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News: 12/15/2018

Sustainable Sonoma in learning curve on affordable housing

Many people in Sonoma Valley are concerned about affordable housing – or the lack thereof. Many people would like to see something done about it. None of this is groundbreaking news. What will be groundbreaking is how – and if – an unprecedented coalition of Sonoma Valley stakeholders representing businesses, government, infrastructure, the environment, and social justice – can find a creative way to solve this issue.

Sustainable Sonoma, first conceived of and launched by the nonprofit Sonoma Ecology Center, hopes to pool the resources of its diverse council to help tackle Sonoma Valley’s big issues, the top one being affordable housing. After gathering months of public input, Sustainable Sonoma released its first report, called Voices of the Valley, and met on Nov. 28 to discuss the results. The full report on the findings is available at

Top of focus at the meeting, said Caitlin Cornwall, Sustainable Sonoma’s project director, was to find consensus among the council, with more than 20 members, all representing interests in the valley that can sometimes be in conflict with each other.

“We all want the three P’s,” said Cornwall – produce, protect and preserve. “Going forward we’ll be digging deeper into the details where the devil might be.” Those details include defining what affordable means – affordable to whom? And some of the existing tools for protecting housing stock, like rent control or “just cause” eviction, may not have buy-in from all groups represented on the council. And if the council wants to advocate for green building, will that come at a cost to affordability?

One consensus drawn from the group was that Sustainable Sonoma doesn’t simply want to increase the number of affordable housing units in the valley, but also work to protect the housing already in the valley. “Not just so people can afford to buy, but also so people can afford to rent.”

There was also a consensus on the types of neighborhoods the group wants to advocate for: those diverse in age, ethnicity, housing size, sexual orientation, neighborhoods located close to services, with amenities like shops, walking and bike paths.

“None of this is shocking,” said Cornwall, “but this is the first time a group as diverse as this says ‘yes we agree on this.’”

The council has formed working groups identifying common goals and leverage points in the housing world where a group like Sustainable Sonoma can make a big difference. “Sustainable Sonoma doesn’t need to become a world-class expert on housing – that would take a lifetime – but we need to understand the leverage points where a group like Sustainable Sonoma is uniquely fitted for,” said Cornwall.

“A fair amount of Sustainable Sonoma is going to be built on relationships that cross over interest groups. People who have the time to cultivate these can help broker those relationships.”

The council will meet again in January.

The council will also continue to seek input from the local community. Cornwall said Sustainable Sonoma hopes to host another series of public input sessions early next year. They are also collecting public comments on housing at

To take on the complex task at hand, Sustainable Sonoma is currently in the middle of a $50,000 matching grant challenge. Donations made now through the end of January will be doubled by a generous local donor. Donations can be made on the website, or made out to Sonoma Ecology Center, designated to Sustainable Sonoma, and mailed to P.O. Box 1486, Eldridge CA, 95431. Donations are tax-deductible.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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