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Housing crisis not going away

Friedman's Home Improvement store in Petaluma Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

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When catastrophic fires raged across Sonoma County nine weeks ago, Petaluma opened its arms to more than 2,200 people who were suddenly displaced or left homeless. Church groups, non-profit organizations, business owners, local government employees and thousands of residents here joined together to provide food, clothing, temporary shelter and financial help for their Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley neighbors who suffered terribly amidst what quickly became the most destructive fire disaster in California history.

This generous outpouring of help was as impressive as it was heartfelt.

But today, as county, state and federal officials swiftly adopt innovative ways to streamline construction of new housing for fire victims, the cold silence emanating from Petaluma City Hall stands in stark contrast to this community’s altruism. Other than a request by City Councilman Mike Healy that the city set a meeting at some future date to discuss how Petaluma should deal with what is now an emergency housing crisis countywide, it’s business as usual at City Hall.

This is not how local government should operate during a crisis.

Even before fires destroyed approximately 5,100 Sonoma County homes, Petaluma and the rest of the county were gripped in a relentless housing crisis. With median home values hovering at around $650,000, and with median monthly rental costs of about $2,800, even people with moderate incomes had been priced out of the market and many had left town due to a severe shortage of affordable homes and rental units.

Hundreds of small businesses here were finding it nearly impossible to hire employees, and more people were becoming homeless. The vacancy rate for rental housing, which before the fires was hovering between one and two percent, is now close to zero.

Today, the city’s and county’s housing shortage has reached epic proportions. Thousands of teachers, health care professionals, first responders and others in dozens of different professions and trades need immediate transitional housing until their homes are rebuilt. If they do not get that housing, they will be forced to move elsewhere.

Losing our workforce would severely damage the local economy and our overall quality of life. Consider this: 200 physicians lost their homes in Santa Rosa on Oct. 9, and many have already begun looking to move away. If all 200 doctors were to leave the county because they cannot find suitable housing, where will you go when you need to see a specialist for a medical problem? The likely answer: San Francisco, and be prepared to wait a few months for the appointment.

Officials with the County of Sonoma and the cities of Santa Rosa and Sonoma acted decisively last month by approving new rules and amending ordinances allowing fire victims to move into temporary living situations such as an RV, a pool house, or a room at a bed-and-breakfast, and they paved the way for several new sanctioned locations where residents can sleep in their cars or trailers overnight. They put a temporary halt on any new vacation rental permits and waived or reduced permit fees for property owners who want to build granny units.

And what have Petaluma officials done? Nothing. The city’s housing crisis is as bad as it can get, and still no action has been taken.

Even when market solutions do arise, they are often ignored. For the past eight months, Greg Geersten, developer of the Deer Creek shopping center that houses Friedman’s Home Improvement Center, has been discussing with city planners the prospect of adding 100 apartments to the project. Geersten says that with city approval, the homes could be built in 18 months.

But just last week, the contracted planning manager for the city told the Argus-Courier that the project would need to surmount numerous hurdles before winning approval. Geoff Bradley, owner of the M-Group, a South Bay firm that provides planning services to the City of Petaluma, said of the project, “It’s a little tricky, but we’re definitely taking a hard look at it. Housing is so needed up there in the Bay Area, especially the North Bay.”

Bradley’s words ring hollow, and it now appears likely that several more months will pass with continued inaction on the matter. That’s unacceptable.

Similar building proposals that meet or exceed city requirements for well-designed, community-friendly housing developments are in a seemingly endless development review pipeline. These infill projects represent the kind of walkable development that city leaders have long touted as adding benefit to the city, yet they languish due to bureaucratic torpor.

Even properties owned by the city that are zoned for residential development sit vacant, with no plans of using them to provide shelter for the thousands of people in desperate need of housing.

Providing temporary and permanent housing for fire victims and Sonoma County’s workforce is not, exclusively, Petaluma’s responsibility. But we must do something to help our county rebuild. City officials should acknowledge this and, like their colleagues in neighboring jurisdictions, do everything possible to get the job done.