May 3, 2020 by Carly Graf
The Napa Sonoma ADU Center, the newly launched information hub for homeowners looking to build an accessory dwelling unit, recently announced the hire of a director to lead the operation.
Renée Schomp, the Sonoma County native who brings with her nearly a decade of experience in the legal aid and non-profit sectors, will spearhead the initiative launched by Napa Valley Community Foundation intended to address the ongoing housing crisis.
Napa’s vacancy rate – an indicator of how many units are available for aspiring renters or homebuyers at any one point – hovers around 2%, notably lower than the national average of about 6.4%, statistics show. With limited options, many people are forced into units beyond their price range. Nearly half of Napa Valley renters are cost-burdened by housing, meaning they spend at least one-third of their income on rent, according to 2017 Census data.
Napa City Hall has been pushing an proactive policy agenda to pave the way for easy construction of granny flats, the small, self-contained living quarters located either adjacent to or on the property of single-family houses. They provide homeowners the opportunity to earn extra income while also upping the local stock of affordable housing.
Napa Sonoma ADU will make it easier for prospective accessory unit builders to calculate the cost of their project, look at floor plans and design inspiration, reach out to a network of experienced contractors in the area, and access a streamlined version of state and local laws, among other things.
Though the initiative is funded primarily by a partnership between the Napa Valley and Sonoma community foundations, it will be bolstered by continued support of policymakers in local jurisdictions and at the state level and will collaborate with both the private sector and housing non-profits.
Schomp talked to the Register about why she wanted to come home, the importance of affordable housing in fostering community and what excites her most about the Napa Sonoma ADU Center.
REGISTER: Please tell me a little bit about your background and what brought you to this role.
SCHOMP: I grew up in the North Bay, Sonoma County specifically, and I’ve spent a lot of time in both Napa and Sonoma counties. I left for a while to go to college and law school, and I’ve been living in the Bay Area and working in the legal aid field for the last seven years. My husband is also from the North Bay, and we’ve been wanting to return for a while.
I’ve had a focus on community for a long time in my career, so I was really looking for an opportunity to identify and meet a community need in here the North Bay. One of our major community needs is affordable housing, which was only highlighted by the loss of roughly 6,000 homes in the North Bay fires.
My husband and I actually moved into an ADU on my mother’s property, and as I was getting to know the Napa Sonoma ADU Center, I realized that four of our best friends, childhood friends, all live here with their partners in ADUs. I think almost all are on their parent’s property. I really came to think about different pieces of the affordable housing puzzle, and I think that ADUs are an important part of that. This all comes at a wonderful moment with state laws improving around ADUs. It really felt like a perfect for me and an exciting opportunity to return to my community and give back to my community.
Register: What’s been the focus of your career, and how does it tie into Napa Sonoma ADU?
Schomp: My work has largely been focused on capacity building, systems thinking and really big-picture thinking. I like to ask where we can be not just reactive, but also proactive in any type of public service work.
What I see from my community here is that affordable housing is a space where, at a moment when we have had to be so reactive to wildfires and COVID-19, we can actually continue to drive forward proactive, future-oriented work that will help us not only now but in future. That’s been my focus all along, whether I’m working in areas of general civil legal aid or with a more tactical operational focus which like our work at Napa Sonoma ADU.
Register: What role do you believe ADUs play in addressing our current housing shortage?
Schomp: I think it’s really important to recognize that ADUs are an important part of housing puzzle, but not the only solution. It’s not going to solve the entire affordable housing crisis. To that point, Napa Sonoma ADU wants to be a part of collaboration with other affordable housing non-profit organizations and other stakeholders.
For example, next month, I’ll be doing a webinar that is hosted by Generation Housing out of Sonoma County, and I see that type of partnership as really important. We have an advisory committee that also includes other non-profits that are working on larger non-profit issues as well as private sector and government. From Day 1, we’ve been really focused on what is our niche role in this larger movement.
We recognize there’s room for improvement on ADUs in Napa and Sonoma counties. There have been homeowners who have been wanting to build ADUs but have struggled to do so because of state law or local ordinances, and I think local jurisdictions here and the state of California recognize there’s opportunity for growth.
Register: Who do you think will benefit from the affordable housing provided by ADUs?
Schomp: It’s so important to recognize the diversity of folks who will benefit from affordable housing. ADUs are a really important part of workforce housing, and the realities of the area median income and cost of living in Napa and Sonoma counties means there are so many people who can’t afford to both live and work in Napa. We have stories of people like this on our website already… My brother-in-law used to commute from Santa Rosa to Napa. I think about folks like that. I think about the firefighters who we need to be able to afford to live in this region, I think about if our teachers afford to live here.
And then there are adult children like myself who want to return to our community and live close to parents. So many of my friends can only afford childcare because they’re able to live in ADUs with that familial support. On the flip side, there are seniors who benefit. I live on a property with my 76-year-old mother, and I’m able to support her. That means so much to me.
ADUs can help create that sense of community and allow folks across a wide range of realities to be able to afford to both work and live here.
Register: What do you hope to be able to accomplish Napa Sonoma ADU Center?
Schomp: I grew up here, but I’ve been gone for a little bit of time, so I’m really in a listening and learning phase right now. The folks at the Napa Valley Community Foundation have done an incredible job holding focus groups and doing surveys with homeowners, so I’m really focused on a second phase of listening and learning and then moving towards action steps. That listening and learning involves conversations with housing industrial professionals that have been moving and working in Napa and Sonoma counties so I can make sure the solutions and services I am designing and carrying out are responsive to what’s actually happening on the ground right now.
I see the Napa Sonoma ADU Center as an opportunity to catalyze concrete action steps towards building more affordable housing as part a larger affordable housing solution. We are hoping we can support homeowners in moving from thought to action on building ADUs, letting them know they’re not alone in the process.
We also want to partner with local jurisdictions and other stakeholders. Something that really excites me about Napa Sonoma ADU center is that it’s a collaboration across the for-profit, non-profit and government sectors right alongside community members themselves, the most important part.
Register: How do you anticipate COVID-19 impacting the ADU market?
S: I was speaking with some other nonprofit ADU program folks, one of whom had conducted a survey of their homeowners who were currently engaged in the ADU process. The responses showed that instead of causing homeowners to want to hit pause on their plans to build ADUs, COVID-19 actually underlined the importance of building one.
There were two main reasons they cited: One, the importance of having the flexibility to house an older parent as opposed to having them be in nursing home, for example, or the importance of being able to have their adult children move closer. Two, it’s a good financial investment for their long-term future when we’re seeing other investments that aren’t so solid right now. That planning for the future piece, not being reactive, really seems to keep coming up in conversations about ADUs
Register: What would you tell Napa residents about what they can expect to come from the new program?
S: We already have some wonderful tools out there (I can’t take credit for any of them), our ADU calculator that gives users a tailor-made estimate of the cost of construction, we have an address look-up tool, and references that are super easy to understand that articulate individual city rules regarding ADUs for every jurisdiction as well as sample floor plans, stories, videos and photos.
We’re also launching our ADU workbook next month (sign up for our newsletter to be notified of the launch), a beautiful glossy, beautiful, detailed resource with stories and floor plans but also an A to Z guide of how you design, permit, plan and build. It takes you all the way through how to rent out the unit.
What I would say is they can expect us to focus on concrete tools to help support them through that process. Again, this is a challenging moment for our community right now, coming out of wildfires and COVID-19, and a lot of us are looking for what concrete ways to secure our family’s future and contribute to community in a meaningful and immediate way. This is a wonderful answer who have the option of building an ADU.
Register; What do you hope will be the state of ADUs in Napa and Sonoma in five years?
Schomp: I hope it will feel less daunting for homeowners to build ADUs and that we will have significantly more built in each of the counties. I hope ADUs provide the opportunity for families to remain together, for adult children to return to their home towns to contribute and for the workforce to be able to affordably live and thrive here.