Homes, housing, and affordability: The landscape affecting Sonoma Valley


by Caitlin Cornwall, Sustainable Sonoma, Project Director

The world of homes, housing, and affordability is complex and fast-moving. Here is a current snapshot, from Sustainable Sonoma's point of view, of the most important processes that affect the number, location, and price of more attainable homes in Sonoma Valley, from the county, to the city, to foundations, and cross-sector groups.

Sonoma County
What they’re doing: Several new County housing initiatives support building denser, smaller homes on existing residential-zoned land. A great 4-minute video explains these new rules. The Springs Specific Plan will change the rules governing business and residential uses, along Highway 12 between Agua Caliente Rd and Verano Ave. That plan is under environmental review. A three-year planning process will begin shortly to determine future uses of the former Sonoma Developmental Center campus, 200 acres where the question is not so much whether to build housing, but what kind and how much.

How it affects Sonoma Valley: Most of Sonoma Valley is governed by land use rules set by Sonoma County. Although the new rules allow for more density in existing residential areas, it’s not clear how much will actually be built, because many landowners are daunted by permitting and financing hurdles. The former SDC, now increasingly called Eldridge, has enormous capacity for new housing, but this faces serious infrastructure constraints and unknown public opinion.

City of Sonoma
What they’re doing: June 20 will be the last of three well-attended town halls to educate and engage the City’s residents. The second town hall featured an especially interesting panel with a long-time local developer, long-time local architect, nonprofit affordable housing developer, and county affordable housing official. The City has also created a Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

How it affects Sonoma Valley: While the City is only 2 square miles of the Valley’s 110 square miles, it’s a critical location for adding affordable homes. It’s richer in amenities like parks, shopping, schools, and transit than any other area of the Valley. The City Council includes strong housing advocates who intend to create a strong Housing Action Plan.

Community Foundation Sonoma County
What they’re doing: After the 2017 fires, the Foundation’s Resilience Fund determined that the biggest long-term resilience need in Sonoma County was for housing solutions. Their housing strategy is based on evidence-based research as well as 60 interviews with Sonoma County housing stakeholders. The Foundation is producing guidance for how to talk about housing in ways that are successful, has convened a cross-sector leadership group on housing, and is finishing a detailed strategy for action that will be available as soon as this fall.

How it affects Sonoma Valley: Sustainable Sonoma is adopting and adapting the Foundation’s findings on housing strategy. We are working with their communications expert and their housing consultant. The Foundation is one of Sustainable Sonoma’s funders.

Employers Housing Council
What they’re doing: At least 15 major Sonoma County public and private employers formed this coalition in 2018 to support workforce housing projects, and increase accountability for ambitious goals for new construction stated by Sonoma County’s Board of Supervisors.

How it affects Sonoma Valley: No Sonoma Valley employers are currently involved. Our larger employers include the school district, hospital, and hotels.

Sonoma Intersections Coalition
What they’re doing: Intersections is a county-wide coalition of equity, health, and empowerment interests, aiming to infuse equity into all housing solutions, and reduce health disparities and economic stratification. Sustainable Sonoma is participating in Intersections.

How it affects Sonoma Valley: Organizing and policy advocacy of the kind Intersections focuses on may shift the housing conversation in Sonoma Valley to reflect the stark impacts that housing has on people’s health and well-being.

California-wide legislation
Over 200 housing-related bills were introduced in the state legislature last session. The most ambitious bill, SB 50, would have allowed multi-family buildings near transit and jobs, no matter what the local zoning allows. Even though lower-population counties like Sonoma were exempted, SB 50 was defeated by affluent suburban districts. Similar legislation is expected to return in the next session. A 2018 law made it legal to build a cottage/granny unit/accessory dwelling unit/casita on most single-family residential lots statewide.

Private funders
Non-governmental housing solutions exist, though none is active yet in Sonoma Valley. Some communities have created housing land trusts (Sonoma County has one) to manage funds, build homes, and keep costs low permanently. Philanthropic and business interests can both be met through investment funds targeted for either building permanently affordable homes or protecting the low cost of existing homes.

Kim JonesComment