Much has been written about the housing affordability problem in California, and across the country. I’m going to offer a local perspective of how we continue to fail to address barriers to developing more housing, which is the core of the issue. I live and work as an architect in Sebastopol, CA. A town of about 7,500 people in Sonoma County, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. It’s a desirable community which definitely contributes to the high cost of housing. But we have done very little to address the housing affordability crisis.
As an example of how crazy housing prices are in Sebastopol a 1,500 sf 2-bedroom 1 bath home a couple doors down from me recently sold for $765,000. It’s in a great neighborhood within walking distance of downtown. And while the home is charming, it definitely needed some TLC. The elderly couple that moved out had lived in the home since the 1950’s, and that’s about the last time it was redecorated. Needless to say, $765,000 for a 2-bedroom fixer-upper is not affordable to most people. A quick scan of Zillow and you can see, other than condos, there is nothing in Sebastopol valued for less than $500,000, and generally not much less than $600,000.
The problem is that we have been building very little housing in Sebastopol in recent years. This is the same problem across California. Supply has not come close to keeping up with demand. A primary reason for the lack of housing construction is that our land use regulations, along with local resistance, have made it very difficult to build housing. Most of Sebastopol is zoned for single-family homes only. In fact, 41% of the land in Sebastopol is zoned for single-family homes only. Parcels zoned for multi-family land uses account for 10%. (13% of the land is Community Facilities which is schools, parks, the library and city hall, 10% is Wetland or Open Space)
It’s not hard to see that by devoting 41% of the land in our city to the most expensive type of housing has resulted in expensive housing. This type of zoning has been referred to as exclusionary zoning because only people that can afford to buy or rent a single-family home, the most expensive kind of housing, get to live in the neighborhood, thereby excluding lower income people who are often minorities. And in Sebastopol, as I’ve noted, there is nothing available in those neighborhoods for less than $500,000. Some single-family homes in Sebastopol are rentals, but those are not inexpensive either. The 2-bedroom home I mentioned above has been rented for over $3,000.
There has been a lot of talk by our elected officials about the need for more affordable housing, but when push comes to shove and decisions need to be made that could open the doors to more housing development our leaders take a pass and we continue on with business as usual.
During Sebastopol’s recent zoning code update, as a member of the Planning Commission, I tried to introduce several measures that I felt would loosen restrictions and allow for the creation of more housing. What I thought would be a significant ‘win’ was the creation of a new housing zone. We now have a zone, designated as R5, which ‘is applicable to areas appropriate for high density single family, townhome, condominium, duplex, triplex, fourplex residential uses and allows densities up to 12 units per acre.’ (And I have to say that I hardly consider 12 units/acre high density. You would need a parcel size of 10,950 to allow a triplex to be built.) This type of housing is often referred to a ‘Missing Middle‘ housing. The type of housing that used to be common in our pre-1950’s neighborhoods but since then has all but disappeared. Multiple units on a single property are inherently more affordable. The cost of the land is fixed and the more units that the cost can be spread over, the more affordable they become.
My preference was to allow this zone across all areas currently designated as medium density single family residential, about 33% of the town. This didn’t go over well with other Planning Commissioners, so I tried to get it across the older parts of town, within walking distance to downtown. That didn’t fly either. In the end the Planning Commission approved a bit of a patchwork in a few blocks close to downtown. The final Zoning Code approved by the City Council removed all of the R5 designation with the exception of 6 lots at the edge of town that already were developed with duplexes and 3 other lots in a residential neighborhood close to downtown. And I really don’t know why those 3 lots were picked. There is nothing unique about them and from what I can tell one is a duplex and the other 2 are single-family homes.
So the City Council is clearly not willing to allow multi-unit, traditional residential development in existing residential neighborhoods which would create more affordable housing. Other communities are revising their zoning codes in just this way. Minneapolis is the largest city to have eliminated single-family zoning.
A second suggestion for the zoning code update was to allow exclusively residential projects in the Office Commercial zone, which essentially lines the main thoroughfare through town, outside of the downtown core (red on the zoning map above). Currently, residential is only allowed in the Office Commercial zone when part of a mixed-use project or with a Use Permit. When I argued for allowing residential uses ‘by right’ the response from other planning commissioners was, ‘It’s just a Use Permit, no big deal.’ But it is a big deal to a potential developer. A Use Permit is no guarantee of approval. Any public hearing can cause a project to go down in defeat. It happens all the time. By right development is much more attractive to a developer than having to go through a Use Permit process. And there are plenty of examples of residential only development in this zone, so it’s really not changing the reality of what is already there. But this proposal to encourage housing production was also nixed by the Planning Commission. A Use Permit is still required for residential only projects in the Office Commercial zone.
A third suggestion was to allow for larger Accessory Dwelling Units. Currently, Sebastopol limits ADUs to 840 sf. You might be able to create a tight 2-bedroom unit in that size, but most of the ADUs I know of that size are 1-bedroom units. My argument for larger ADUs, up to 1,200 sf, was that they can accommodate families which have a particularly hard time finding affordable housing in Sebastopol. I’m all for keeping housing on the smaller side, but 2 or 3 kids in an 840 sf ADU is tight. I got a lot of push back on this one too from other Planning Commissioners. Allowing larger units would overwhelm our neighborhoods with too many people, and too many cars, was the general response. In the end the ADU size limit was raised to 1,000 sf, but only on lots 10,000 sf and larger. Less than 10,000 sf and you are limited to an 840 sf ADU. We do not limit the size of a primary residence, other than through maximum lot coverage, so why should we limit the size of an ADU? The state of California has come to the rescue on this one as several laws were recently passed relating to ADUs which go into effect January 2020. One will require cities to allow 2 bedroom ADUs up to 1,000 sf on any lot zoned for single-family development.
And then there is the Pine Grove Square feasibility study. Pine Grove Square was a proposal to look at potential redevelopment opportunities for a city owned parking lot fronting Main Street. The city hired a consultant to do a feasibility study on what could be built on the site. The quick synopsis is that a 60 unit apartment building over retail on the Main Street frontage was suggested as ‘feasible’. The project would also be able to meet the zoning code requirements for on-site parking for the development. The primary downside pointed out in the study was whether or not there was a need for as much retail space as was being proposed.
The study was presented to the council and of course the primary objection from the public, and some council members, was that they did not want to lose the parking spaces in the existing surface parking lot. So the council commissioned a parking study for the neighborhood. The result of the parking study was that there was enough parking in the surrounding neighborhood to absorb the loss of the redeveloped parking lot. This study was also presented to the council. And once again the community came out against the loss of the parking lot and said the parking study was inadequate and wrong. My office is actually included in one version of Pine Grove Square and I can tell you, there is pretty much always parking available in the vicinity, unless there is a special event downtown. The council voted whether to continue to pursue redevelopment of the parking lot. The vote was 3-2 against pursuing redevelopment. This is one of the few large parcels that could accommodate a significant number of new residential units downtown. So if not this parcel, then which one? They would all run into resistance for one reason or another. We need hundreds of housing units in town to begin to make a dent in housing affordability here. But we continue to turn away opportunity in favor of the status quo.
I honestly do not believe this community is ready to make any real attempt to solve the housing crisis. Time and again we have had the opportunity to change our land use regulations in favor of housing production, and we have faced opportunities to redevelop underutilized land and we continue on with business as usual. We protect the single-family home dominance of land use and wonder why housing is so expensive. We need much more flexibility than our current development standards allow, and we have to learn to embrace change. Business as usual has gotten us where we are today where a 2-bedroom fixer-upper sells for $765,00 and rents for over $3,000.
The housing crisis here has many causes and no easy fixes. But increasing supply has to be part of the solution. Cities should be doing all they can to encourage the construction of more housing, of all types, but particularly more multi-family and smaller units. We’ve been focusing our attention on single-family homes for far too long.