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Sonoma County's Gordian Knot

Columnist: Mike Martini
May, 2015 Issue
Columnist

Mike Martini
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Housing is a community issue, but a home is a personal one.

 
The recent, well-publicized encounter between Paul Gullixson and Governor Jerry Brown regarding housing in Sonoma County highlights the difficulty when public policy runs into self-interest.
 
We’re programmed to do things that we think are good for us. Note that it’s what we think is good for us and not necessarily what is good for us. But, for the most part, it’s served us well.
 
What’s of great interest and consternation is that we discovered early on that it’s in our best interest to work together as a community. By forming a strong community, we get security and efficiency. We also get conflict.
 
Gullixson invited Brown to Sonoma County to discuss housing. The governor’s response was that we don’t want housing in Sonoma County. Was he right? It depends on how you look at it.
 
Serving on the Santa Rosa Planning Commission (1992 to 1996) and on the Santa Rosa City Council (1996 to 2006), it became very clear that change was hard; change in the neighborhood was impossible. Wayne Goldberg (then head of planning for Santa Rosa) used to comment that he knew when people moved to the area because they’d say the town started going downhill right after they arrived.
 
At hearings, the reasons were numerous. There would be too much traffic; there would be too much noise; there would be loss of neighborhood character. It didn’t matter if you lived here 20 years or two months. Development in phases made so much sense on paper but proved controversial. New residents in Phase One stood arm in arm to oppose Phase Two—regardless of signs and signed notices that Phases Two and Three were coming.
 
Housing is a community issue, but a home is a personal one.
 
One new resident complained bitterly about a proposed development next door. His was a small in-fill site of five units that backed onto a vacant lot about 100 feet wide. Past the vacant lot was another small lot subdivision. When it was proposed to have similar housing constructed on the vacant lot, he argued that he bought a home in the country and we were about to destroy his scenic view—a view that consisted of a tree.
 
But my favorite argument opposing change was the impending loss in property value that new development would supposedly have on existing homes. It was certain doom if the plan called for any housing perceived for low-income families. In reality, I never saw property values come down in Sonoma County until a national housing bubble burst. Today, all the losses suffered have been regained.
 
Here’s where we find the conflict between what’s good for the community versus the individual. The return on investment in Sonoma County real estate has been—and continues to be—terrific. We live in a spectacular climate (ask Bostonites); we have a strong and balanced economic base (ask Texans); we have low unemployment (ask any European); and we live in a world class food and wine center (ask anyone you want). Limiting the number of living units in the face of great demand drives prices up (ask any economist). This is a benefit to those fortunate to have bought property as well as a source of considerable gain when they want to cash out.
 
But while we want to look out for our own self-interest, we’re also looking to support our family members. Santa Rosa is home to five public high schools and one private one. Each graduates 300+ annually, resulting in more than 1,800 young adults looking to move out of the family home (or so their parents hope). We’re adding far less than that number of new units. We’re living longer and people are still moving into the area. Without parental help, high-level job skills and a graduate level of education, there’s no hope to afford to have our children live in the town where they grew up.
 
So the governor is right: We don’t want housing. But Gullixson is right as well: We need housing. This Gordian Knot is the toughest we face. There’s no easy solution, but we can’t sweep it away and ignore it. We need to be honest with ourselves and our neighbors regarding our interests and needs. We can’t hide behind flimsy excuses or ignore very real impacts.
 
So I join Gullixson in inviting the governor and all policy makers to come to Sonoma County and have a real, honest discussion of our housing needs.

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