Petaluma lags in adding affordable housing, while a new plan would double requirements

As the city approaches the end of the current affordable housing cycle, a proposed plan for the next eight years will more than double the number of low-income units the city is required to see built.|

Petaluma remains well behind state affordable housing mandates as it approaches its 2022 deadline, and the city will likely face new, significantly more aggressive housing targets in the next decade, according to a report on regional housing needs and new proposed construction targets.

The city’s annual Regional Housing Needs Allocation report, which was presented to city council Monday, shows Petaluma has failed to build enough affordable housing at the low and very low income levels since 2015, reaching just 18% and 47% of targets set by the regional body.

That result sits in stark contrast to the number of units aimed at moderate to above moderate income earners – areas where the city has either met or dramatically exceeded state thresholds to the tune of 305% since the current eight-year housing cycle began in 2015.

“It’s very clear that the one category we have historically, at least in recent history, fallen short on is the very low (income category),” Councilor Dave King said during the Monday night meeting.

The Bay Area’s housing development plan is a state-mandated document that allocates minimum targets for new affordable housing in the nine counties and each of their cities.

In the current eight-year housing cycle that lasts through the end of 2022, California required about 188,000 new affordable homes across the Bay Area. The next cycle more than doubles the total across the region, to roughly 441,000 lower-income units.

When meted out across counties and cities, a proposed plan from the Association of Bay Area Governments calls for Petaluma to build 1,910 affordable units, a 156% increase from the current cycle’s 745-unit target for the city.

“It is a big number. It’s exponential to what we have seen in previous cycles and it’s one of the reasons why we have kick-started the General Plan update in tandem with the Housing Element update,” Planning Director Heather Hines said. “In order to designate sites to meet the (regional targets) in the future, we’re going to need to take a really close look at the city’s land use.”

Petaluma Housing Report.pdf

If the city is to reach the current housing goals, Petaluma will need to approve 218 low and very low income units by the end of 2022. Over the past six years, the city has added just 84.

City leaders have sought to drill down into the problem, and social justice advocates say the push for affordable housing must be addressed holistically, with an expanded focus that reaches beyond the numbers.

As the city embarks on its General Plan update and takes a hard look at its land use, zoning and building policies, North Bay Organizing Project’s Petaluma chapter Co-Chair Amber Szoboszlai says she’s hopeful the city will make decisions that address inequities in housing as well as increase housing stock for low earners.

“What makes this a wonderful and vibrant community is having all types of people living here, and all types of people deserve to be living here,” she said. “That’s what affordable housing allows us to do, to maintain that part of our identity.”

Sonoma County’s area median income is $102,700. For a family of three, very low income is defined as $51,150 a year, and low income equates to $81,850. For single-person households, those who earn less than $86,300 are considered below moderate income, with very low and low-income earners making between $39,800 and $63,650 per year.

In terms of raw units, a single affordable housing project is solely responsible for the 53 units approved in the two lowest tiers last year. But city officials have still touted that progress.

“I think it’s important to point out that in 2020, we reached our moderate (income level) units as required by (the Regional Housing Needs Allocation), so that was an accomplishment,” Hines said. “And we significantly bumped up our very low and low (income level units).”

Housing Manager Karen Shimizu also painted an optimistic picture of the numbers, telling council during her presentation Monday that the city has made great strides and will likely meet or exceed the targets of the current eight-year cycle ending at the close of 2022.

Council members applauded the incremental bump in 2020 numbers, but admitted the city still significantly lags in its ability to offer affordable housing for its residents.

Discontent with the lack of explanation over why the city continuously fails to build enough homes for low earners year after year, Councilor King floated a proposal for a housing workshop or study session.

“I need to know why. As a city, we need to know why, what the hold-up is here,” King said during the virtual meeting. “Because this is one of the most frustrating parts of receiving these reports annually, that in the very bottom (income) category, we fall short.”

The 2020 report also offered a first look at the impacts of a 2017 law that allows many California municipalities to streamline the approval process for eligible affordable housing projects, touting the measure as a possible tool for increasing production. The process was used for the first time in 2020, applied to a Burbank Housing project slated to add 50 low-income units, and to a 42-unit project led by MidPen Housing.

All of Petaluma’s 2020 units for low- and very low-incomes resulted from the 54-unit senior PEP Housing project along Petaluma Boulevard South. One of the units is designated for the property manager.

The report also marks the second full year under the city’s 2018 inclusionary housing ordinance, requiring all market rate projects of five or more units to either ensure 15% of the units are affordable, or pay a fee. The requirement exempted a handful of projects that were deemed complete before the Jan. 1, 2019, effective date.

Council voted 6-1 to accept the housing report, garnering a lone rejection from Councilor Mike Healy over staff’s addition of the 402-unit Hines Downtown project in its final report, which he says paints a rosier picture of housing stock despite a deal linking the project with the Corona Station falling through.

Council member Kevin McDonnell mirrored the general exasperation with the incremental additions to low and very low affordable housing stock expressed by his fellow councilors, particularly as the city confronts looming housing targets during the next eight-year cycle. Those targets will likely more than double current mandates, and could also bring more grievous penalties.

“A report is lovely,” McDonell said of the annual presentation. “But it’s a snapshot of what the existing situation is, and tomorrow’s situation looks worse – unless we change something.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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