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Petaluma should prioritize affordable housing


Petaluma’s housing crisis is bad and getting worse, and the many negative impacts on people’s lives are multiplying.

As reported by Argus-Courier reporter Hannah Beausang last week, a coalition of small business owners submitted a petition to members of the Petaluma City Council earlier this month urging them to address the dearth of affordable housing in the city, a trend they say is hurting their ability to hire and retain employees.

The problem is not new. Apartment rents have increased by as much as 50 percent in the last four years and the apartment vacancy rate has been hovering at between one and two percent. The average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment now stands at a whopping $1,900 a month, putting it well beyond the reach for many middle class workers, especially young people. But the high price doesn’t really matter much if there are no homes or apartments to rent.

For employees like Petaluma native Stephanie Reagan, who’s forced to work three jobs to pay the rent for the Petaluma home she shares with her boyfriend, the situation is grim. The 32-year-old works 12 hours most days, a schedule that she needs to maintain to continue living in her hometown with her family and friends. The couple doesn’t qualify for the city’s subsidized housing complexes and it’s been impossible to find housing in their price range.

Without employees who can afford to live here, the impact on small businesses can be severe. Angelo Sacerdote, co-owner of the Petaluma Pie Company, said some of his employees make just enough money to boost them over the line of eligibility for government subsidized housing, leaving them with few options. For those who do qualify, wait lists often range from 12 months to two years. Sacerdote is fearful of the long term impacts of the tight market on employees and business owners who may also be priced out. It just does not make sense for people to commute two hours to work in Petaluma.

Increasing the supply of local housing is the singularly most effective means to help solve the problem, and Petaluma does have a limited amount of developable land zoned exactly for that purpose. Traditionally, Petaluma officials had always made construction of low- and moderate- income housing a high priority, but not anymore. That’s because local funding for low income housing projects dried up when the state dissolved redevelopment agencies in 2012.

Petaluma’s redevelopment agency had been funneling about $3 million a year to affordable housing projects, which nonprofits like Burbank Housing and Petaluma Ecumenical Properties then leveraged to obtain federal grants to finance the construction of new housing developments. But in the absence of redevelopment dollars, there is now a huge gap between the very limited supply of low and moderate income housing and the burgeoning demand for it. And that gap continues to widen every month.

At their annual goal-setting session Feb. 4, Petaluma City Council members briefly discussed the problem, and kicked around a few ideas for solving it. One, the possibility of increasing fees paid by builders of large residential developments as an alternative to requiring on-site affordable housing, might help a little. About $5.2 million in fees are projected to be channeled into the city’s workforce housing fund from major development projects in the pipeline over the next three to five years, according to city officials, but the impact will be minimal.

Clearly, the city needs a comprehensive program to increase the supply of affordable housing. At a housing conference two years ago, a number of policies were suggested, including amending zoning laws to increase allowable housing densities, and easing restrictions on certain types of housing, particularly senior housing and so-called “granny” units.

On Jan. 1, a new state law went into effect aimed at streamlining the permitting of granny units, which are attached or detached residential dwellings under 1,200 square feet, located on the same parcel as an existing single-family dwelling.

The new state law lifts certain parking restrictions for granny units and also exempts them from certain setback and owner occupancy requirements. The County of Sonoma and many cities here in the North Bay and around the state have begun exploring how the new law can help in the development of such units, and Petaluma is expected to follow suit very soon, according to one local planning official.

Making it easier to obtain permits for granny units would help persuade homeowners looking for extra income, like empty- nesters, to explore converting part of their home to a granny unit.

But unless these and other policies are aggressively developed and prioritized, many low and middle-income people, including seniors and young families, will not be welcome in Petaluma.