How to Create 25,000 Attainably Priced Housing Units in Our County Without Public Funding

The Sonoma Independent Solution calls for rezoning 1% of the County to allow 15,000 rentals for under $900 and 10,000 homes costing under $200,000

For tens of thousands of citizens of Sonoma County being evicted from their homes or worried about rising costs, the shortage of attainably priced housing for moderate income people has become the most urgent crisis in the County. Every political candidate and elected representative speaks of the need to address our housing crisis, but nobody in County or local government has developed a plan capable of adding more attainably priced housing units than are being lost due to a rising market.

As a result—and in the absence of an Attainable Housing Solution like the one being proposed below by the politically independent grassroots Sonoma County Attainable Housing Coalition and the SonomaIndependent.org—the current housing crisis will worsen. (You can support this solution by signing our petition on the right side of this page, or found in full here).

Without a bold solution to this crisis, the only new rentals coming available, and the only new homes available for purchase, will remain affordable to only the wealthy.

Thousands, or even tens of thousands of our neighbors, as well as farm laborers for the County’s phenomenal agriculture,  and other moderate income workers, will continue to be priced out of our communities. Children who have grown up here will be unable to live as adults near their families, and many senior renters, our must vulnerable residents, will be forced from the community they have lived in for decades or have chosen for their retirement. They will be priced out by escalating costs and replaced by newcomers who can afford skyrocketing rents, or the million-plus dollar homesteads, which are, effectively, the only type of new housing that the County’s existing zoning and permit laws allow to be built.

The Sonoma County Attainable Housing Solution is a three-prong solution that would allow (at zero cost to taxpayers) the creation, during the next 15 years, of 15,000 new small homes rent controlled at under $900 per unit, as well as 10,000 small environmentally friendly homes in non-profit housing clusters, cost-controlled to under $200,000. It would bring $10 million to $15 million annually in new tax revenue for the County, and provide more than $100 million in additional income for middle-class landowners.

This solution could be implemented this year by a simple vote of a majority of our County Supervisors, along with a modest adjustment to the upcoming Community Separator extension that is up for voter renewal this year.

If implemented, this Solution could create 25,000 new rent and cost-controlled units of housing to house 30,000 people who will otherwise be forced to leave Sonoma County, or not be able to move here, because of the skyrocketing cost of housing.

An April 24 column in the Press Democrat by syndicated Bloomberg columnist Justin Fox titled, Why housing is too expensive, concluded, “I can’t help but think that this is a case where we may need both less government (in the form of a rollback of zoning and other housing regulations) and more government (in the form of housing subsidies for the poor).”

Sonoma County’s Supervisors are taking necessary measures to find and fund solutions for the County’s homeless, whose numbers have decreased by 23% since 2013. What they have not done, and what needs to happen now, is a zoning and permitting rollback that is focused, with laser-like precision, on creating thousands of units of attainably priced, new housing.

The Sonoma Independent Solution allows the marketplace to create an unprecedented boom in attainably priced housing by reducing expensive regulations on auxiliary dwelling units, and by re-zoning a tiny percentage of private land in the County solely for the creation of attainably priced housing, so that small landowners will be empowered to use the free market to address the County’s housing crisis.

For a variety of reasons—from density issues to accessibility to a lower carbon footprint—some of these attainably priced homes would be located near cities. With that in mind, our Solution requires amending the upcoming Community Separator initiative that will be on the November 2016 ballot to allow some of this attainably priced cost-controlled housing to be placed on up to 5% of the land covered by the law.

The Sonoma Independent Attainable Housing Solution would provide the capability for middle-class landowners to either sell currently unsaleable small parcels of land for non-profit housing communities of inexpensive small homes, or to become middle-class landlords of rent stabilized small house tenants, while generating millions of dollars in new tax revenue for Sonoma County.

Our Solution has built strong safeguards to ensure that for-profit developers will never be able to take advantage of these zoning adjustments for housing that is not attainably priced. All of the rental units will be controlled so that they can never be rentable for more than $900, plus increases pegged to the local rate of inflation. Those built as part of non-profit Community Land Trusts could never be rented for profit, or sold for more than $200,000 (plus the rate of inflation).

In addition, all the new homes created would be environmentally friendly and conscious of their neighbors. There would be no more than two housing communities of no more than 20 small homes per square mile. Most of the new modest, small-home communities would have solar panels to be net generators of energy, and would contain organic gardens to sustain our local food supply. All the new communities would be forbidden from using pesticides, Roundup, herbicides, or GMO seed. They would also not be able to build asphalt roads, or to grow commercial grapes or cannabis.

The Sonoma Independent and the Sonoma County Attainable Housing Coalition believes this solution provides a historic opportunity to reverse the current trend of new housing affordable only for the wealthy, and build 25,000 new units of attainably priced small homes, with zero use of taxpayer dollars.

We are asking those who would like to see our County Supervisors and officials support this proposal to sign and share our petition (on the upper right section of this page), which the Attainable Housing Coalition will be presenting to the Supervisors in late May.  As an independent non-profit media organization run by volunteer editors and writers, we also welcome your tax-deductible contributions, which can be made from our donate page here,  to help publicize this solution.

The Sonoma Independent Attainable Housing Solution is comprised of three parts:

I. Zoning and code variance for auxiliary dwelling units (“ADU’s”), likes tiny homes, garage conversions and mobile units, to be rent controlled at under $900 per month.

II. A zoning and code variance for small green Community Land Trust clusters of homes selling for under $200,000 per unit on 5% of the 17,000 acres of privately land around Sonoma County’s cities currently restricted by the Community Separator law

III. A zoning and code variance for small green Community Land Trust clusters of homes selling for under $200,000 per unit on 1% of 400,000 acres of privately owned Sonoma County land currently zoned as rural residential or agricultural.

Cluster of small homes in community

Jay Shafer’s rendering of what a new small house community might look like

I. Zoning and code variance for auxiliary dwelling units (ADUs) like tiny homes, small cottages, garage conversions, and mobile units, as long as they are rent controlled at under $900 per month.

What Sonoma County would do:

Sonoma County would remove or reduce the requirements and fees that make it prohibitively expensive for homeowners to add to their property ADUs, like tiny homes, small cottages, garage conversions, and mobile units. County code enforcement agency would allow sewage from new units to be added to septic system of existing homes or to use a composting toilet system or service that does not impact local groundwater.

In return, property owners of these new units would agree to the following conditions:

  1. Permanent rent control of all new units zoned under this plan: units can never rent for more than $900 per month, with annual increases limited to cost of inflation.
  1. One-year lease, minimum.
  1. No Air BNB or vacation rentals permitted.
  1. No land owner can own more than four ADUs.
  1. No more than two ADUs per acre, with a maximum of four units per currently zoned housing unit.

 

AUu Unit Beenfits box1b text (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

II. An allowance for small green Community Land Trust clusters of homes selling for under $200,000 per unit on 5% of the 17,000 acres of privately owned land around Sonoma County’s cities currently restricted by the Community Separator law.

What Sonoma County would to do:

Create an Attainable Cost Green Housing Exemption to Sonoma County’s Community Separator land to allow new Community Land Trusts to purchase up to 10% of the 17,000 acres of private land surrounding Sonoma County’s cities that is currently restricted under the Community Separator law to no more than the existing building permits allowed for that property.

In return, small home residents would agree to the following conditions:

  1. Community Land Trust: With community guidelines, a shared cost structure for the purchase of the property and improvements, and organizational guidelines for each Community Land Trust program.
  1. Permanent Cost Control: A clause for each community and each home stipulating no speculation and no rental profit. Homes must cost less than $200,000 each, in 2016 dollars (and might cost as little as $10,000 for a tiny home), and could not be rented at a profit. Any sales to non-family members would be made through the Community Land Trust, and prices cannot exceed $200,000, or the cost of the home, in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  1. Housing community size limit: Maximum 20 acres. Minimum 2 acres.
  1. Density: No more than two housing communities per square mile. In addition, all new attainable housing under this program must be clustered on less than half of any new community’s land, meaning that no more than half of the 10% of the 17,000 acres of Community Separator land, or 5% in total, will have increased population density. (This means that 95% of the land currently protected under the Community Separator law will remain with the same population density as it now has.)
  2. Spacing: Housing must be more than 100 feet away from the nearest neighbor’s property line.
  3. Maximum number of small green homes: 20.
  4. Minimum number of small green homes: 10.
  5. Maximum size of homes: 1,000 square feet.
  6. No pesticides, herbicides, Roundup or GMO permitted.
  7. Zero pavement added: stone and dirt roads only.
  8. No commercial wine or cannabis production.

Separator benefit box2b text (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

III. A zoning and code variance for small environmentally friendly Land Trust clusters of homes selling for under $200,000 per unit on 1% of the 400,000 acres of privately owned land currently zoned as rural residential or agricultural.

What Sonoma County would do:

Create an Attainable Housing Zoning Variance for non-profit Community Land Trust projects that can buy land for sub-division in County areas currently zoned as large lots that restrict new housing to 10 or 200 or even more acres per housing unit. This would allow owners of such properties to retain the land they choose to retain, and sell, for relatively low prices, excess land of up to 20 acres to be used for housing for a Community Land Trust set up by a group of individuals, or a religious or nonprofit group. This would not affect land restricted under Agricultural and Open Space zoning.

Interior of a small home with a loft bed by Jay Shafer

Interior of a small home with a loft bed by Jay Shafer

In return, residents of the Community Land Trust Attainable Cost Housing Communities would agree to the following conditions:

  1. Community Land Trust with community guidelines, a shared cost structure for the purchase of
    the property and improvements, and organizational guidelines for each small home community.
  1. Permanent Cost Control: A clause for each community and each home stipulating no speculation and no rental profit. Homes must cost less than $200,000 each, in 2016 dollars (and could cost as little as $10,000 for a tiny home), and could not be rented at a profit. Any sales to non-family members would be made through the Community Land Trust, and prices cannot exceed the cost of the home in inflation-adjusted dollars.
  1. No more than two housing communities per square mile.
  2. Green housing community size limitations: Maximum 20 acres. Minimum 2 acres.
  3. All new attainable housing under this program must be clustered on less than half of the new community’s land.
  1. Housing must be more than 100 feet away from nearest neighbor’s property line.
    Can we roll these out?

    Can we roll these out?

  1. Maximum number of small homes: 20.
  1. Minimum number of small green homes: 10.
  1. Maximum size of homes: 1,000 feet.
  1. No pesticides, herbicides, Roundup or GMO permitted.
  2. Zero pavement added: stone and dirt roads only.
  1. No commercial wine or cannabis production.

benefit box3b agri zoning text

The founder and Editor of the Sonoma County Independent, Greenberg is an investigative financial journalist with 35 years of experience with national publications. Greenberg writes a political blog that appears in the Huffington Post In 2015, he won two first prizes from the Greater Bay Journalism Awards for his coverage of the closing of Palm Drive Hospital. In 2014, he won first prize for analysis from Award competition for his coverage of the Monday closings of Sonoma County's libraries. He has been an investigative financial and political journalist for such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Forbes, New York, Money, The Bohemian, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Playboy, Self, Inc., GQ, The New Republic, and Alternet. He is also the author of several well-reviewed books. As a new media innovator who has developed a half dozen interactive web platforms and dozens of content-focused web sites, Greenberg is committed to enhancing responsive government and expanding media democracy. Greenberg is founder of Progressive Source Communications, a Sebastopol-based public interest communications company. In the past, he founded and managed two other online companies, TV1.com, and Gist.com. Greenberg’s political work included serving as Policy Director for the New York City Council’s Select Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment in the years following 9-11. His work resulted in more than $250 million of federal funds being re-directed to needy businesses and constituents in the impacted area. Greenberg has been Vice President of Fenton Communication’s New York office. His work on behalf of non-profit organizations has included communications consulting for Save Darfur, Stonyfield Farm, the ACLU, and the Lakota People’s Law Project. Greenberg holds a B.A. in writing from the State University of New York at Binghamton, and a Masters Degree in Law from Yale Law School, where he graduated with honors in First Amendment Law.
8 Comments on this post.

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  • Sonya Tafejian
    28 April 2016 at 11:28 pm

    I am 1000% in agreement with this proposal and I think that Sonoma County is the perfect place to move forward on an attainable housing program.

    There is no reason for the county to continue to charge permitting fees of around $24,000 for a second unit permit on properties that already have infrastructure in place. The county can help solve the housing crunch by making second unit permits much more affordable.

    All of the zoning changes recommended here, if adopted, would be a huge step in the right direction.

    I would recommend an additional zoning change that would immediately ease some housing issues for farm workers.

    We have zoning in the county called “Temporary use of a Travel Trailer” – which allows a farm worker to stay in an RV (or Tiny House which is certified as an RV) for up to “90 days” at a time. If the “90 days” was extended to “one year” then this type of farm worker housing could be permitted on a yearly basis. This would allow for actual ongoing farm worker housing, instead of housing that has to be moved off property after 90 days.

    Thank you to all who worked on this proposal and I look forward to seeing it come to fruition in the near future!

    Best, Sonya Tafejian
    Tiny House Consulting Sonoma County (on Facebook)
    707-779-9474

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  • Gabriella
    30 April 2016 at 7:36 am

    Thank you for this good work. We will share the news far and wide and propose it to our own Housing Commissioners in Ashland, OR. We will be following this story closely. -Gabriella and Andrew Morrison, creators and builders of the hOMe tiny house

    Leave a Reply
  • Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Learning From Sonoma County Coalition – TinyHouseBuild.com
    3 May 2016 at 11:32 am

    […] tackle this herculean challenge, the Sonoma County Attainable Housing Coalition and SonomaIndependent.org, have crafted an elegant proposal that potentially creates a win-win for the County and it’s […]

    Leave a Reply
  • Fairlight Ahlgren
    9 May 2016 at 12:47 pm

    Hello. I’m a co-founder of Valley Fire Phoenix Rising, a community action group created in the wake of the Valley Fire to rethink and rebuild Lake County in environmentally and economically sound ways.

    The greatest challenge we are facing is how to find solutions for the hundreds of displaced renters, some of whom lost their homes in the fires, and others who were pushed out of their homes by landlords, either because the owners were themselves displaced, or because the owners decided to sell or re-rent their homes at higher prices because the demand for rentals is so huge.

    We have noticed that Sonoma County is leading the way in several areas that our group, Phoenix Rising, is championing. The idea of marketing granny units as rentals, allowing for tiny homes, cluster housing, and rent control are poignant and hot topics here that need to be addressed here, now.

    I’m reaching out because our group is looking at solutions we can take to our leadership now, and they look to Sonoma County to set examples for what we can do here in Lake County.

    Please contact me and connect me with the right people to consult in order to provide guidance to Lake County on how to introduce similar ideas.

    With gratitude,

    Fairlight Ahlgren
    co-founder, Valley Fire Phoenix Rising
    (follow us on facebook, over 600 members strong!)

    Leave a Reply
  • Alyssa
    15 May 2016 at 12:49 pm

    This is a very interesting proposal and it would get my support with a few modifications. I think the cost controls are too much, but clearly well-intentioned.

    However, what on earth do GMOs have to do with housing? Having “No pesticides, herbicides, Roundup or GMO permitted” on these properties seems like a massive legislative over-reach. Not only is there a scientific consensus that GMO foods are safe, including this in housing legislation just seems a bit ridiculous to me.

    I would happily sign this petition if you remove the “no pesticides, herbicides, Roundup or GMO permitted” part. My thoughts are that if you wish to gain support for this very solid idea, why don’t you remove some of the aspects that many people may find objectionable? Get the overall concept approved, THEN fight for the cost controls.

    Thanks for your work on behalf of tiny homes!

    Best,

    Alyssa

    Leave a Reply
  • John
    10 June 2016 at 11:48 am

    The stick is always much bigger than the carrot.

    There’s a simpler solution that achieves the same goal without all the political drama. It’s call the gray market Accessory Dwelling Unit. You know… The bonus room above the garage that has its own bathroom and exterior door. There’s no kitchen, but a wet bar and some plug in appliances and a BBQ on the back patio. It’s already segregated from the main house by the laundry room and a locked interior door (careful to still provide emergency fire egress elsewhere, of course.) Or how about the existing downstairs family room? It also has its own bath, exterior door, and wet bar. Or that master bedroom suite that was put on back in the 1980’s? Bath, door, bar…

    Or there’s the alternative… aging RVs parked in strip mall parking lotsJ. Shopping carts and tents under the freeway. Whole families living day-to-day in sad motels. That’s our current “affordable housing” policy.

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  • Ed
    4 July 2016 at 4:54 pm

    I believe in the importance of adjusting zoning in response to the changing needs for housing in our county. What I like about this plan is that it appears to provide for the growing need for low/lower income housing with a low impact approach that does the least to alter the pastoral environment that gives this area its unusual appeal. As one “reply” mentioned, a spontaneous “shadow” equivalent to this plan is well underway. Like most grand new ideas, the creation of an “experimental” community which applies the program outlined int he article would be a great way to start. This would allow the plan to show its merits without throwing the whole community into a crisis of grand scale legislation and decision making that often can lead to the drowning of a good idea in the hysteria that change can provoke. I would hope that getting a pilot community approved and running ASAP could form a launch pad for a larger scale program that improved on the original.

    Finally, as much as I despise GMOS and pesticides, I think it is political suicide to tie these issues to your housing proposal.

    Thank you for your good work in getting at this issue and starting the much needed dialogue. All the best.

    Leave a Reply
  • Dave
    22 August 2016 at 12:46 am

    Governor Brown has proposed interesting legislation that will make it easier to build “accessory dwelling” units, the new term for a granny or second dwelling. The bill is AB-2299 and has made it through the assembly and is now in the state senate. It proposes some common sense changes that will make it harder for cities and counties to block reasonable projects. It’s not going to be as dramatic as adding 25,000 new units, but it has a decent chance of becoming law.

    http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB2299

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