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Housing crisis plagues Petaluma

Published: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 6:32 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 6:32 a.m.

Soaring rental costs, a lack of inventory and rising home prices are making it very difficult for people to stay, or find a home in Petaluma.

The City of Petaluma is looking to collect public input on present and future housing needs as it updates its “housing element,” which outlines housing priorities, community resources and potential strategies to address those needs. But with rental housing availability at less than 1 percent, Petaluma's preeminent housing problem seems to be clear: there isn't enough of it.

“One of the things we are seeing is that for people who are losing their housing due to evictions or rent costs — there's no place for them to go,” said Elece Hempel, executive director of Petaluma People Services Center. “We have such a low inventory of available housing units in this community.”

PPSC promotes fair housing practices and runs a regional homelessness prevention program. Hempel said the center receives multiple calls every day from people who would be financially able to buy a home in most other communities.

“They can't even find a place to rent,” she said. “People who are working very hard can't afford the rents in Sonoma County, or even in Petaluma, and there's just not a lot of available stock.”

Many residents who call the center are living with three or four families in one house. Renters willing to pay $1,000 or more a month can't find anything available, said Hempel.

As a result, new “landlords” have entered the arena — people willing to rent or sublet rooms in their house.

Hempel said problems arise because these landlords aren't necessarily as educated as they should be when it comes to fair housing laws. They're making mistakes, she said, such as overlooking the importance of a lease and getting tangled up in legal quarrels.

“It's a scary environment right now if you're looking for a place to live in this area,” Hempel said. “If we want to have a diverse community, how are we going to address the ability for people of all economic levels to be able to live in our town?”

The City of Petaluma has made some progress in affordable housing. Take Logan Place — a $25 million project consisting of apartments meant for families with an annual income of $17,000 to $45,000.

The complex, which opened last year, was Petaluma's first low-income housing to be built in eight years. The demand was so great for the affordable housing that 750 people applied for the 66 units available.

Over the last eight years, the city's housing program has focused much of its time and resources on the area's growing population of senior citizens and the need for low-income housing, according to Sue Castellucci, housing coordinator for the city.

Next week, the city invites residents to give their input on Petaluma's housing needs so it can prioritize the limited funding available. The city's 2015-23 housing element depicts what Petaluma's population is predicted to look like over the next eight years and describes how the city intends to meet the housing needs of that population, “particularly its low and moderate income families, seniors and special needs households.”

The city has faced financial challenges in terms of housing since Petaluma's redevelopment agency was dissolved by the state in 2012, resulting in a loss of $3 million annually in funds dedicated to housing.

A commercial real estate fee, in effect since January 2004, has provided some housing funds from recent commercial projects, such as the Target shopping center and the new Deer Creek Village shopping center. The fund currently has a balance of about $1.3 million. Castellucci said that money will eventually be used for workforce housing or other workforce services, but currently there are no plans in place for how those dollars will be spent.

Even with the commercial real estate fee, Castellucci said, funding new development is “going to be a tough climb up a steep hill.”

“We would love to build more housing, but we just don't have the money,” Castellucci said. “The city council wants to support the low-income population and build properties, but when you don't have the money to give to nonprofits, you're stopped.”

The 2015-23 housing element has been drafted and is available for review on the city's website.

The public is invited to attend a workshop on Thursday, April 10 to preview and discuss updates to housing needs, resources and potential policies.

The workshop will run from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Petaluma Community Center's Conference Room, located at 320 N. McDowell Blvd.

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@arguscourier.com.)

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