Nearly a full year after wildfires wiped out 5,300 homes in Sonoma County, and after Santa Rosa and the county took swift steps to address a crippling housing shortage, Petaluma is finally on the cusp of taking meaningful action on affordable housing.
The city is poised to adopt new rules that would drastically increase fees developers pay to encourage construction of affordable housing. While the process has seemingly moved at a glacial pace — indeed the council again put off a final decision until next month — it will be worth it once we get a policy with the potential to actually provide relief from the housing crisis.
Rents and home prices have skyrocketed in Petaluma and in the Bay Area in general due to a lack of availability. Compounding the problem, the state’s abolition of redevelopment, a key funding tool for affordable housing, has meant the city has had virtually no tools to create affordable housing. Developers, left to the unfettered free market, have little interest in building affordable housing because it isn’t profitable.
This is why Petaluma’s imminent housing policy shift is so important. At the heart of the proposal is a requirement that developers of residential projects in the city dedicate 15 percent of their units for affordable housing. They would have an option to instead pay the city an affordable housing fee, which would be the equivalent cost of building 20 percent of their project as affordable, essentially making it cheaper to build the units themselves.
Developers currently have the option of paying an in-lieu housing fee, but the proposal would more than double the fee to discourage them from taking this option. Currently, most developers choose to pay the fee, since it is considerably cheaper than building affordable housing.
As it stands, Petaluma’s housing policy is not working for many who would like to live in the city. Rising housing prices are forcing many working class families to leave the area, meaning nurses, restaurant workers, teachers and others can’t live in the city where they work.
The anemic housing growth over the past decade has forced prices too high. When developers do build housing projects in the city, it is usually on the high end of the market, which at leasts adds to the much needed housing stock, but remains out of reach for a majority of working class residents.
By adopting a policy that incentivizes developers to build on-site affordable housing, we might actually get the units that the community needs to support a diversity of residents.
Without an inclusive housing policy, Petaluma will soon become a city of retirees, who bought and paid off homes years ago, and newly affluent tech workers from the Bay Area. Both groups equally have the right to claim Petaluma as home, but so too do working class families, who are very close to being priced out of this city.
Petaluma’s proposed rules should help create a multitude of housing at all income levels, ensuring that anyone who wants to live here can afford to do so, thus preserving our diversity and image as a welcoming community. We encourage the city council to adopt these rules next month without further delay.