Opinion: Small businesses need affordable housing to thrive

Housing is the hottest topic of conversation in our bakery. We pass the early hours in the kitchen swapping stories about high rent, eviction and the trials and tribulations of apartment-hunting in a market that is mostly out of reach for middle- to lower-income workers.

As a husband-and-wife team, we own a small bakery in Petaluma, employing about 10 people. Small businesses like ours face challenges from all directions. One of the most intractable is high residential rents in the Bay Area. Our employees, who are all renters, are bearing a heavy cost.

Our chef, a single woman in her 50s and her grown daughter, was recently evicted after living in the same granny unit for seven years. She had invested her time and money over the years, making improvements approved by the owner at her own expense, lovingly tending the garden, and in making it her home, only to be evicted, because of owner move in. She was devastated.

Our baker, Mike, and his spouse and two children have been trying to move out of their studio apartment for the past three years because the family has grown. Since apartments on the market are out of their reach, they've been applying to subsidized housing complexes in both Marin and Petaluma, all of which have years-long waiting lists. They have gotten rejected in Petaluma because their household income is just a tad too high to qualify. Paradoxically in Marin they were told their income was too low.

The dilemma is not just for our employees. We hear this same story from our customers who are teachers, scientists and other professionals earning more than service-sector workers. People are having to move farther away from their places of work, increasing their commute time and their carbon footprint. When people can live near where they work, it helps to relieve congestion on the roads, reduce commute time, and improves the overall quality of life and the environment.

As of October 2016, the vacancy rate of major apartment buildings in Petaluma was under 3 percent; it is said to be even lower today. Rents for typical apartments in Sonoma County have risen 45 percent–100 percent in the past five years. New luxury apartment complexes are being built with very little, if any, affordable component.

Non-Profit Housing, a housing advocacy group, writes: “The economic recovery has seen the number of low-income jobs increase, with a net loss of middle-income jobs, and cities are not building homes for the largest and fastest growing segment of workers - those earning between $19,700 to $55,700 annually.”

In recent years Petaluma has added two new shopping centers, which created many low-wage jobs. Was there an adequate plan to house the workers, many of whom earn minimum wage or just above?

As small-business owners, we are painfully aware of the urgent need to increase wages and have been doing so to the best of our ability. Yet, our wage increases cannot possibly keep up with the rising rents.

When there is this much disparity, we can't rely on market forces to correct the situation. There needs to be an intervention. This monumental challenge requires creativity, collaboration and action from all sectors including all levels of government, plus developers, building owners, real estate professionals and community members. We must leave no stone unturned because this is a problem that requires multiple approaches to solve.

First and foremost, we believe there is an urgent need to reduce unnecessary displacement of tenants, which causes great emotional and financial stress. We need to look at “just cause eviction protections” so that tenants cannot be thrown out just because there is an opportunity for the owner to make more money. There is a need for a sensible rent stabilization policy to stop the out-of-control rent increases, which in practice also lead to evictions.

We need more subsidized affordable housing. The federal government defines housing as affordable if it consumes no more than 30 percent of a household's income. We must ensure that some of the most vulnerable populations, including people with disabilities, seniors, single parents with children, and foster youth have access to decent safe housing near public transportation. Our state government must adopt legislation to help fund affordable housing to make up for the dissolution of redevelopment agencies in 2011. Senate Bill 2, SB 3 and other bills are making their way through the state Senate and Assembly.

One innovative approach that all levels of government as well as the private sector can get behind is re-zoning for higher housing density and mixed-use development to encourage walkable and bike-able communities. Provisions of current zoning laws that were intended for the age of suburban sprawl need to be evaluated to eliminate requirements that increase costs in the case of smaller and potentially simpler housing solutions.

Do low-cost units need multiple parking spaces, particularly when they are located close to transit? Do “impact fees” that are designed in part to generate public funds for subsidized housing need to be assessed against small units, in-fill units and second-unit conversions, particularly in situations where the fees assessed have the effect of raising costs to prohibitive levels?

We as small-business owners cannot tackle this problem alone, and we do not pretend that we have all, or the best, or even many, worthy ideas as to the way forward. What we do hope is that by adding our voice, we can point to the urgency of starting a community-wide dialogue leading to action to reduce, reverse, and resolve the housing crisis that threatens our unique and beloved North Bay Area.

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