Wednesday, July 27, 2016
[Sonoma County] City of Sonoma makes plans for affordable housing
Blog note: this article references a June 2016 grand jury report.
It seems every week brings another Top Ten ranking that shows how desirable it is to live in Sonoma – or how expensive. Two sides of the same coin, you might say: real estate agents say it’s simple supply-and-demand. If people want to live here, of course it’s more expensive to do so.
It’s a serious enough situation that it formed one of seven topics in the latest Sonoma County Grand Jury report, issued a couple weeks ago on June 29: “Spotlight on Affordable Housing.” Their summary included the deduction, “Without unrealistic sums of public funds, increasing the supply of affordable housing will be a long-term challenge for Sonoma County.”
So where are these affordable homes supposed to come from? Who will build them, and who will buy them? And what does “affordable” mean when, according to too many reports, many people just can’t afford to live here, period?
Those were some of the questions on the table at the joint City Council/Planning Commission meeting held in May, which included City Planner David Goodison’s 11-page report on the subject of affordable housing. “The starting point for discussing Sonoma’s housing needs is the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA), also known as the ‘fair share’ allocation,” stated Goodison.
In the North Bay, that assessment is issued by the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG, composed of jurisdictions in nine Bay Area counties. ABAG’s assessment is itself based on population projections in the decades to come. Based on the most recently issued RHNA, from 2013, the fair share allocation for the City of Sonoma totals 137 affordable housing units to be planned or built between 2015 to 2023, broken down as Very Low (24 units), Low (23), Moderate (27) and Above-Moderate (63) affordability.
Just listing those numbers doesn’t mean the City is obligated to build those units, however. “The city’s legal responsibility… is to show that opportunities exist that allow for the units to be built,” said Goodison. “It is not the City’s responsibility to fund and build every unit.”
Nonetheless, added Goodison, “it is evident that the housing market will not produce low and very-low income units without substantial incentives, including financial assistance.” That directly echoes the Grand Jury report, which called for elected officials and county administrators to “focus on those policies that can accelerate construction of all types of housing, and on building consensus for those policies.”
What separates those four levels of affordability – and a fifth level, Extremely Low or at risk of homelessness – is simply what percentage of income is available to go toward housing. Affordable housing levels are determined by the percentage of average median income (AMI) against housing costs – and the somewhat dated idea that a homeowner should pay up to 30 percent of his or her annual income toward house payments.
In Sonoma County, the currently accepted AMI for a four-person family for 2015 is $82,600. If your family income is that much, you’re at the median. (Median income for smaller families are $74,350 for a family of three, $66,100 for a couple and $57,800 for a single person.)
Ironically, earning the median doesn’t mean you’re not eligible for affordable income support. Since housing costs are so high in Sonoma, that a median income may not be enough to meet the 30 percent threshold for housing costs. So affordable housing units in the Moderate category may be open to families earning 100 percent of the AMI, or even more.
The City of Sonoma’s General Plan asks that any project of five or more units include 20 percent – one out of five – be made available for moderate income households. The several developments underway on West Spain Street are subject to this “inclusionary” rule, with one or more affordable housing elements included in the developments, based on their size. These are all allocated in “moderate” affordability category, the top income level that still qualifies ($99,100 and up for a family of four).
The sale price of such an inclusionary unit “has to be set in such a way that the mortgage payments do not exceed 30 percent of household income,” said Goodison. That means mortgage payments would need to be a little over $2,000 a month. The monthly payment for affordable rentals would be approximately the same.
“In terms how our programs are targeted, they definitely focus on moderate income housing, low income housing, very low income housing,” said Goodison. “There is a need for housing at all income levels, it’s just that it’s easier for someone at a higher income level to find housing – by definition.”
But what of the lower income affordable units that the city is committed to developing? Enter SAHA, the Satellite Affordable Housing Associates. They were the ones that developed the Valley Oak Homes at 875 Lyon St., which opened in the fall of 2013 to provide Very Low Income housing for 43 apartments, affordable housing that applied to the previous cycle of RHNA requirements.
“In my opinion it was quite a successful project,” said Goodison. “It’s well-designed and it’s well-managed, and it is working today to provide families with affordable housing.”
Now SAHA is developing 20269 Broadway, a 49-unit project for Low and Very Low applicants. That single project alone would meet and exceed the 47 unit target for Sonoma under the current RHNA objectives, but Goodison made clear that it’s not necessary that SAHA’s project accommodate Sonoma’s RHNA numbers. “If they tried to do some sort of one-to-one match with our RHNA numbers, that might work against them in terms of getting financing for the project.”
When completed, rents are projected to range from as low as $422 per month for a studio to $993 per month for a three-bedroom apartment. (Plans for the 20269 Broadway development have not been finalized by the city or county, so numbers may change.)
“The City’s housing strategy for many years has been to focus its housing funds on projects developed in partnership with housing nonprofits that are affordable at the very low and low income levels, with moderate income housing addressed through the inclusionary requirement,” Goodison told the Index-Tribune. “Sonoma Valley Oaks is a good example of that approach and the proposed Broadway development is also consistent with that strategy.”
Goodison noted five moderate income inclusionary units were constructed in 2015, and another 12 have been approved but not yet built. Add to that the 49 or so units at 20269 Broadway, and the City of Sonoma is well on its way to meeting RHNA affordable housing objectives.
July 14, 2016
By Christian Kallen