In April, the City of Sonoma released its Housing Needs Data Report, defined as “a roadmap on how to meet our growth and housing challenges”. In 61 pages of charts and tables, it offers a somewhat bleak look at the housing situation in Sonoma, which continues to be out of reach for many residents even as the city hits its regional housing need allocation numbers. (RHNA), the state standard for growing the local housing stock. These numbers are representative of the city of Sonoma, not the Valley as a whole.
What are we building?
Between 2015 and 2023, RHNA has asked Sonoma to build 137 units, including 24 very low income, 23 low income, 27 moderate income, and 63 upper to moderate income. With the projects currently under construction, the city should exceed these targets, which is a good start. So far, 170 units have been built in the city, including 24 very low-income, 35 low-income, 35 middle-income and 76 upper-middle-income.
But it’s still far from what we used to build. Between 1980 and 1999, Sonoma added 2,063 housing units, compared to just 157 units between 2000 and 2010. This equates to 108 units per year on average in the 1980s and 1990s, compared to 14 per year in the early 2000s.
In the next round of RHNA distributions, Sonoma is expected to do more construction, with 311 units allocated – 83 for very low income, 48 for low income, 50 for moderate income and 130 for upper to moderate income between 2023 and 2050 (these numbers are currently estimates and have not been finalized). That equates to 11.5 units per year, again well below the housing boom of the 1990s, when middle-class families could more easily afford the area.
Rental Racial Policy
Especially in the property-rich Bay Area, home ownership is often a marker of wealth. A majority (61%) of Sonomans own their own home, but this number fluctuates wildly between ethnic groups. While Sonoma has only 26 black households, according to the report, 100% are renters, meaning there is not a single black homeowner living within the city limits. Meanwhile, 100% of Sonoma’s eight Native American households own their homes, compared to 72.8% of Asian households, 60.9% of white households and 28.7% of Latinx households.
“These disparities not only reflect differences in income and wealth, but also stem from federal, state and local policies that have limited homeownership for communities of color while making it easier for people to buy a home. white residents,” the study said.
It should be noted that between 2010 and 2020, home prices in Sonoma jumped 76.7%, while rental prices increased 38.7% between 2009 and 2019.
Sonoma leads the region in ‘seasonal, recreational and casual housing’
Of Sonoma’s 5,125 homes, 653 are listed as “vacant,” which can mean anything from homes currently up for sale to properties left fallow and neglected. Here in the Sonoma Valley, the vast majority of vacant properties are listed for “seasonal, recreational, or occasional use,” — mostly second homes (and a handful of vacation rentals, but given the restrictions on short-term rentalsthese are mainly second homes).
These second homes represent 69.2% of vacant properties in Sonoma, compared to 47.8% in Sonoma County and 21.6% in the Bay Area. This means that there are 452 accommodations in Sonoma that are not part of the normal housing stock, but rather await the “casual” visitor.
It will take creativity – in construction, in growth, in design – to pull Sonoma out of the affordability tailspin. If prices continue to soar even as we meet the state’s housing needs, we can only expect to further push families and workers who don’t fit into the growing wealth bubble that defines now the Sonoma city limits.