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Housing Element update in process; county seeks ‘prohousing’ status

Sonoma County needs to meet ABAG allocation of 3,881 units
Housing Element update in process; county seeks ‘prohousing’ status


By Christian Kallen

Housing availability is widely recognized as one of Sonoma County’s biggest problems. Against this backdrop the county is preparing an update to its Housing Element, which identifies policies and programs that will support the provision of an adequate housing supply for citizens of all income levels.

The update is a plan and projection for the years 2023 to 2031, which by state law must be adopted by the Board of Supervisors no later than Jan. 31, 2023. Not meeting the deadline could lead to penalties for the county, including the requirement to update the Housing Element every four years instead of every eight.

The board held an extended discussion and review of the ongoing Housing Element update at its Aug. 9 meeting, with a team of Permit Sonoma planners and managers presenting a detailed overview of the update-in-process. Permit Sonoma director Tennis Wick led a team including program manager Bradley Dunn, project managers Eric Gage and Scott Orr, and consultant Jane Riley.

The Housing Element is one “element” of the county’s General Plan — a policy document that serves as a local government’s blueprint for meeting the community’s long-term vision for the future. General plans include seven elements in all: land use, transportation, conservation, noise, open space, and safety, as well as housing.

Because housing literally touches every resident of Sonoma County, the county gathered public input through Permit Sonoma, whose outreach effort was directed by Dunn. Feedback and ideas were received from a 75-member housing advisory committee, a series of focus groups hosted by local community benefit organizations, and three public surveys that tapped 6,378 participants who broadly reflected the county’s demographics, including low-income seniors, farmworkers, day laborers, people who were formerly homeless, Black residents, and others. The focus groups were conducted in both English and Spanish, and participants were compensated for their time. Based on that extensive input, Permit Sonoma made a detailed report to the Board of Supervisors, recommending “a six-point Housing Strategy to preserve, protect, produce, and affirmatively further fair housing.” That six-point strategy includes: – protect and improve housing units and programs; – incentivize development of urban housing sites; – increase production of affordable housing units; – maintain and expand funding for affordable housing; – promote and expand housing opportunities for special needs communities; and – encourage equitable and climate-resilient housing, including updated measures for equity and fair housing.

Among the objectives the update attempts to meet is the county’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) goal of providing 3,881 housing units during the period from 2023 to 2031, a goal set by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and approved by the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

The ABAG determines the total number of new homes the Bay Area needs to build — and how affordable those homes need to be — to meet the housing needs of people at all income levels. The RHNA allocation is significantly higher than it was for the previous Housing Element update, in 2017, when only 555 units were required.

To meet the new goal, the county can identify units in planned and approved residential developments, and the projected number of accessory dwelling units (ADUs), and demonstrate it has an adequate inventory of land (“sites inventory”) with appropriate zoning to accommodate the remaining RHNA. The county can also receive credit against its RHNA for units converted from market-rate housing to deed-restricted affordable housing, or for units at risk of conversion to market rate that are preserved as affordable.

An initial sites assessment in the report “demonstrates a shortfall of 735 units,” mostly in the verylow and moderate income categories. A series of steps to overcome the shortfall is outlined in the staff report, including taking a close look at vacation rentals and second homes, which take potential rental units off the market, encouraging the development of ADUs, and increasing housing density.

Fred Allebach, who lives in the Sonoma Valley and represented renters on the Housing Advisory Committee, said during public comment, “I’d like to encourage the county to be as bold as possible and convince us that you’re hitting it out of the park and not that you’re just meeting the RHNA that has a high level, because we know the level of need is even higher than that.”

Caitlin Cornwall, director of the Sonoma Valley Collaborative, noted the extensive materials presented in the meeting and looked for an opportunity for public input. “When will those windows open and close? We need to plan, we need to organize, we need to schedule with each other so we can talk, so we can comment.”

The meeting was advisory only, meaning the board took no action; however, when the Housing Element update is released in October it will require a draft environmental impact report, subject to public comment and review.

More information about the county’s General Plan Housing Element is available on the project webpage,