Code Red Housing Emergency

Every day the view from my office window changes. I am watching a 90-unit apartment building be constructed a few hundred feet away, and each new story raises my spirits.  In the aftermath of the fires, which destroyed six to seven per cent of Sonoma’s housing, we should all want to see new workforce housing.  Sonoma County’s housing deficit before the fires was at a critical level.  With the loss of thousand of homes, that crisis is now Code Red.

It is time to treat the need for housing as the emergency it is.  Nothing will work in Sonoma County without more housing.  LOTS more housing. Every city and the county should be pulling out all the stops to create housing, both for the immediate need to replace lost housing and for the ongoing need for more housing for the new workers coming to fill jobs Sonoma County companies are creating. This is the time to break down barriers, do workarounds, be creative and get it done.  And this problem isn’t just for the fire-impacted areas to solve.  All jurisdictions and all residents should be committed to adding housing wherever possible.  Housing is the ultimate solution to a better tomorrow.

Without LOTS of new housing, Sonoma County faces a bleak future.  Housing is the key to making all of the parts that shape the future come together.  If we want a strong economy, we need skilled workers to fill the jobs created by local companies.  Those workers won’t come, or stay, here if they can’t afford to live here.  Without LOTS of new housing, prices will continue to rise, pricing everyone but the top earners out of the market.  The only way to get prices down is to increase the supply.  We need LOTS more housing to do that.

More housing is also necessary to shore up all the other components of what makes a future bright: displaced families are emptying preschools and classrooms, reducing those facilities’ ability to have the critical mass they need to stay fiscally sound.  First responders are not able to live near the people and property they are sworn to protect.  The workers needed to rebuild what was destroyed lack temporary housing to do their jobs.  We need LOTS more housing to have a strong safety net for our community.

Now is the time to raise our expectations of what we want our elected officials to do.  Everyone needs to come off the bench and get in the housing game.  It is job one.  Every city and county should have “What more could we be doing to create housing?” on their weekly agenda.  Every bit of red tape should be cut and staff should be rewarded for expediting housing projects.  If there are barriers, they should be removed.  Each new home is a victory over disaster and a step away from worsening the devastation and lengthening the recovery.

Beyond delays in getting projects approved, factors like high permitting fees, high costs of construction materials and labor, hard to get construction loans and more, make it difficult to make projects pencil.  Now is the time to bring the cities and the county, bankers, foundations, builders and nonprofit housing providers together to see how to clear the way for housing projects to start construction. The City can speed up approvals, waive or defer fees; apply for funds from the Fire Relief efforts to help cover costs; or see if Community Reinvestment Act funds can be provided.

Councilmembers Healy, Miller and Kearny have an agenda request that, if adopted, would further push new housing along.  Let’s support them in looking at strategies to get projects Deemed Complete faster, to loosen restrictions on days and hours allowed for construction, expedite approvals and other ways the City could show that new housing is a top priority.  We are squandering our future by delaying construction.

The City can offer reduced permitting fees, remove hookup fees, and other incentives to spur creating more accessory units, Carving out a rental unit in a home where all the bedrooms aren’t being used, provides rental income to the homeowner and an affordable unit to a renter who likely works in the community.  If just a fraction of Sonoma County homeowners chose to do this, we could quickly add thousands of new rental units.

Many public agencies have land that could be used to build more housing.  Each city, school district and the county should look at what land they own that could be used for housing.  All pubic assets should be considered to help get the housing we need.  Casa Grande looked at housing before, let’s help them look at putting housing on their surplus property now. Let’s also look at temporary housing on the Fairgrounds for the construction workers we need to rebuild.

The lack of housing impacts everyone who lives or works in Sonoma County. And the impacts of failing to build housing will hurt the economic competitiveness, community fabric, quality of life, and resiliency of this county.  To get out of Code Red status, more housing – LOTS of it — is key.

-Published in the Argus Courier

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