Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Sonoma County
Sonoma County, California, like many other highly coveted communities around the country and abroad, is suffering from a housing crisis. Residents that have called it home for their whole lives are being driven out, unable to afford the exorbitant and growing costs of housing. This dynamic is not unique to Sonoma county and many other cities and counties are similarly struggling to find a balance between growth/progress and price increases so high that natives can no longer afford to live there.
To tackle this herculean challenge, the Sonoma County Attainable Housing Coalition and SonomaIndependent.org, have crafted an elegant proposal that potentially creates a win-win for the County and it’s residents. SonomaIndependent.org summarizes the measure by saying: “The Sonoma County Attainable Housing Solution (SCAHS) is a three-prong solution that would allow the creation, during the next 15 years, of 15,000 new small homes, rent controlled at under $900 per unit, as well as 10,000 small environmentally friendly homes in non-profit housing clusters, cost-controlled to under $200,000.”
SCAHS’s authors calculate that if adopted, the measure will generate an extra $10 million to $15 million yearly in tax revenue for the County. They also estimate that these changes will provide $100 million in additional rental income for landowners. Sound like a good deal? It gets better. The cost of these changes to the taxpayers and the County? Absolutely zero.
BUT HOW WILL IT ALL WORK?
So what are the nuts and bolts of the Sonoma County Attainable Housing Solution? Here is the break down:
I. “Zoning and code variance for auxiliary dwelling units (“ADUs”), likes tiny homes, garage conversions and mobile units, to be rent controlled at under $900 per month.”
The intent of this provision is to create more ADUs by removing barriers that make them cost prohibitive. Home owners could apply for an ADU permit at a greatly reduced cost as long as they adhere to the rent cap of $900 or less per month. AirBnB and VRBO rentals would not be allowed (the full ADU fee would need to be paid if someone wants to go that route). Sewage lines would tie into the existing home system and/or composting toilets could be used. Potential revenue if Section I is adopted: $3 million to $6 million.The cost to taxpayers: $0
II. “A zoning and code variance for small green Community Land Trust clusters of homes selling for under $200,000 per unit on 5% of the 17,000 acres of privately land around Sonoma County’s cities currently restricted by the Community Separator law.”
This change in zoning would allow for the purchase of up to 10% of the 17,000 acres surrounding the City of Sonoma that is currently restricted under the Community Separator Law. There would be restrictions on density as well as a strong focus on minimizing any environmental burdens that new tiny and small home communities will have on the area. Estimated yearly tax revenue for the County: $2 million to $3 million. Cost to taxpayers: $0.
III. “A zoning and code variance for small green Community Land Trust clusters of homes selling for under $200,000 per unit on 1% of 400,000 acres of privately owned Sonoma County land currently zoned as rural residential or agricultural.”
Sonoma County has about 400,000 acres of privately held land currently zoned as rural residential or agricultural. Under this measure, land owners with large parcels could subdivide their current lot, keep what they want, and offer the rest for sale at reasonable cost for the express use of community land trusts. The estimated tax revenue here: $6 million to $9 million. Cost to County: $0.
One of the pieces I appreciate the most in the Sonoma County Attainable Housing Solution is specific language mandating that all this new housing be environmentally friendly. Pesticides, herbicides, and GMO crops would be prohibited as would the growth of commercial grapes and cannabis. The land trust communities would strongly be encouraged to generate their electricity with solar and no asphalt roads would be allowed in the new communities.
So what does this all have to do with tiny houses? The two main municipal barriers for full time tiny house dwellers are: building codes (which tell you HOW to build your house) and zoning (which tells you WHERE you can park and/or build it). Though meeting current building codes is a challenge for most tiny houses, in some ways the larger issue is zoning restrictions in communities. If SCAHS passes, it opens up the ease with which tiny housers can live in Sonoma County, not only as ADUs, but also as primary residences (assuming that the tiny house meets current building codes).
IS IT TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE?
Time will be the judge. But meanwhile, in communities like Sonoma, developable land has gone the way of the dodo. At one point or another, these desirable communities will need to change their zoning laws to allow for more densely situated housing. SCAHS creates a “back-scratching closed loop”: citizens create affordable housing and the local government removes the barriers that make it cost prohibitive. Personally, we hope to see this measure pass not just in Sonoma County, but in other areas struggling with the same issues. When the government and local community start working together, great things can happen.
Wondering what you can do to help? This proposal will be presented to Sonoma County Supervisors at the end of May. Sonoma County Attainable Housing Coalition and SonomaIndependent.org encourage everyone to sign their petition before this meeting and since this is a volunteer coalition, they welcome monetary donations which will help them to publicize the proposal.