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Friday, April 1, 2011

Affordable Housing in Sonoma County

Cheap Houses
Do we still need affordable housing in Sonoma County?

It’s clear that the answer to whether we need more affordable housing in Sonoma County is a resounding YES!

Housing prices have tanked in the past few years. The median price for a typical three bedroom two bath home reached $619,000 in 2005; generally only the top wage earners were able to buy a home. Sonoma County was in the top 5 most expensive housing markets in the country when median home prices were compared to median incomes

The median price for the same home is now $328,750 (Press Democrat 2/15/2011). This is affordable to people with a monthly household income of $7910 (equivalent to $23 per hour for two full-time workers or an annual household income of $94,920)! This assumes that the household uses 30% of its gross income for housing costs and has total debt payments, including housing, that do not exceed 38% of gross income. It is harder these days to qualify for a mortgage loan because of the recent problems in the real estate market, so people must have a good credit score and a 10% to 20% down payment and closing costs to get that loan. And then there are the other non-monetary hoops to jump through; collecting two years’ income tax reports, account statements, appraisals and miscellaneous other documentation.

There are also a few homes available specifically to moderate income households earning no more than $48,240 for a family of four. For instance, Burbank Housing Development Corporation, a non-profit housing developer, is selling a 3 bedroom, two-bath home at Hollyhock Homes in Sebastopol for no more than $345,000. They have other homes for sale in Windsor that are targeted to low or moderate-income households. (

The good news is that this means housing for sale to our work force is more affordable these days. The bad news is that it is still difficult even for the approximately 40% of our neighbors who rent their housing.

Many full time employees find it hard to find rentals they can afford. The median rent in Sonoma County is nearly $1,200. The Living Wage Coalition calculates that a four-person household including two adults, a preschooler and an infant needs a monthly income of $5,245 (equivalent to an hourly wage of nearly $15 for each adult) to afford that rent. ( When you add the fact that the sale of many foreclosed homes has forced tenants to find other housing, the picture is not so bright for current tenants either.

How do we fare in Sonoma County? Many of our cities have worked hard to see that affordable housing is developed for their citizens. Cloverdale, Sebastopol, and Healdsburg are good examples of cities that have approved affordable housing developments. Unfortunately, the financial markets have made it difficult to get some of those units built. Lynn Goldberg, senior planner for Healdsburg, reported that, despite their city approving plans for 110% of the affordable housing goals established by the State, only 3 homes were built last year.

The Russian River area will soon have its first rental housing with rents restricted for low-income residents. Fife Creek Commons is under construction with an opening projected for 2012. It has been difficult to find land appropriate for apartment units due to the twin problems of hilly topography and flooding. Fife Creek Commons, where the living spaces are being built over the garages, will have a range of one, two and three bedroom units plus a community space that can also be used by the neighbors.

John Lowry, executive director of the non-profit Burbank Housing Development Corp, says that it will be at least five years before the funding needed to build additional affordable housing is readily available. BHDC has projects under construction in Windsor and Sebastopol with plans to build in Santa Rosa. The proposed capture of local redevelopment funds to bail out the State is likely to dry up another important source of funding.

In Sonoma County generally, there are fewer than 30 affordable rental units per 1,000 residents, or about 0.3% of our housing units. On the other hand, about 45% of our population falls into the low-income category or lower. That includes not only young working families and seniors, but also many disabled people.

You can find a list of affordable rentals at We need more affordable housing in our County.