous approval of (the local) Community Advisory Committee, and is now underway with the building applications.” Wick expects the applicant will have the permit by May.

“I think we have the resources we need internally to do what we need to do for housing,” Wick said. “It’s really just changing the way we do that.”