As work progresses toward replenishing the more than 5,300 homes lost in the 2017 North Bay wildfires, builders and government officials in Sonoma County also are developing plans for new housing to ease the ongoing shortage.
Even before the fires, there already had been a decades-long slowdown in housing construction because of the economy and real estate development challenges. That led to a shortfall of about 30,000 homes just in Sonoma County after the wildfires, according to a county report.
Sonoma County reported that, so far, 42 rebuilds have taken place in the unincorporated areas and 633 are under construction.
On the permits front, Sonoma County has made progress in eliminating red tape to allow building projects to go forward, Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, said in the Feb. 19 Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference and Housing Summit, hosted by the Business Journal.
“It’s been a banner year,” Wick said, noting his agency had issued more permits overall in 2018 than in any past year. Permit Sonoma statistics show the agency issued 9,978 permits in 2018 versus 8,543 in 2017 and 8,241 in 2016.
Wick said efforts to more efficiently complete environmental reviews to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act had been instrumental in avoiding delays.
“We’re trying to take the CEQA equation out,” Wick said, noting environmental reviews, when required, were always done ahead of permitting and building to ensure projects would not hit environmental protection snags after construction had already begun.
Permits for constructing accessory dwelling units, or “granny units,” built on existing home properties has become an “over-the-counter” process Wick said, making it easier for homeowners who want to expand on their existing property.
According to Permit Sonoma, the county has reduced development-impact fees for the units on a graduated scale effective June 7, waiving traffic and parking mitigation fees for units smaller than 750 square feet and reducing them by half for units between 751 square feet to 1,000 square feet. Units over 1,000 square feet would require the full cost of fees.
Asked what the ideal housing scenario in Sonoma County looks like, Wick said the optimal benchmark would be “people aren’t spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing.”
Wick said another post-fires challenge facing developers continues to be the price of housing materials, including soft woods, much of which are supplied by British Columbia.
“I don’t think costs are going to come down any time soon and return to the levels that we saw before the (2017) fires,” Wick said, noting competition for labor and materials from other fire-ravaged regions in California.
New building materials and technologies like hybrid core and panelized walls could help offset those costs, Wick added.
“The market is responding but I think whatever cost savings we see will come from innovation and technology,” he said.
On the city level, building efforts continue to move forward.
Inside Santa Rosa city limits, 164 rebuilds are complete out of nearly 1,500 lost. Under construction are 1,023 rebuilds. There have been 191 permits issued, with construction pending; and 336 are in the permit review process.
Santa Rosa houses one-third of Sonoma County’s population and was the epicenter of the 2017 Tubbs fire, said David Guhin, assistant city manager and director of planning and economic development for the City of Santa Rosa.
The SSU Economic Outlook Conference on Feb. 19 also featured real estate agent Jeff Schween of Compass, Karissa Kruse of Sonoma County Winegrowers and David Bouquillon of Laulima Development, builder of the Station Avenue transit-oriented development in Rohnert Park.
Schween said he would like to see the concept-to-approval process for housing projects completed in a six-month time frame. To make that happen, he said the entitlements process needs to be sped up to the same “record rates” that government officials have reached in pushing permits through.
“Otherwise we’re talking about two, three, four or five-year windows to build 1,000 units and I don’t think anyone has time to wait for that.”
Kruse focused on the intersection of the local wine industry with creating temporary housing for agricultural workers.
“About 30 percent of our farmers already provide employee housing,” Kruse said of Sonoma vintners, adding some farmers provided 100 percent housing for employees on their agricultural land.
About 1,100 of these units already existed in the county and Kruse noted roughly 150 more have been built in the last 18 months, with another 37 set to be complete by this summer. Many of the units housed temporary agricultural laborers on H-2A guest-worker visas, which allow farmers to fill vacant positions with foreign workers, she added.
For Laulima, Bouquillon oversees Laulima’s entitlements, negotiating governmental agreements, developing a leasing strategy, and development management.
Last fall, the Rohnert Park City Council unanimously approved a $400 million redevelopment plan centerpiece of which is a mixed-used development with homes, offices, retail shops and a hotel on a 32-acre site once occupied by State Farm Insurance. Touted as offering a public square for the city, demolition and site work has begun on the project, retail and office spaces for the project are expected to open in the fall of 2020 and the entire project completed by spring 2021.
Bouquillon noted that government needs to do more about housing affordability and provide incentives for developers to invest.
In addition, construction costs are among the biggest challenges for developers doing business in the state, he said.
“Solving the housing crisis is an all-city, all-neighborhood problem that needs to be solved,” he said. “And for that to happen, the state has to make it easier to build.”