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The need for housing is real


With Petaluma City Hall bracing for a lengthy public hearing soon on a proposed subdivision, this is good time for a bigger picture look at housing and growth, and also how Petaluma’s role fits into the regional picture.

I do hear complaints that growth is caused by uncaring developers. In my view, it would be more accurate to say that growth is facilitated by developers, but the root causes lie elsewhere.

The actual causes of population growth and the need for more housing are more discomforting because they bring to mind Pogo’s famous quip that “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Let me cite three factors supporting that observation.

First, people really like making babies. All people, not just developers. And babies grow up to be young adults who expect and deserve their own housing.

Second, people are living longer and they are, rightfully, quite attached to that notion. At a recent gathering of city officials, an expert on aging told the group that in America over the last century, life expectancy has increased by two years every decade. That means a 20 year increase in life expectancy over the last century. That’s great news, except when you consider the ability of the existing housing stock to house the population.

Third and compounding the second factor, more empty-nesters are aging in place, rattling around in three-bedroom houses with two bedrooms unoccupied until someone comes to visit. At the micro level, that’s a very nice way to age. And, full disclosure, my wife and I are happy members of the empty-nester club. But writ large, this phenomenon represents a staggering underutilization of the regional housing stock.

None of these three factors are going to change, nor should they. But together they exacerbate the housing shortage, and we need to acknowledge that in order to have an adult conversation about the need for more housing.

Of course, the tight rental market and soaring rents and housing values are not solely a challenge for Petaluma but for the whole Bay Area region and, indeed, most of coastal California. The MTC’s Plan Bay Area 2040 attempts to allocate the region’s anticipated growth among the various cities and counties.

Petaluma’s projected growth is less than the more central parts of the Bay Area, but it is still considerable. We should support Petaluma doing its fair share consistent with the Plan Bay Area 2040 document, but at the same time insist that the other cities in the region do so as well.

And Petaluma’s fair share means facilitating more housing units, of all types, on undeveloped and underdeveloped sites in all quadrants of the city within our Urban Growth Boundary. We need to do that if the kids who grew up here are to have any chance of living here as adults and starting their own families here.

We also need to do that if the teachers, nurses and service workers who make Petaluma function can afford to live here.

The city devotes substantial efforts to its planning documents, including the General Plan, the Housing Element and the zoning ordinance. People interested in these issues should review them.

The city’s SMART Station Areas Master Plan is of particular interest. Adopted unanimously, it foresees over time up to an additional 1,676 housing units near the downtown SMART station and 523 new housing units near the future Corona SMART station. Those new units alone will not be enough, hence the need to carefully consider housing on other appropriately zoned sites, as well as loosening rules for accessory dwelling units in existing neighborhoods.

None of this means that any particular development proposal shouldn’t be scrutinized for environmental impacts. But the big picture is that Petaluma needs more housing due to the profoundly powerful demographic trends described above, to which most of us contribute.

(Mike Healy is a Petaluma City Council member.)