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Petaluma to discuss CASA housing policy

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A task force of stakeholders from across the Bay Area have been convening for nearly two years to try and apply a broader approach to solving the housing crisis, and Petaluma officials will be discussing the merits of their new policy package next month.

CASA, or the Committee to House the Bay Area, created the so-called CASA compact, a 15-year policy guide designed to help municipalities audit their development processes and expedite relief for an issue that has far-reaching implications on the sustainability of the region’s nine counties.

The Petaluma City Council will be holding a public workshop on the compact at City Hall on March 11. Elected officials and representatives from the agencies involved with CASA will be giving presentations to help local policymakers explore how the compact might apply in Petaluma.

“If you believe there’s a crisis and things aren’t working, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to expose and rip up the system,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who served on the CASA steering committee.

CASA is made up of a wide spectrum of elected officials, housing representatives, equity advocates and leaders from business, labor and environmental protection agencies – people that have historically blamed each other for causing the crisis, Rabbitt said.

According to the CASA website, the committee was assembled by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments in mid-2017 after the release of Plan Bay Area 2040, which had lofty goals but failed to properly address the sprawling effects of unaffordability.

The result of the 18-month collaboration was a policy framework consisting of 10 different “elements” aimed at producing new units, preserving existing affordable housing and protecting current residents.

While admitting that he was supportive of about half the items and hesitant on several others, Rabbitt believes Petaluma could benefit from elements like removing restrictions on accessory dwelling units, establishing housing minimums in zoning areas near transit hubs and – perhaps more applicable countywide – unlocking underutilized public land for affordable housing.

“One element alone is not going to solve the issues, but perhaps, as a whole, they might,” he said.

According to the compact, implementing it will require an active state legislature, support from Gov. Gavin Newsom, regional ballot measures in 2020 and beyond, and cooperation from every local government in the Bay Area.

There are currently seven state and assembly bills being processed and two constitutional amendments related to the compact, covering tenant protections, land use policies, streamlining certain housing projects, and an amended return of redevelopment.

The compact has been met with skepticism from officials that are wary of supporting a regional charter that might dilute local development procedures and limit their discretion.

Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller said she has concerns over some of the elements that would be difficult to enact in her jurisdiction, but like Rabbitt, also sees items that could be useful to help shape local policy.

“I look at it as a menu of things that could be done to help ease the housing crisis,” Miller said. “But I don’t see it as ‘You are required to do all these things.’ I’m not having that reaction to it.”

To fund the compact, CASA proposes using a combination of municipal fees, taxes and revenue sharing agreements between local governments to help raise $1.5 billion annually. The majority of the revenue sources presented would be voter-approved levies on property owners, employers and taxpayers.

Multiple elements present potential reforms on housing approval processes that would accelerate projects that often get ensnared in bureaucratic procedures. In recent years, projects have increasingly become unfeasible due to rising construction costs and the combination of impact fees and inclusionary requirements that aren’t always apparent in the beginning.

In Petaluma, housing projects like Haystack Landing on Weller Street and the Riverfront venture on Hopper Street have been stalled by incomplete applications or, for the latter development, attempts to sell the contract due to rising costs. Both are less than a mile from the downtown SMART station, and would add 451 units to the city’s housing stock.

“The CASA compact was developed by the MTC and ABAG, which have cities of every different size imaginable on them,” Miller said. “What works for San Francisco doesn’t work for Petaluma. What works for Petaluma doesn’t work for Sebastopol or Cotati or Cloverdale.”

The displacement of working-class families and unattainability of housing for future generations could turn Sonoma County into another Marin County, where residency is exclusive and workers are imported, Rabbitt said.

The main consensus between Petaluma officials at this stage is that more information is needed, and paying attention to the housing initiatives taking shape at the state and regional level will be paramount to responding locally.

“I’m very optimistic that we can do something to improve our situation with affordable housing, and looking for any tricks (that might help),” said Councilman Kevin McDonnell. “I’m really excited that this is happening.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)