Report: affordable housing oversight severely lacking in Sonoma County

SANTA ROSA — A Sonoma County civil grand jury has determined that far more oversight is needed for affordable housing in the county after an expose in a newspaper and complaints from residents prompted the investigation.

The jury’s findings, released to the county on June 19 in the civil body’s 2021-22 Final Report, call for more rigorous standards and procedures for monitoring affordable housing. The jury found that the county mostly relies on self-reported information from housing owners and managers and that direct oversight by authorities through on-site monitoring was “rare’ and disappeared completely during the pandemic.

Staffing to handle the task was also found to be insufficient, concluding that “there was little probability that illegal behaviors, if they existed, would be detected using current procedures.”

Affordable housing is defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as prices paid either through purchase or rental of property that are determined by the resident’s income rather than the housing market.

It came to the civil grand jury’s attention in 2021 that individuals were renting apartments in the county for which they were not eligible, the report said.

“This case has been well documented by the press and investigated by county authorities and is still a subject for potential lawsuits,” reads the report.

Specifically, the jury is referring to Sonoma County developer William Gallaher, who allegedly used millions in government bonds to build a housing development, promising to set aside 47 units for affordable housing but renting some of them out them out to family and friends who made too much money to qualify. A former employee claimed that she was fired after she questioned the company about these issues. Her 2019 whistleblower case settled and the fraud claims were dismissed.

The jury didn’t go as far as to say that there is widespread fraud happening in the county, saying that it cannot provide a definitive answer to the question, but noted no one they interviewed expressed fears of widespread misbehavior.

The jury said it wanted to take a wider look at how affordable housing was handled in the county and it conducted interviews with county and city officials, nonprofits, and affordable housing agencies and advocates.

The report states that an exact number of affordable rental units in Sonoma County is hard to pin down. The national database Affordable Housing Online suggested that the county had 8,700 units set aside. The Sonoma Community Development Division gave a smaller number, with 8,129, but the jury noted that it is not clear when these numbers were last updated.

One thing that everyone agrees on is that there are not enough units for everyone who needs affordable housing.

“Very few, if any, are actually available and unoccupied at any given time, resulting in long waiting lists,” said the jury’s report.
An evaluation by the Association of Bay Area Governments has called for 14,562 new housing units to be added in Sonoma County over the next several years, from 2023 to 2031.

After its investigation, the jury made several recommendations: the community development commission must come up with agreed-upon standards and procedures for the monitoring of affordable housing by Dec. 31. On-site monitoring must begin by Oct. 1. 

Sufficient personnel must be in place to conduct on-site monitoring and to process the self-reported monitoring data by Jan. 1, 2023. Ongoing training in the monitoring process must be put in place for developers and managers of sites by Jan. 1, 2023. And an inventory of all affordable housing sites must be maintained.

The full report can be found at  

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