Santa Rosa poised to go solo on affordable housing bond

Santa Rosa City Council members worry too many revenue measures might dim the chances for a housing bond to pass.|

Following the collapse of efforts to place a countywide affordable housing bond on the November ballot, Santa Rosa appears poised to go it alone.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to advance a city-only affordable housing bond, likely somewhere between $80 million and $180 million.

The size of the bond will depend on the results of additional polling to determine what voters will support, work Councilwoman Julie Combs called finding the “sweet spot.”

Whatever figure is eventually selected, council members made it clear that the success of such a bond was their top priority, even at the expense of other revenue measures to prevent possible budget cuts or upgrade city roads and buildings.

Councilman Tom Schwedhelm in particular made a point of separating the housing bond from the other revenue options the council is considering for the fall, voting against advancing a sales tax measure or a bed tax increase in order to boost the housing bond’s chances of passing.

“(The housing bond) is the most important thing, and I am very leery of doing anything that would put it at stake,” Schwedhelm said.

The theme of prioritizing the housing bond ran throughout the meeting. A parade of housing advocates and residents of affordable housing urged the council to keep the housing bond separate from other revenue measures, and to keep the bond solely focused on housing.

There has been some consideration of crafting a bond measure that would pay for both housing and other city infrastructure needs. Examples of the latter included repairing potholes, sidewalks and firefighting infrastructure, as well as funding for recreation centers, playgrounds and libraries.

But those additional needs were seen by some as detracting from the core goal of the bond, potentially risking its success. Housing advocates were having none of it.

Larry Florin, chief executive officer of Burbank Housing, the largest local provider of affordable housing, said the wait list for its 3,000 units has swelled to more than 15,000, with people desperate for housing filling the organization’s lobby daily.

“You have a historic moment before you right now to be able to do something about this,” Florin said. “Please take the courageous vote and move forward with the housing-only bond.”

A city staff report estimated that $80 million could generate 593 new units of housing, while $180 million could build 1,333 units when the local dollars are leveraged to attract state and federal dollars.

The bond would be paid for by Santa Rosa property taxes over 26 years, and would cost $19 per $100,000 in assessed value for the $80 million bond or $43 per $100,000 in assessed value for the $180 million option.

Florin and others suggested the housing production figures were very conservative, with matching opportunities much higher than city estimates.

The new 60-unit complex in Fetters Hots Springs cost $28.5 million, but just $2.5 million in local funds were contributed to the project, the balance coming from state and federal funds, said Alicia Gaylord, director of housing for MidPen Housing Corp., which developed the project.

The focus on the success of the housing bond was so strong that two council members, Schwedhelm and Jack Tibbetts, wouldn’t support any further consideration of a six-year, quarter-cent sales tax to raise $9 million annually for general city operations, concerned it would give voters too many other choices.

That prompted a dire warning from City Manager Sean McGlynn, who reminded the council that it just passed a budget with a $14.5 million deficit. The city had held off making severe budget cuts during the recent budget process in light of the “opportunity” that a revenue measure could boost the city’s general fund, McGlynn said.

If the sales tax is off the table, McGlynn said, he warned he’d have to launch a “very expedited process to right-size this city.” As it is, the city will need to trim $7 million from next year’s budget, he said. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise, he said, because the already depleted reserves would be drawn down so low that “you will have nothing left in the till.”

Combs said she viewed the sales tax measures as a “backup safety mechanism” because as a general tax it only needed 50 percent approval instead of the two-thirds required by the specific tax. A city poll showed support for the tax at 66 percent.

But Schwedhelm said he was more concerned that asking the public to support the sales tax or the hotel-bed tax, which proposed raising $2.5 million annually by boosting the rate from 9 percent to 14 percent, might jeopardize the housing bond.

Though McGlynn warned the staffing cuts might be deep enough to make it difficult for the city to accomplish its goals, Schwedhelm, a former Santa Rosa police chief, said he felt voters were reaching the limit of the taxes they would support.

“I guarantee you any government, whatever the funding stream is, we can spend that money,” he said.

The council voted 4-2 to bring the sales tax back next month anyway, with Schwedhelm and Tibbetts against it. Their opposition, if sustained, could significantly dim the measure’s prospects of getting on the ballot or succeeding if placed there by a divided council.

Efforts to build support for a countywide affordable housing bond modeled after other recently successful measures in the Bay Area fell apart last month when the Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Alliance came out against the $300 million bond.

While it enjoyed strong support from the council and most in attendance Tuesday, the housing bond has picked up one influential opponent. Organized labor placed a loud shot across the bow of bond supporters Tuesday.

Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, said his organization supported the housing goals of the bond but opposed it as written because it didn’t include enough protections for labor. This included pledges that the construction jobs would pay prevailing wages, 30 percent of workers would be unionized, and union apprentices would get preferential hiring.

The council agreed to consider including such provisions in the bond measure next month.

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