designing ways to a better world

Sonoma County; Evolving Adaptable Housing

Sonoma County; Evolving Adaptable Housing
Sonoma County population chart from Sonoma County Administrator's Office
Sonoma County Population | Sonoma County Administrator’s Office

Potential Portland of the Redwood Empire

We’re growing in Sonoma County; the population increased 7.6% from 2000-2010, about 2% per year. We have great weather, resources, entrepreneurial spirit, and abundant culture rich in art, wine, and local food. There are educational draws like Sonoma Academy, Sonoma State University, and the Santa Rosa Junior College – among the best in the nation, as we all like to brag. On top of it all, we’re blessed with enough natural beauty to smack us all with calendar worthy views every day.

Portland is also a gratifying place to live, as described in an October 2014 WonkBlog post, and it’s attracting people and business like a magnet. Folks there had the foresight to lead the way on shifting quality of life choices in a more wholesome direction starting in the 1970’s. Like Portland, in Sonoma County we’re now actively supporting local business, preserving open space, developing mass transit options and bicycle and pedestrian friendly infrastructure, and building up shared resources – witness the Santa Rosa Tool Library.

However, where Portland has employment increases, promising start-ups, and an influx of educated professionals, we see a rising tide of the struggling underemployed, from educated young creatives working part time, to laid off middle-aged freelancers, to folks of retirement age working for minimum wage as servers or box store greeters to make ends meet.

Growing Poorer

Our problems come down to affordability; the cost of living here is excessive for people of ordinary means. Over half the population of Sonoma County faces serious challenges making a living and getting or sustaining housing. Of all households countywide, 54% spend more than 30% of their income on housing. Within Santa Rosa, just over 32% of people have incomes qualifying them for government assistance. 1

…earnings decreased 12% between 2007-2010 …more than one in four Sonoma County residents were living in economic hardship. In three cities, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, and Healdsburg, this number was one in three.

– Ginny Brown, Master of Urban and Regional Planning
Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County

Personal Case Study

If my family could save up a serious (20%) down payment, a mortgage on an average 3 bedroom house in Santa Rosa ($430,900 according to census data) for the four of us would cost around $2300 per month ($27,600 per year). For that price to be considered affordable – no more than 30% of our monthly income – we’d have to make $3833 each per month; $92,000 a year between my husband and I. We average about $30 per hour for freelance services, so if we divide the required $7667 monthly income, we need just over 255 billable hours of work per month. An average month has 4.3 weeks, so that’s about 60 total hours per week. Work flow goes up and down, and besides our billable time we also market, administer, book-keep, and office manage, so often we can only put in 40 or 50 billable hours each week between us. The more we work the higher our travel and childcare expenses rise. When we put in 80+ hours between us every week, life quality quickly and noticeably declines for all of us.

So why do we keep up the balancing act? Primarily because there are no jobs that pay enough to live on, and at least this way we can set our schedules mostly around our children and be more involved parents. Self employment taxes can be 30% or more at the end of the year, so our finances are challenging. We pay our share willingly, but we know corporations and the super rich are paying 12-15% while we can’t afford life’s random bumps in the road, like an overdue car repair. It’s discouraging to learn as much and work as hard as we do and still live on the edge of financial impossibility – but such is life for the fast growing club that is the working poor.

Almost Overcome, but Adapting

As compacted and overpriced as affordable housing is now, without major adjustments it will quickly become worse. Boomers are aging into retirement and experiencing less vigorous health, many homeowners with foreclosures in the last few years will be stuck on the rental market for years, and the job market continues to grow in an “hourglass” form, with increases in low wage and very highly skilled jobs but flat growth in the mid-range sector.

Four Lights Tiny House Company - the Napoleon Complex - a Tiny House Village Project
A tiny house village concept image by Four Lights Tiny House Company, with inset landscape plot plan.

People have adapted at every level. The affluent are offering their second homes as vacation rentals to cover property expenses. Many landlords are trying short term rentals because of the higher income and ease of use with online listing services. This affects the housing market, leading sometimes to bidding wars, with potential tenants beating list price to get into a rental. Some people share homes, with a separate ‘household’ in every bedroom. Minimalists have converted trucks, buses, and containers, and built tiny houses on wheels so they can rent small plots on others’ land and move as needed. Homeowners are renting out backyard cottages, renovated garages, or spare rooms to cover their mortgages – or sometimes moving into them and renting out the main house. There are country plots being gradually developed beneath the radar as ad-hoc mobile home parks.

Solutions are evolving “under the table”, but most people want to conduct themselves openly; they want to pay taxes, buy insurance, and generally enjoy the full protection of the law. They’re on the gray market because the regulatory framework hasn’t caught up with the realities of housing today. This keeps the government from capturing potential streams of revenue, and encourages informal developers to “hide in plain sight” in lightly populated unincorporated areas, away from city centers where increased population density is most beneficial. Lack of legal channels also means people are altering and building without oversight when risks would be nearly eliminated by clear guidelines and professional input and inspections.

The following policy changes legitimize and regulate the solutions ingenious citizens have developed for workable housing options:

Phase 1 – Lay Countywide Groundwork & Address Single Family Homes

  • Protect and encourage small scale affordable development projects; like alternative energy appliances, make them blockable only if opponents show specific negative impact to the community
  • Reduce minimum square footage for new residential construction as much as feasible, preferably to not more than 200-300 square feet
  • Develop sliding scale permit/development fees for permanently designated affordable housing
  • Increase density selectively in existing neighborhoods with low cost renovation permits and instructional resources; how to convert single family homes into energy efficient co-housing
  • Adopt county wide regulation for long term and short term rentals that allows them in more zones, addresses and allows small scale structures, and integrates varying community policies

Pocket Neighborhood Web Site
Phase 2 – Encourage Backyard Cottages & Pocket Neighborhoods

Phase 3 – Enable Tiny Houses on Wheels & Container Buildings

  • Customize and adopt certification regulations and process for self built tiny houses on wheels:
  • Provide zoning for legal habitation of certified tiny houses on wheels, emphasizing infill and mixed use opportunities such as diverse agriculture and live/work: caravantinyhousehotel.html |
  • Design and adopt certification regulations for safe energy efficient conversion of shipping containers into affordable shelters, micro homes, workshops, and offices
  • Provide zoning and regulations for siting and legal habitation and use of certified converted containers, increasing mixed use opportunities

Phase 4 – Kickstart Sustainable Housing Innovations

  • Offer sustainable testing site application, reporting, and oversight process to evolve best practices
  • Develop localized research based regulations for alternative materials and technologies; rammed earth, cob, mushroom insulation, rain catchment, water recycling, permeable paving, planted roofs, green walls, brown field urban roofs, compost toilets, rocket stoves, mud plasters…

People living small have more resources to spend on local goods and services and start businesses. Small development projects encourage economic diversity. Let’s encourage micro developers to make idle real estate into co-housing, pocket villages, live/work collectives, tiny house parks near their workplaces, affordable container condos, and sustainable structures of all kinds. Construction and landscape jobs will flourish, followed quickly by by design, professional services, light manufacturing, and specialized agriculture and processing when people use their extra energy to solve problems, create arts and crafts, grow crops, and develop niche products. Together we can restore a healthier balance between income and housing costs within 10 years.



  1. Population Growth |
  2. Why quirky Portland is winning the battle for young college grads |
  3. Sonoma County GoLocal Cooperative |
  4. Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District |
  5. Smart Train North Bay Sonoma Marin |
  6. Cycling | Sonoma County Regional Parks |
  7. Countywide Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan |
  8. Santa Rosa Tool Library |
  9. THE STATE OF WORKING SONOMA IN 2013; Income Inequality, Poverty and Low-Wage Employment
    A SUMMARY OF 2010 U.S. CENSUS DATA | by Ginny Brown, MURP | Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County
    North Bay Organizing Project |
  10. Census Quick Facts Sonoma County |
  11. 2013 Sonoma County Indicators | Sonoma County Economic Development Board |
  12. Seattle Department of Planning and Development | Accessory Dwelling Unit |
  13. What is a Pocket Neighborhood? | Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World |
  14. True Pocket Neighborhood Tales | Stories Inspired by the Book |
  15. The Napoleon Complex | Four Lights Tiny House Company |
  16. Certification of Tiny Houses on Wheels | Tiny House Community |
  17. Insulate a Shipping Container |
  18. Build a Shipping Container Cabin |
  19. Earthship Biotecture | Radically Sustainable Buildings |
  20. Garbage Warrior; a Film by Oliver Hodge | sustainable living test sites |
  21. Cob Cottage |
  22. >CobWorks |
  23. This Cob House |


1 ”The federal poverty level was developed in 1964 … although the measure of poverty has not changed, other household expenditures, especially housing, childcare, transportation, and health care, have far surpassed food in the typical family budget. For this reason, a more accurate measure of economic hardship, and one used for many public assistance programs, is 200% of the poverty guidelines. In 2010, the federal poverty guideline for the annual income of a family of four was $22,050 and 200% of the poverty guideline was $44,100.” Ginny Brown, THE STATE OF WORKING SONOMA IN 2013; Income Inequality, Poverty and Low-Wage Employment ~ See SOURCES


END NOTE: Portland is far from perfect, and faces its own set of crises at the confluence of low rental vacancy rates, thinning middle class jobs, and high cost of living – especially housing. It was chosen as a comparative case more than as a contrast, because of some similarities to Sonoma County as it might be 20 years from now. For your edification, a month by month snapshot of headlines about housing costs, challenges, and changes in Portland thus far in 2014:

January | Buying a house in Portland in 2014: what to expect in real estate
February | High Cost of ‘Affordable’
March | Affordable housing: Are reasonable rentals disappearing in your neighborhood?
April | The High Cost of Housing and the Minimum Wage Debate
May | Portland faces tight rental market
June | 3 words of caution about Portland’s hot real estate market
July | Josh Alpert, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’ staffer, gets new job title as director of strategic initiatives
August | Tiny houses for homeless people? Portland Mayor Charlie Hales is ‘infatuated’ with the idea, advisor says
September | Portland’s Housing Affordability Challenge
October | Portland may soon allow Airbnb-style rentals in apartments, condos

Paprika Clark

I’m a lifelong student of language, art, and human nature: an ENFP Aries Fire Dragon Sex Positive Intersectional Feminist Independent. Join me as I feel my way through this. If you have any questions, send them my way - as far as I'm concerned, every day is an Ask Me Anything.

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