Petaluma debates regional housing plan

Given a suite of policy suggestions to help ease housing crisis, the Petaluma City Council was reluctant to embrace a regional strategy to confronting the problem this week, and instead opted for a more methodical approach with numerous bills that could alter regulations already working their way through the state legislature.

The council held a workshop Monday to discuss the CASA Compact, a 15-year emergency policy guide from the Committee to House the Bay Area that’s intended to help officials audit their development practices, and accelerate relief on an issue that is actively undercutting the economic sustainability of the region.

The compact has been met with a myriad of reactions since it was released in January, with many municipalities like Petaluma wary of the proposed $1.5 billion regional funding mechanism, or surrendering aspects of control that local officials believe is essential for smart development.

With the new council’s April 6 goal-setting session looming and housing expected to be a key topic, Petaluma’s elected officials spent Monday’s workshop engaged in a discussion that’s quickly gone statewide under the new administration.

“It’s important for us to get out there and make our voice heard in the process,” said Councilman Gabe Kearney. “I’m in favor of looking at it when we have more of the bills in front of us and can do more research before taking a stance, and can go from there.”

A snapshot of the crisis was provided by Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, one of Monday’s presenters. Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie also helped present a compact that has been so controversial that his own city council stripped him of longtime posts on major transportation boards because he backed it.

Since 2010, approximately 722,000 jobs have been added across the region’s nine counties while only 106,000 housing units were built, according to figures from CASA.

A recent report from the California Association of Realtors found that 77 percent of Sonoma County households did not earn the minimum annual income of $138,760 to purchase a median-priced home of $640,000. One in four renters in the county devote at least 50 percent of their income to rent.

“There’s a bit of blame to go all around in terms of how we got to the place we’re at,” said Rabbitt, who serves as the chair of the Association of Bay Area Governments, and is a commissioner of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the two agencies that assembled CASA.

“But the place we’re at is not working very well, and we know what the consequences of the status quo is – that prices continue to go up and we price more people out of the market. Our own kids can’t live where they grew up, and that’s a problem.”

The compact was the product of 18 months of collaboration between elected officials, housing representatives, equity advocates and leaders from business, labor and environmental protection agencies.

The 10 elements in the package were whittled down from dozens that were first put forward, and were established on a voting gradient that allowed the compact to be a consensus document, Rabbitt said. Although, he admitted throughout the workshop that there was much that he disagreed with.

By design, the compact is ambitious. To put the policies into action, it calls for a buy-in from cities across the region, and a complex revenue-sharing agreement that would include ballot measures in 2020 and beyond.

The 10 elements are separated into four cateogies: tenant protections, housing inclusion and capacity, approval processes, and funding. The goal of the compact is to produce new housing, preserve existing affordable housing and protect vulnerable households from displacement.

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer viewed the compact more as a framework for pursuing better housing policies, and disagreed that action at the state capitol should dictate how Petaluma addresses the crisis.

Instituting a just cause eviction policy, which previous councils have passed on, and exploring regulation reforms that could speed up approvals were elements she said she would like to discuss.

“I would like to see us get out in front of this, regardless of what comes down from the state level … and take a look at it internally to see if there’s things we can be doing (right now),” Fischer said.

Councilman Kevin McDonnell echoed the desire to be more proactive, and pointed to the interconnected issues that stem from a housing shortage and are stressing residents in every facet of their lives.

“We need to actually accomplish something here, and we haven’t been able to do it on our own,” he said. “To an extent, the rules are stacked against a better outcome just by an institutional process that gave us the suburban dream. We need to think of the future in a different way.”

Councilwoman Kathy Miller was also ready to start exploring how some elements could apply in Petaluma, inquiring about what public lands were in the city’s inventory, what ordinances could be changed to standardize impact fees, and how to potentially enhance transparency for developers.

Councilman Mike Healy was one of the most reluctant officials on the dais, and had apprehensions about funding mechanisms that could remove key revenue streams from the city’s coffers, like repaid housing bonds and future property taxes. He was critical of the compact and its shortcomings for pursuing sustainable policies that could better align with cities beyond the major metropolises.

“I’m very concerned about the impact that kind of approach will have on the existing neighborhoods, and putting a seven-story building next to a single-family home,” he said. “I don’t think that will be well-received in this community. I don’t think the authors of this document really got down to the level of fine-grain analysis about who’s trying to do the right thing in the region.”

With three bills pertaining to funding working through the legislature, Councilman Dave King suggested the state should “look in the mirror” for funding after dissolving redevelopment agencies, which were a key tool for financing affordable housing projects.

He, along with several other council members, had issues entering into a revenue-sharing agreement that didn’t necessarily guarantee funds would flow back to Petaluma, especially with a budget deficit on the horizon.

“A lot of the funding is looking for things that we’re already counting on. That to me is critical,” said Mayor Teresa Barrett. “We don’t have enough revenue as is. We’re going to be going out and asking you and all your neighbors to consider a tax and fund us so we can give you the infrastructure, support and services you want and need.”

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

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