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Civil Grand Jury Report Examines Affordable Housing Issues
New 10-year plan from State requires more effort from local governments to comply
Nancy served two consecutive terms of the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury in 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. The 2021-2022 Civil Grand Jury Final Report, which was released in June, features two investigative reports on the challenges of developing affordable housing in Sonoma County.
The State has set ambitious goals for affordable housing that Sonoma County’s local governments must meet over the next ten years. The Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury looked at the obstacles to meeting those goals, as well as the opportunities, in its 2021-2022 Final Report.
The first report focuses on the need to streamline the permitting process for the development of affordable housing, which varies from city to city. The other looks at the monitoring of existing affordable housing to ensure that the units originally promised are occupied by residents that meet eligibility requirements. The reports provide a useful, readable background on affordable housing in Sonoma County but first a little bit about the Grand Jury.
Each year, a group of 19 citizens and several alternates are selected to serve on the Grand Jury in each county in California. In its watchdog role, the Grand Jury makes sure that the county is governed honestly and efficiently, follows its own procedures, and that citizen complaints are considered. The Grand Jury decides which issues to research, interviews public officials and produces a set of impartial research reports that present their findings along with recommendations. The Grand Jury’s affordable housing reports respond to complaints by citizens along the lines of “why isn’t there more affordable housing in the County?”
“Do It, or the State Will Do It For You”
Affordable Housing: Past Present and Future explains how the State government’s strategic plan, through its “6th Cycle Housing Element,” mandates that local governments meet new affordable housing goals. As an incentive to Cities and Counties, the State has made available funding for affordable housing developments. However, if local governments do not demonstrate progress meeting mandatory goals, the State is prepared to levy fines or intervene in the process.
The required number of units for Sonoma County’s nine Cities and the County’s unincorporated areas is 14,562 units; with approximately one-third to Santa Rosa, one-third to the other eight cities, and one-third to the unincorporated areas of the County.* Sebastopol is required to build 213 units and unincorporated Sonoma County is required to build 3,881 new units.
The report details changes in State laws that aim to increase affordable housing and reduce the amount of time it takes to approve such projects. The report focused on the “inconsistent and complex governmental regulations” that include local housing ordinances and zoning laws that differ from one city to the next. The recommendations call for Permit Sonoma, the county agency that manages permitting, and the County and Cities to work together to streamline and standardize the various procedures required for approval. Additionally, the State’s new housing laws will make the permit process easier in certain areas, such as for in-fill housing (unused land within existing neighborhoods) and accessory dwellings (or in-law) units.
The report points out that there can be a “lack of political will from County officials or city councils” to approve affordable housing projects and some restrict where the developments are located. One example they cited was: “The City of Sonoma created or expanded three historic districts early in 2022, greatly limiting the possibility of expanding housing in those areas.”
There are a number of factors that inhibit affordable housing that are not easily controlled by local governments. Obstacles such as labor shortages, high land values, neighborhood opposition (NIMBY), environmental reviews such as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), inflation of materials and supply chain problems are reasons that projects are delayed or die.
The average time for the development and completion of new housing is four years!
Who is Watching the Henhouse?
The companion report, Affordable Housing: Monitoring and Compliance, states that “monitoring of compliance with Affordable Housing regulations has been inconsistent and often inadequate.” In short, there is a lack of government oversight to ensure that existing affordable housing units are occupied by eligible low-income residents.
The Civil Grand Jury found that on-site monitoring by the County housing departments was rare—even before the onset of the COVID-19. Instead, monitoring depends mostly on the required self–reporting by the owners or managers of affordable housing units for verification of income, occupancy numbers, and other information. Housing departments are expected to confirm this data, and report it to the Sonoma County Community Development Commission (CDC). There has not been enough staff or funding to do this work.
Last year, an October 9, 2021 article in the Press Democrat covered a story about an apartment complex owned by a local developer where some of the occupants were family members who were ineligible for the affordable housing units. Through citizen complaints and gathering of news stories, the Grand Jury found overall that monitoring for compliance has been a low priority. The report’s recommendations are to resume on-site monitoring and for the CDC to resume leadership of monitoring efforts.
Woodmark Apartments in Sebastopol
The California Department of Housing and Community Development put the responsibility on local governments to create plans and processes that allow the private market to build affordable housing developments.**
The Civil Grand Jury does not specifically name projects in Sebastopol but worth noting is Woodmark Apartments, an 84-unit 100% affordable housing project, proposed by The Pacific Companies. It would house those with very low income (defined as 30% and 50% of the Average Median Income (AMI) of $104,000 in Sonoma County), and 48 units would be designated for agricultural workers. The project has been in limbo since 2019 and continues to face opposition. Now the developer seeks to move forward under a State law (SB 35) that simplifies specific criteria that developers must meet for approval. According to an April 13, 2022 article in the Press Democrat, SB 35 is a “relatively novel state law that fast-tracks such projects in cities and counties that have failed to build enough new affordable housing as required by the state.” It shows how the State of California might begin to enforce its mandated goals, if local government moves too slow or is unwilling to overcome opposition.
We encourage you to read the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury reports for yourself. The reports contain a much more thorough explanation of the issues affecting the development of affordable housing in Sonoma County.
Link to all 2021-2022 Grand Jury Reports
* The State’s affordable housing allocations are established through the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).