Affordable housing remains elusive in Petaluma
Petaluma officials this week laid bare the reality that most local housing development since the recession has disproportionately served wealthier residents, and tried to craft new tools to ramp up the production of affordable housing.
Of the 2,164 housing units in the pipeline, 152 are priced at an affordable rate, or about 7%, according to city figures. As economic forces and destructive wildfires continue to change the housing landscape, the city’s introspective look at its housing policies Monday revealed how – in the absence of state redevelopment funds – Petaluma has failed to effectively spur projects for lower-income residents.
To stimulate a better outcome, a shorthanded city council – with members Gabe Kearney and Kathy Miller absent – discussed a dozen policy suggestions created by planning and housing staffers, and heard from a spectrum of local developers at a workshop aiming to an uncover a framework for better responding to the housing crisis.
But even with the direction to staff, asking for potential changes to various fee structures, new zoning incentives and possible tenant protections, Mayor Teresa Barrett pointed out that the city had a limited ability to make a significant, quick impact.
“In general, we’re still just kind of chewing around the edges in terms of being able to provide (affordable) housing,” she said. “What we’re doing is what we can do, and we have to do it the best we can.”
In 1984, the city adopted its first inclusionary housing policy, a foundational first step that eventually introduced below-market-rate housing projects and homeless shelters like the Mary Isaak Center.
In terms of affordable housing, Petaluma boasts 1,576 units spread across 28 different properties, according to city figures. Over 700 are for seniors or disabled residents, and 169 are part of the first-time homebuyer program.
Burbank Housing CEO Larry Florin, one of the city’s affordable housing partners that oversees six local properties, said the nonprofit has a backlog of approximately 15,000 applications.
The combination of high demand and years of destructive wildfires in urban areas have caused building costs in the Bay Area to skyrocket, a point made frequently by for-profit developers that assert that they can only pencil-out market-rate projects.
As that trend took root in Petaluma, the city council passed a new inclusionary housing ordinance last fall that required each new housing development to set aside 15% of the units for low-income renters, an incentive created by instituting a more costly in-lieu fee.
So far, only two applications are being reviewed under the new policy, and developers have said it’s difficult to fund a project under the current requirements, according to city officials. One of the directives given to city staff this week was to explore possible adjustments to it.
“I do think what we did last year with our inclusionary housing ordinance is an important step, and I’d like to see it evolve,” said Councilman Dave King. “We’ve had two days short of seven months with it in place. Before we make it rest in peace, I’d like to see it have a chance to work. But I do understand the difficulties.”
The most attainable housing solution for Petaluma officials over the past two years has been policies to encourage the construction of accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which are add-ons to existing single-family homes.