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July 12, 2020
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So. Co. Community Dev. Commission seeks equity in housing

May 10, 2019

While the local housing crisis grabs news headlines and holds public attention, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission isn’t just pushing for more housing, but also for equity in housing.

“There’s a difference between the two,” said Margaret Van Vliet, Executive Director of the Community Development Commission (CDC). “We’re saying we have to move Sonoma County beyond forward-thinking complacency, into a place of actual leadership that provides equity in housing for everyone.” 

As the County’s dedicated housing and development agency, the CDC works to create homes in thriving and inclusive neighborhoods. While it has successfully housed people and spurred new development, it has struggled to do so equitably.

“Every county faces equity issues,” said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “And through our Recovery Framework, the County of Sonoma hopes to ensure fairness in carrying out programs that are available to all.” 

Formerly known as Section 8, the federal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) Program provides rental assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to roughly 3,000 low-income households countywide. Currently, just 14% of voucher holders in the program identify as Latino, even though Latinos account for 27% of Sonoma County’s total population. “When you see a disparity like that, you know the program isn’t working the way it’s supposed to,” said Van Vliet. 

The sheer size of the program’s waitlist compounds the problem. The waitlist, which has remained open for almost 20 years, currently has more than 26,000 households and an estimated wait time of more than 10 years – though many households face much longer waits. 

In response, the CDC has proposed sweeping changes to its voucher program, which include eliminating the residency preference and changing the voucher waitlist to a lottery system. It’s a big shift for an agency that hasn’t suggested significant program changes in several decades.

“This is going to help so many more people,” said Housing Authority Manager Martha Cheever, who views this effort as an opportunity.  “Right now we’re giving people false hope by having them sign up for a waitlist, even though they’ll likely never be served,” she said. “If these changes are approved, we can create a waitlist and everyone on the waitlist will be served. And those who don’t make the first waitlist will have another chance within 2 years. People will know exactly what we can, and can’t offer them at any given time.”

Most voucher programs aim to reach waitlist applicants within 2-3 years and rely on lottery systems as a way to provide service within a reasonable timeframe. Geoffrey Ross, assistant executive director at the CDC and former HUD community and planning representative, said the program’s current residency preference – which moves those who live and work in Sonoma County ahead of those who don’t – fails to meet HUD’s goal of providing housing choices for all eligible applicants, regardless of their current location.  

 “The residency preference was likely established with the intent of offering local residents a better chance to remain local,” said Ross. “But the program is national. Residency preferences would make sense if people could only apply to one program, but more and more, they are ending.”

According to Oscar Chavez, Chair of the Community Development Committee which provides policy advice to CDC, the preference also failed to acknowledge that Sonoma County’s population is primarily white. “By limiting vouchers to those who are already here, the well-intentioned preference has essentially led to a disproportionate racial makeup of participants, which can be easily seen by the lack of Latino representation in today’s program,” Chavez said.

Letters notifying applicants on the waitlist of the proposed changes were mailed this week and the current waitlist will close at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 17, 2019. A public hearing will take place Wednesday, May 22, 2019 from 10-11:30 a.m. at the Sonoma County Community Development Committee Meeting. Van Vliet urges the public to provide written comment to the CDC prior to the hearing.

“But it’s more than that,” she added. “If this happens here, then it’s happening everywhere. And it means that we need to have a larger conversation about equity in housing and we can’t wait any longer to do so.”

For program questions, call the CDC’s hotline at (707) 565-1848 or email scha.update@sonoma-county.org.