Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Sonoma County

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.

Jay Shafer's vision of a tiny house community in Sonoma County

Jay Shafer’s vision of a tiny house community in Sonoma County

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

Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Sonoma County

Image from SonomaIndependent.org

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.

Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Sonoma County

Image from SonomaIndependent.org

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.

Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Sonoma County

Image from SonomaIndependent.org

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.

 

14 Responses to Zoning Changes That Can Save The Day: Sonoma County

  1. Dick Wright May 4, 2016 at 12:34 pm #

    I’m with you right up to “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.”

    Any time attempts are made to price control any aspect of the market, the unintended consequences bite back very hard. Whether it’s minimum wages, rent control, import duties, farm subsidies, etc. an equal, if not greater, number of people are hurt than helped.

    Minimum wage increases actually reduces the number of available jobs, rent controls while helpful to the renter deprives the owner of the fair market value of his property. Import duties raise the price of goods for everyone, farm subsidies take productive land out of use because the government pays farmers not to grow.

    Sorry to go off on an economics lesson, I embrace the tiny house movement and see it as the salvation for lots of folks, I just don’t think it’s wise to invite more government control into our lives.

    • Gabriella May 4, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

      Thanks for your thoughtful response Dick. What I really like about this proposal is that it’s the property owners themselves that make the choice to adopt the benefits of the provision. In other words, if someone wants to be able to rent their tiny house on AirBnB and charge higher amounts, they will have the ability to do that (they will just have to pay for the regular ADU fees). The main distinction is that the private sector itself chooses whether it wants to engage in this measure or not. It’s not a blanket measure that applies to everyone in the community. The other part, in terms of the change in zoning, is that the measure actually opens up a good chunk of land that is oddly shaped and doesn’t fit the mold for normal subdivision. This brings more money into the private sector that was not anticipated since current zoning laws have prevented them from being able to sell these pieces. So, the way I see it, these changes are actually removing a lot of the government control that has prevented people from being able to do what they want.

    • SusieQ May 4, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

      Yes, I agree, more govt control is the last thing we need, however how else can we overcome these ridiculous rents and housing rules…how awful is it that people who have lived there all there lives can no longer afford to live there. I am a retiree , like these people I can no longer afford to live in my hometown in Florida….Tiny House seems like the perfect answer for me except you can’t have one here on your own land even…I have 4 lots in the country..in the woods….and I still can’t put a Tiny Home on them it’s criminal…..but I agree …things will come back to slap you in the face where the govt is involved…

      • Alex May 18, 2016 at 3:09 pm #

        Housing rule is already govt control. We need to push back on reguations and subsidies and bring back a free market. People will pay what they can afford, as long as the regulations are minimal, prices will stay low.

  2. BELLE May 4, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    ZONING WAS DONE FOR A PURPOSE…IT WAS TO KEEP NEIGHBORHOODS FROM BE DEVALUED . MOST OF THOSE ZONING CHANGES WERE INITIATED BY THE LANDOWNERS IN THAT AREA THAT WERE TRYING TO KEEP OUT UNDESIRABLES SUCH AS WELFARE HOUSING, INDUSTRY, AND OR TRASHY TRAILER PARKS..

    WHETHER THE THREAT WAS REAL, OR IMAGINED, THE HOMEOWNERS GOT TOGETHER AND INITIATED ZONING ORDINANCES TO PROTECT THE VALUE OF THEIR PROPERTIES. I SUPPOSE AT SOME POINT THE LOCAL GOVERNMENT MIGHT HAVE HELPED IN THE PROCESS, OR MIGHT EVEN HAVE ADOPTED THAT ZONING IN OTHER AREAS CLOSE BY, BUT TO BLAME THE GOVT FOR THE WHOLE PROCESS IS RIDICULOUS.

    I AM NOT A GOVT EMPLOYEE…AND I DON’T AGREE WITH MOST OF WHAT IS HAPPENING IN OUR COUNTRY, BUT SOME LAWS HAVE A REASON AND A VALID PURPOSE. SUCH AS THE NEW INTERNATIONAL HOUSING LAWS THAT SEEMS TO INDICATE THAT LADDERS TO SLEEPING LOFTS ARE NOW ILLEGAL…AND THAT STAIRS WITHOUT ENOUGH HEAD HEIGHT ARE ALSO ILLEGAL..AND THE TINY HOUSES THAT DON’T EVEN HAVE A SINK IN THE BATHROOM, OR EVEN A SHOWER.

    DESPITE THE CONTROL EXERCISED BY THAT NEW LAW IRC CODE, IT IS REALLY FOR ALL OUR BENEFITS. IT WILL MEAN RETHINKING THE TINY HOME CONFIGURATION (AND, I DO HAVE A SOLUTION FOR THAT PROBLEM IF ANYONE WANTS TO PAY ME FOR THE IDEA!!) …BUT NOT GETTING BROKEN LEGS FROM FALLING OFF LADDERS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, AND NOT GETTING A CONCUSSION FROM FORGETTING TO DUCK YOUR HEAD AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, IS REALLY A LAW MEANT TO SAVE US AND NOT HURT US.

    LIKE ALL LAWS IN THIS WORLD, ONCE IT IS PASSED, THERE IS ALWAYS SOMEONE WHO CAN FIGURE A WAY TO GET AROUND IT!!! THIS IS PROGRESS FOLKS. THIS MEANS THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE CAN AFFORD THEIR OWN HOMES. DON’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM THEM!!! APPLAUD THE FORWARD THINKING GOVT WHO HAS PUT ON THEIR THINKING CAPS AND CAME UP WITH A BADLY NEEDED SOLUTION!! NOT ONLY WILL IT HELP THE TINY HOME MOVEMENT, BUT IT WILL HELP THE COUNTY TO PAY FOR THE EXTRA RESIDENTS PROTECTION, AND SO MANY OTHER HIDDEN EXPENSES THAT HAPPEN WHEN A COMMUNITY EXPANDS…AND IT WON’T COST THE LOCALS A PENNY MORE EITHER…THAT IS A WIN WIN FOR EVERYONE!!!

    I CAN’T IMAGINE WHY ANYONE WOULD WANT TO THROW A WET RAG ON THE PROGRESS!!!

    • ChrisB May 4, 2016 at 3:23 pm #

      Belle – an interesting insight into the “International Housing Laws” there. Don’t you feel though, that maybe some of that is simply more of the nanny state? If a person chooses to build their home with a loft ladder, which is simply an extension of the bunk bed concept, or indeed a requirement to keep their head down at the top of the stairs, couldn’t that be their choice? Why do we need to dictate to a person who stands at 5’1″ that their ceilings must be a minimum of 7′ tall? (numbers made up).
      Because the Sonoma initiative sounds like it will, in large part, promote developers rather than self-builds, then it does make sense to have certain building standards adhered to, but to impose those same regulations on someone who simply wants to build themselves a home that suits them, their stature, their finances and their plans, does seem like unnecessary intervention into the realm of free will.

  3. Gabriella May 4, 2016 at 2:07 pm #

    One thing that comes to mind for me is that it’s not enough to say “I don’t want more gov’t intervention” bc that is not a solution. That is merely pointing out what someone doesn’t want and if we all continue walking around only saying the things that we don’t want, no progress will ever be made. At this point in time, I think we all probably agree that something really does have to change. I would rather see the conversation go towards solutions. The proposal is an attempt at a solution. For those that don’t like this measure, I would love to hear other ideas. Maybe there is a solution that is even better and how great would that be!

    • /bob May 4, 2016 at 3:25 pm #

      I agree that this is definitely progress in the right direction. It may not be the same as simply removing limitation on house size, or even providing a variance for that. But it is still WAY better than the restrictions that eliminated Tiny Houses altogether. Besides, I’ve not read about a Tiny House that cost $200,000 for each unit yet so that is a non-issue. Besides, if there were one at anything close to that cost it would definitely be WAY over the top luxury and outside the whole theme of going tiny.

      Hoping more communities follow this lead and take it even further!

  4. Blake Voss May 4, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

    One detail that’s not mentioned is appreciation. Will this plan allow for the cost-controlled houses to increase in value – perhaps 3 – 5%? Same issue with rents. This plan needs to allow for slow growth of the rent and housing price limits.

    • Gabriella May 4, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

      Blake from what I understand it would only allow for the cost of inflation. I am also curious of how they would deal with this point.

  5. Ryder May 4, 2016 at 10:23 pm #

    I don’t see that this article is much about tiny houses. the Tiny House ™ is a rather specific thin in my mind…

    All this is… is just plans to build “crappy houses”. That’s a different thing.

    And rent controls… wow. As if that’s never been tried before (they *****always**** fail, and rents become far higher as a result). You’d think that nobody ever thought to look into the history of a thing.

    The amazing thing to me… is that free persons come up with the solutions. Jay Schafer is one such person.

    Housing crisis…. solved.

    So government jumps right in… and does something else.

    Private individuals, like Jay… are the common source of workable solutions. Rent controlled hell-holes are something else altogether, and we’d be best of “tiny house” was a phrase that is never associated with it.

  6. Sonya Tafejian May 4, 2016 at 10:30 pm #

    As a Sonoma County resident and a Tiny House advocate – I am 1,000% in agreement with this proposal.

    Contrary to the first comment above – this proposal actually REDUCES REGULATIONS! (It) “allows the marketplace to create an unprecedented boom in attainably priced housing by reducing expensive regulations on auxiliary dwelling units, and by re-zoning a tiny percentage of private land in the County solely for the creation of attainably priced housing, so that small landowners will be empowered to use the free market to address the County’s housing crisis.”

    Lastly, there is a typo in your article which changes the meaning of (II) above.

    You say: “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.

    It should say: “This change in zoning would allow for the purchase of up to 10% of the 17,000 acres surrounding CITIES IN Sonoma County that are currently restricted under the Community Separator Law.”

    (We do actually have a town called “Sonoma” in Sonoma County – making it even more confusing!)

    Thank you very much for covering this proposal here and best of luck for bringing this kind of innovative zoning to the Ashland area!

    • Dave November 11, 2016 at 6:50 pm #

      Could someone please define what a tiny house is in specific terms? I am presently building a not so tiny house in Sonoma County and am interested in the option of down sizing in respect to taxes, ins.,maintenance ,square footage costs etc. IS THIS POSSIBLE IN OUR AREA? Is this a question for Ms Hopkins ? (District five) Thank You

      • /bob November 12, 2016 at 3:52 pm #

        That is rather difficult to definitely pin down since there are a few different views on it.
        But from all that I’ve read on the subject I’ve held to these definitions of house sizes:

        Tiny House – about 400 sq ft or smaller, stud construction same as any other large house on a lot, maybe built on a foundation (also like a large house) or on a trailer base to circumvent restrictive building codes (so doesn’t really need to be long and narrow but can be square or any other shape since floor space size is what designates it a Tiny House), most use loft for bedroom but some have a bedroom set up on the main floor, insulation is usually better than a large house by virtue of less material needed to build which allows the cost of higher quality materials be incorporated.

        Small House – about 400-1000/1200 sq ft, same as above otherwise except bedroom on main floor or second floor.

        Medium House – larger than small house up to around 1800-2000 sq ft, typical construction found almost everywhere. Easily exceeds IRC requirements.

        Large House – larger than medium house up to 2800-3200 sq ft, typical construction found almost everywhere. Easily exceeds IRC requirements.

        Large houses and extra large houses are referred to as McMansions.

        These are my own opinions only gleaned from house descriptions in Realestate listings and descriptions of houses showing sq ft and described as a certain category of size that I have read over the last 30+ years.

        No idea what is possible in your area since every area is different. You’ll need to check with your local building department and neighborhood associations for what is allowed where you wish to build.

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