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News: 03/01/2019

Bay Area aiming at housing shortages

Fees and environmental constraints are top targets to boost building

After talking up the Bay Area's housing shortages for decades, it seems some people are seriously trying to do something about it. An alphabet soup of somebodies, in fact, including the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the Bay Area Council (BAC) and the nine surrounding Bay counties, including Sonoma, along with almost every Chamber of Commerce, business, labor, and Realtor organization in sight.

The long-lamented housing shortage was exacerbated by the loss of 5,300 or more homes in the October 2017 wildfires that devastated the central county, hitting Santa Rosa, Kenwood and Glen Ellen particularly hard.

Squeezed in the housing situation are people making less than $100,000 a year - most people - who can't afford to buy or rent what little housing is available. That includes teachers, police, fire fighters and just about everybody who isn't near the top of the income ladder.

In Kenwood and Glen Ellen, high home prices and few affordable units mean fewer residents in town, more second homes, more vacation rental investment properties, fewer children in school, and less local retail, requiring more trips to town and more Amazon boxes at the post office. There are few services catering directly to North Valley residents, except for three grocery stores, a gas station, three car repair shops, and a feed store. Restaurants and bars do serve locals, of course, but would not exist without the tourist trade.

While it wasn't the cause of the shortage, the 2017 fires put an end to the stalling on finding a way forward by the cash strapped local and regional governments that regulate development in some of America's most expensive and jealously conserved real estate.

Aside from adding a number of second units to existing and rebuilt housing in the area, no one sees any major development in either Kenwood or Glen Ellen anytime soon.

The push for more housing could have a major impact on what happens to the Sonoma Developmental Center, however, where suggestions from housing proponents have called for using surplus state property to site affordable housing.

Regional actions

At the regional level, the Committee to House the Bay Area developed a plan over the past two years - the CASA Compact. While acknowledging that housing may take 15 to 20 years to fix, the plan calls for substantial action over the next three to five years: passing legislation, funding, and organizing practical approaches to getting more reasonably priced housing built.

While they support the concept in general, and many of the ideas included in the Compact in particular, Sonoma County supervisors are cautious about what's next.

“A one-size policy doesn't exactly work in Sonoma County and the North Bay,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said. “We have to talk about where the housing should be located, implementing legislation, taxing mechanisms to support housing and transportation options. There are no specifics so far.”

Second District Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is Chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this year, and Chairman of ABAG, also has reservations, though he signed the Compact in January, along with Rohnert Park Councilman and MTC President Jake Mackenzie.

“The CASA Compact is a consensus document, and I love some aspects and hate other aspects,” Rabbitt responded to questions via email. “We voted on a gradient and I was in the middle, BUT, knowing that it is important to be at the table (as opposed to on the table for dinner!), and the Compact is simply a legislative advocacy platform which will allow for plenty of discussion on each individual piece of legislation, I voted in support. I believe the discussion is an important one. I believe the Bay Area (and Sonoma County) has a housing crisis and I worry my own kids or an entire generation cannot afford to live where they grew up and that is a problem.”

Signing the Compact had immediate consequences for six-term councilman Mackenzie. He was stripped of his regional positions by fellow council members who were angry that he didn't consult them beforehand. Mackenzie has been a member of the MTC for 20 years (and was the current MTC Board Chairman) as well as the city's representative to SMART for 15 years. No longer. His ouster represents substantial opposition to the CASA Compact conditions from at least one city in Sonoma County.

The Bay Area Council, funded with a $950,000 grant from Hewlett Packard Foundation, has a strong agenda to push for more housing.

Their 2019 goal is to add 5,000 more accessory dwelling units in the Bay Area and see legislation passed that will streamline permitting and reduce overall building costs by 20 percent, working to reduce development fees and stringent environmental regulations. They will also push for large-scale zoning reforms throughout California.

County actions

Sonoma County renewed looking at housing solutions in November 2017. After discussing it throughout 2018, the supervisors opted to create a Renewal Enterprise District (RED) last June, aimed at developing local solutions that can be implemented over the next few years. The District was created in December through a Joint Powers Agreement between the county and Santa Rosa.

“The Sonoma County Transit Authority serves as the lead agency for the RED,” the staff report said, “and will work closely with the Sonoma County Community Development Commission to regionalize housing planning and production; pool and leverage financing tools and funding sources; streamline environmental review of housing near transit and employment; create regulatory certainty; strategically use publicly owned land; and put equity, affordability, and climate solutions in the center of economic strategy.”

Rabbitt said he has “always been critical of Development Impact Fees,” citing single-home fees running from $21,000 up $157,000. “CEQA reform is something those in Sacramento are unwilling to tackle in whole, but there are some streamlining opportunities within the CASA Compact Elements.”

The first two years of administrative costs for running the RED is being underwritten by a $1 million grant also from the Hewlett Packard Foundation.

Local groups weigh in

The Sonoma County Alliance, a business-oriented group that advocates for policy issues, teamed up with NORBAR, a large Realtor group, to study housing issues in 2017 and supports the CASA Compact.

“Most cities cannot tell you definitively how long a project will take to be approved and cannot tell you what the costs will be,” Rabbit said. “We need more transparency across the board.”

Teri Shore, speaking for the Greenbelt Alliance, said they are supportive of the goals, but are also cautious about what gets done about it.

“Reducing fees for small backyard units makes sense,” Shore said. “Cities rely on development fees to pay for parks, police, streets, water mains and sewers. Slashing fees might help developers but will cost communities more in the long run.”

She also noted that strong opposition to CEQA requirements may not be grounded in fact, referring to an unfavorable analysis of a state bill seeking to grant broad CEQA exemptions in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County. The bill did not pass.

Shore is also concerned that the City of Sonoma has discussed expanding its boundaries when the city's Urban Growth Boundary expires in 2020. These boundaries have set limits to city growth throughout Sonoma County since the 1990s, but must be renewed periodically. The practicality of building dense housing on city outskirts, however, runs counter to the need to build it near transportation hubs.

The state legislature has been considering ways to push regions, counties and cities into creating more housing, either though legislation or otherwise directing where it must be built.

To download a PDF of the CASA Compact, see

To download a PDF about the Recovery Enterprise District, see


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