Commentary: A plea for housing solutions in Petaluma

Former Argus-Courier editor priced out of the city he loves offers cautionary tale for city planners.|

I recently submitted my resignation from the Petaluma General Plan Advisory Committee. At the end of this month, I will no longer have a Petaluma address, a requirement to serve on this committee.

I was motivated to join the GPAC to help shape Petaluma's future and ensure that working families -- the so-called missing middle -- would have an affordable place to live in our city. The irony is that my family has been priced out of Petaluma and we must move before the real work of the committee could even get started.

I offered my story as a cautionary tale for the GPAC committee as they seek to address the housing crisis. My family has lived in Petaluma for the past decade, renting two bedrooms. But our family grew this past March with the birth of our son, and we needed a larger home. For eight months, we searched all over Petaluma for a three-bedroom home to purchase. We made 18 offers, some up to $100,000 over the asking prices, and still were outbid every time. Even modest east Petaluma homes are fetching $800,000 and up in this market.

We were forced to expand our search and reluctantly settled for something that we could afford in Santa Rosa. We wanted to remain in Petaluma, but we just couldn't make it work financially.

I know that my family is not unique. There are many working families who are feeling squeezed out of Petaluma. If our leaders are not careful in planning the city's future, we will risk losing the diversity that makes Petaluma a special place to live. The city will just be a retirement community and an exclusive enclave for wealthy Bay Area tech millionaires. By not creating space for new and diverse people to live in Petaluma, we are essentially building a wall around the city, just like the wall at the southern border that many of us have opposed.

Those who follow the General Plan update will hear many different viewpoints and competing priorities. I urge our decision makers to consider the housing crisis as among the highest priorities to address through this process as it will impact all other parts of the plan.

Consider the city's climate goals, for example. There are those who will say we should not build any new housing in Petaluma because of the impact to the city's carbon footprint. However, we will still need teachers, nurses, firefighters, waiters, cashiers and other workers, and if they cannot afford to live in town, they will be forced to commute from more affordable places like Santa Rosa or Vallejo, adding cars on the road and carbon into the atmosphere.

Consider, too, the city's equity goals. The housing crisis does not impact everyone equally. For those who bought houses here decades ago, especially if they have been paid off, there is no housing crisis. In fact, just the opposite. As housing costs go up for renters and first time home buyers, property values go up and longtime homeowners stand to benefit. It is the renters and first time home buyers, more likely young people and people of color, who are getting priced out of the city. In order to make a change, it will take the will and courage of our political leaders, more likely longtime home owners who must act against their own self interest, to create policies that bring down the housing costs for everyone.

I know that the General Plan Advisory Committee will do great work and craft a General Plan that sets Petaluma on a successful path. I am honored to have been chosen and to have served, even briefly, with such dedicated, knowledgeable, passionate individuals. I wish I could have seen our work through.

Matt Brown is a former editor of the Argus-Courier and a former member of the Petaluma General Plan Advisory Committee.

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