Santa Rosa revamping housing plans in wake of fires

A homeowner displays an American flag amidst the Tubbs fire destruction on Willowview Court in Santa Rosa on Thursday Oct. 12, 2017. (KENT PORTER/ PD)

KEVIN MCCALLUM,

Santa Rosa was already facing an acute housing shortage when the Tubbs fire incinerated 5 percent of its housing stock.

Now the city wants to make sure it does more than just help people rebuild, but to also follow through on plans to expand the amount and types of housing the city offers.

“The fires only underscored the need to expand housing as well as replace the housing that had been lost,” city planner Andy Gustavson said.

Toward that end, the city is holding two meetings next week aimed at revising key housing policies.

The first is Monday, when the city holds a community workshop to revamp its Housing Action Plan. The 6 p.m. meeting at the Finley Community Center had been scheduled for Oct. 9, but the Tubbs fire, which struck that very morning, forced its cancellation.

The city has been working to update its permit processes and housing policies to incentivize developers to build more housing of all types. The meeting focuses on boosting incentives for developers — known as density bonuses — that could allow far more housing units per acre than the zoning for a property would typically allow.

Currently, the city lets developers who include sufficient affordable housing into their projects to build up to 35 percent more market-rate units per acre than would normally be allowed.

Projects that receive such bonuses are generally also granted exemptions from other development restrictions, such as limits on building height or requirements to provide ample parking.

State law, however, now allows density bonuses of up to 100 percent beyond what is permitted by zoning rules. The City Council last year instructed staff to consider allowing for higher densities, as well.

A study completed this summer concluded that, depending on the location, density bonuses of 60, 80 or 100 percent might be appropriate.

Under the proposal, the highest-density housing would be placed in areas with the greatest capacity to handle it, such as access to major thoroughfares and the city’s two rail stations.

“As you kind of leave the downtown and go more toward the single-family residential areas, the density drops off,” Gustavson explained.

Properties inside the city’s Priority Development Area, as defined by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission as a large swath of land along Highway 101, Highway 12 and much of southwest Santa Rosa, are most appropriate for the maximum level of 100 percent density increases, a city study found.

Properties outside those areas that are zoned for mixed uses — such as buildings with retail on the first floor and apartments above — would be eligible for bonuses of up to 80 percent.

Historic preservation districts would largely be exempt from the higher densities, as would single-family home neighborhoods with low-density zoning, defined as fewer than eight units per acre.

Density bonuses can be difficult for the public to understand because, unlike zoning densities, the calculations used to arrive at the number of total units allowed are often complex and not clear until a specific project is proposed.

The city commissioned an outside consultant, M-Group, to analyze how it should change its density bonus rules, and the white paper it produced is a dense 62 pages long.

Higher-density projects often result in taller buildings, especially since local height limits can be waived.

This can bring multi-story buildings in close proximity to single-family homes, though the city is trying to minimize such conflicts with its tiered proposal, Gustavson said.

Density bonuses are also awarded on a case-by-case basis, meaning just because a property qualifies for one doesn’t mean it will receive it, Gustavson said. The intensity of the surrounding land uses would be taken into account in any application, he said

The city is hoping to get feedback from a large cross-section of the community, including residents, property owners, developers and interest groups, to help inform a formal recommendation, which would likely head to the Planning Commission for public hearings early next year, Gustavson said.

The city also wants input on another key potential change to its housing plan, the inclusionary housing ordinance. Currently, the city allows developers to pay a fee instead of building affordable housing into their projects.

That has left the city open to criticism that affordable housing only gets built in certain areas of the city instead of throughout it. Developers have historically opposed the idea of requiring affordable units in all projects as onerous.

But the city is exploring ways to revise that ordinance with an eye toward getting more developers to build affordable units into their projects, also referred to as mixed-income housing.

The city wants to hear, particularly from developers, about what kinds of requirements and incentives can make such projects successful, he said.

The second meeting next week addressing housing issues will be a study session before the City Council on Tuesday to discuss the city’s immediate housing needs.

This could include housing for people displaced by the fires, or to shelter the huge workforce that will be needed to rebuild the 30 businesses and 3,000 homes in the city lost in the Tubbs and Nuns fires.

For example, an emergency rule allowing people to live in RVs on properties in the burn zones while they rebuild could be expanded to apply citywide, said David Guhin, director of Housing and Economic Development.

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey last week said the city needed to find ways to simultaneously rebuild housing lost during the fires and follow through with plans to grow the city’s housing stock.

“I don’t want to get five years down the road and be celebrating getting back to 2017,” Coursey said.