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August 9, 2020
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WillowGlen residents respond

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
July 10, 2020

After my “Affordable housing resolutions fail” article, several WillowGlen residents reached out to me. They asked to present their side of this story. They felt the framing of this issue was more complex. Indeed, they felt the perception that residents were against affordable housing in their neighborhood was not only untrue but offensive. Although speaking for themselves, they pointed out that 105 public comments in opposition, show that their views are representative.

The original story was based on the Rohnert Park City Council meeting of June 23. As presented in the staff report and discussions, it involved a swap of a designated commercial lot in the General and Southeast Specific Plan in order to build an additional 36-units of affordable housing on top of the 108 units already approved. The need for more affordable housing was made clear, but also clear was that the change was being sought by the developer to take advantage of a one-time 9 percent tax credit worth millions to them. The application deadline was July 1.

One resident who recently moved to this neighborhood, although she’s lived in Sonoma County for over 10 years. She described herself as an “Active Progressive” her entire life. She supports “150 percent” affordable housing in Sonoma County and the entire Bay Area. She said had she not lived in this area and investigated the complex issues herself, if she had received notice of this proposal only discussing the topic of affordable housing, she “would have written a letter in support of the issue in a hot minute!” Instead, understanding the other issues, she wrote in opposition to this project. 

Another resident, who’s lived off and on in California for many years, told me her family moved to WillowGlen last year. Part of the attraction and sales pitch was the developer’s highlighting of this commercial lot. It would be built and provide a “walkable” option allowing them not to jump in the car to go get a cup of coffee or pick up a few items. She told me that many of the residents feel like the developer did a “bait and switch” sales presentation. A neighbor who recently signed their sales contract is reconsidering because they were told one thing but now the developer wants to do something else. So, what are other issues if opposition isn’t about affordable housing? 

Due process and trust played a part. They highlighted Council member Gina Belforte’s comment about “trust.” Belforte said she believed this had to do less with affordable housing and more with community trust. That given recent events, going forward with this last-minute proposal, in her opinion “is going to validate that they can’t trust us.” Council member Pam Stafford agreed. Residents feel this is being “shoved down peoples throats” and it’s all because of the tax credit.

The residents also felt due process was lacking. Most got notice by word of mouth. Very few received a letter. They acknowledged the developer may have met legal requirements using tax rolls to notify residents within 300 feet of the proposed development or with a newspaper notice. Yet they feel that was insufficient outreach. They said units continued to be sold showing the commercial area. New buyers weren’t advised about a switch to affordable housing instead. It may be a moot point since the resolutions failed. They also think the developer has withdrawn the application having missed the July 1 deadline. 

They felt it was odd, almost violated, residents got an email asking them to support the resolutions. They questioned if developers could email asking for support, why couldn’t they email a proper notice. Without the word of mouth, their voices may not have been considered. Other issues brought up during the interview and in public comments included traffic flow, congestion and parking; but repeatedly that word “trust” kept being heard. Trust in the word of the developer. Trust in the city’s plans. Trust in the city council. Trust in all the things they were told when making their decisions to purchase homes in this community.

Julie Royes summed it up in her public comment saying: “I live directly across the location in question. Prior to the Planning Commission meeting, I felt rather neutral on this topic.” Then she said “However, after I listened to the residents – my neighbors – that shared their thoughts and opinions at that meeting and after, I have changed my mind.” She stressed “This is NOT a vote against affordable housing, as some would lead you to believe.” She suggested “Let’s stick with the current plan. The safe plan. The plan the city council already approved.”