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Wanted: Petaluma housing


Unless you can trace your heritage back to the original Miwok people who first settled along the banks of the Petaluma River hundreds of years ago, you are not originally from here. You may have deep roots in Petaluma, and you may be descended from the McNear family or the Wickershams, but even those early Petaluma pioneers were once new to the city.

This is important to remember as Petaluma prepares to build homes needed to address a local housing crisis that has reached epic proportions. With median home values hovering at around $650,000, and with median monthly rental costs of about $2,800, even people with moderate incomes are being priced out of the market and may soon be forced to leave town because there aren’t enough affordable homes or rental units to meet current demand.

The existing vacancy rate for rental housing is hovering at an all-time-low, leaving local small business owners unable to find employees for available jobs. It just does not make sense to commute two hours to work in Petaluma.

The main cause of Petaluma’s housing problem is that new home building here has not kept pace with demand over the last 10 years. Even though the recession ended several years ago, there have been precious few new housing starts in Petaluma.

Yet despite this, one of the biggest complaints we hear people make whenever a new housing project is proposed is that it will add more people to Petaluma and somehow ruin our quality of life.

Many look at the situation from a very narrow point of view: Now that I have moved to Petaluma, I don’t want to let anyone else in. We hear this from Petalumans whose families have lived here for generations, from people who moved to the city decades ago and even from newer residents who have lived here only a few years.

In each case, these Petalumans were not the first to move to the city, and their residency did not ruin the quality of life. On the contrary, new residents add to the diversity of the city. They launch new businesses, create art and music, and do important jobs like teaching our children, nursing those who are ill or injured, and protecting our safety while serving as firemen or police officers.

After a decade of slow housing growth, which has pushed home prices to historic highs, Petaluma is finally poised to build a variety of residential units. Several projects are either approved or in the works, including the Altura apartment complex, which will provide much needed affordable housing on Baywood Drive, the 90-unit Marina apartments and the Riverfront project, which will eventually add up to 273 housing units. A west side luxury home development faces strong opposition, but if the project is scaled back, it could wind up preserving open space while adding some new homes in the high-end category.

A good mix of housing types is important for the city. New luxury homes will allow some homeowners to upgrade from middle class and starter homes, which frees up housing stock for those living in affordable housing, which provides space for those at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

The latest proposed housing development is a 184-unit mixed-use apartment complex between Petaluma Boulevard North and Water Street. Called North River Apartments, it has been wending its way through the city approval process for several years and would make a great addition to the burgeoning north end of Water Street and the new restaurants there.

The project is known as an infill development, which provides many benefits. Unlike projects on the fringe of the city, which could develop property that would otherwise be open space or agricultural land, an infill project usually removes a blighted parcel from the city.

In this case, the nearly four acres are choked with weeds, discarded shopping carts and rusting train cars sporting graffiti — not exactly a pristine nature preserve. The project would include bike paths and other elements to encourage residents to walk to nearby shops, restaurants and the new train station. It would include an extension of Oak Street and Water Street, along with measures to mitigate traffic that the development would generate.

Unlike Marin County, where residents are not very accepting of newcomers, Petaluma has always been a welcoming city. With the right type of well-planned developments, and in strict accordance with general plan and zoning precepts, there is plenty of room in the city for many new faces who will add to the diversity and quality of life that we enjoy here.