By KEVIN MCCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A committee charged with figuring out how Santa Rosa can improve the way it builds affordable housing has disbanded after what members describe as a frustrating year of polarizing debate.
Mayor Susan Gorin formed the 12-member committee in September of 2009, asking it for a “concise recommendation built on consensus” about the most equitable way to encourage affordable housing to be built in the city.
Instead, a rift developed early between developers and housing advocates and it only deepened over time, making agreement impossible, said Tanya Narath, committee chairwoman.
“There are such different perspectives,” Narath said. “I don’t think we could have arrived at a different outcome.”
Housing advocate David Grabill, a representative of the Accountable Development Coalition, said the developer representatives on the committee were infuriated by his proposal that the city implement stricter requirements for private developers to integrate more affordable housing in their regular housing projects.
“They were throwing bricks across the table,” Grabill said. “It was really painful.”
Meanwhile, developer Hugh Futrell lambasted Grabill’s proposal as likely to create less affordable housing instead of more and less geographic diversity instead of more.
“At a time of economic devastation, Grabill wants to make the rules more complicated, more politicized, more exacting, less predictable and more expensive,” Futrell said. “I think it’s just nuts.”
State law requires all cities and counties in California to accommodate their fair share of the state’s growing population, and to have policies that encourage the development of housing for low and moderate income residents.
Last year the Santa Rosa City Council approved updates to the city general plan, a document that serves as a blueprint for how the city should develop through the year 2035.
Currently, developers are required only to integrate affordable housing units into their projects if they are over 15 acres. For all others, they can instead pay “in-lieu fees” which the city’s Housing Authority combines with other sources to make loans to non-profit developers such as Burbank Housing.
The system has generated a significant amount of affordable housing in the city over the years. The city built 4,083 affordable units between 1999 and 2006, more than all other Bay Area cities except San Jose and San Francisco.
But critics contend the system has exacerbated the social and economic segregation of the city by allowing developers in well-off areas to just write a check to pay for someone else to build affordable housing in low-income areas.
Grabill claims the pattern has created a high concentration of low-income developments in neighborhoods west of Highway 101 while areas like Fountaingrove have been developed with no such housing. He says Santa Rosa has the most developer-friendly policy toward on-site affordable housing in the county, despite his efforts to encourage tougher requirements.
He claims he’s been unsuccessful because “Hugh Futrell and his friends the builders fought for years to not have an on-site requirement.”
Now that the economy is stalled, the developers are pushing back harder than ever, which made the committee’s meetings tense and often unpleasant, Grabill said.
“They kept yelling at us. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Futrell said he and other developers on the committee became frustrated that despite clear evidence that Grabill’s proposal would have the opposite of its intended effect, he would not compromise.
“He is utterly ignorant of how housing regulations intersect with the actual work of producing housing,” Futrell said.
As a result of the acrimony and obvious stalemate, Grabill stopped participating in the committee over the summer.
He also didn’t have a lot of backup. The committee lost two other members sympathetic to Grabill’s position, Jim Wilkinson, head of the Neighborhood Alliance, who died, and Marlene Dehlinger, a director of Accountable Development Coalition, who resigned.
The result was that both camps drew up their own proposed changes to what is known as the city’s Housing Allocation Plan, and the committee submitted both.
While the committee didn’t agree on a single proposal, Narath said she doesn’t view its year of work as a failure.
“Our goal was to provide good information so that sound policy decisions could be made,” she said. “From that standpoint I feel very good about the work the committee has done.”
Community Development Director Chuck Regalia said city staff will review the competing proposals and at some point ask the council for direction.
“I’m kind of at a loss right now,” he told the committee toward the end of its final meeting.