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May 27, 2018
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Housing relief for SSU staff

By: Stephanie Derammelaere
May 11, 2018

The Rohnert Park City Council recently voted on and approved to enter into a partnership with the Housing Land Trust and Sonoma State University that would ultimately provide some relief to the housing crisis affecting the university’s faculty and staff. While very early in the process, the vote marks an important first step in creating more moderately priced housing opportunities that are desperately needed – particularly after the fires.

“Sonoma State is really facing a housing shortage and it’s really a shortage in terms of their staff and faculty,” says Zach Tusinger, Planner III for the City of Rohnert Park who focuses on housing and economic development. “The fires really exasperated this. On top of that the university is growing and they are recruiting new staff and faculty. A lot of time in higher education these people are coming from other parts of the country so they’re moving to Sonoma County and it’s really hard to find a place to live right now – to rent or to buy. The concern is that they can get people here but if they can’t house them and they can’t have a place where they can live with their family and have a life, why would they stick around? That impacts the entire community, that impacts the university, that impacts the quality of education.”

Essentially the program will create more local housing that is affordable to the university’s faculty and staff and possibly to other individuals who live and work in the city. The program will follow the model established by the Housing Land Trust of Sonoma County (HLT), a private, non-profit corporation established in February 2002 with the mission of providing home ownership opportunities to low- and moderate-income families in Sonoma County. The organization accomplishes this mission through the use of a Community Land Trust model (CLT). In this model the land trust organization owns real estate to make land and housing available to residents who are otherwise priced out of the housing market. The model helps people purchase homes on affordable terms. The land beneath the homes is then leased to the homeowners through a long-term, 99-year, renewable lease.

In the partnership between the university and the city, Sonoma State University and donors will raise money to purchase homes in developments. The property will be donated to the City of Rohnert Park, which will then deed the land for housing to the Housing Land Trust. The land will first be briefly transferred to the city so they can put affordability covenants and restrictions on it. The Land Trust will hold the land in trust for the community and will lease the land to a family. The family then enters into a 99-year renewable ground lease and agrees to keep the home affordable in perpetuity. The family owns the home, but leases the land it sits on.

That is a key benefit of the land trust model – ensuring that prices remain affordable. If the homeowner decides to sell the home, they can do so and the resale formula is designed to give homeowners a fair return for their investment, while keeping the price affordable for future low to moderate income families. At the time of sale, the homeowner has the benefit of having equity and a possible small gain from the sale of the house.

“The family that buys the home is actually just buying the physical home that is on top of the land and the housing land trust holds the land in trust, leases the land underneath the home to the family and this significantly reduces the cost of the home,” says Tusinger. “When it comes to trying to sell the home it is restricted in terms of how much it can appreciate in price. So, instead of being in the speculative real estate market where prices are constantly going up, it’s more tied to what people earn which is not as much of an aggressively increasing number. Presuming wages are going up 1 or 2 percent a year, the home will appreciate in value 1 or 2 percent a year.  This is different though than the way the real estate market, particularly in California and the Bay Area, has been in the last three or four years where homes are appreciating 5, 10, 15 percent a year which makes them wildly unaffordable for some people.”

The first preference for these homes will go to qualified Sonoma State University employees that meet the income qualifications. In the unlikely event that there are not enough SSU staff who qualify, then the homes would be eligible to others who live or work in the City of Rohnert park and meet the same income requirements. The university hopes the program will positively impact their recruitment and retention efforts. Currently SSU has an astonishing 72 recruitments open on campus, and one in five faculty members leave the campus after working there a year or two because they cannot find homes. 

“Typically, when we invite faculty members on campus and are ready to offer them a position, they tell us ‘no thanks’ because they have done their research and can’t seem to find a place to live,” says Christopher Dinno, Chief Planning Officer of Sonoma State University at the April 24 Rohnert Park City Council meeting. “It’s just out of their reach.”

70 staff and faculty lost their homes in last year’s fire storm which created even more housing pressure. Currently some faculty and staff are even living in dormitories on campus.

While this is very early on in the process and the university is currently working on getting funding for the first home, everyone involved in the partnership is hopeful for what this could materialize into in the future. Besides the obvious benefits of SSU staff and faculty being able to live closer to campus thereby reducing commute times, gas emissions and increasing their quality of life, the city will also be able to count the homes towards the city’s regional housing needs allocations, the state-mandated process that sets the number of housing units by affordability level that each jurisdiction must accommodate. The city council members are also very enthusiastic about the idea of a partnership with SSU in general. With the university largely operating separately from the city thus far, they are hoping for more collaboration in the future.

“I can’t say enough good things about the Housing Land Trust model,” says Tusinger. “I think it’s a fantastic program. I think the record of success speaks for itself. I know I’m speaking for everybody in the city that we’re really excited to be working with the university on this.”