A dire housing crisis that has vexed Sonoma County officials for years has been exacerbated by a deadly firestorm that consumed an estimated 6,800 structures, many of them homes, during a two-week onslaught this month.
As significant strides are made to contain fires, social service providers, activists and Sonoma County and Santa Rosa leaders are pursuing aggressive solutions to rehouse those displaced by some of the most destructive wildfires in California history. Since Oct. 8, the series of blazes destroyed more than 100,000 acres in Sonoma County, a highly-desirable area where the residential vacancy rate was already below 2 percent, according to county data.
Petaluma remained unscathed as uncontrollable wildfires spread in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Valley and other parts of the county. The city opened shelters for thousands of evacuees and distributed mountains of donations, but now nonprofit leaders are urging Petaluma to be a part of the longer-term solution for the battered region.
“The silver lining is we really do have an opportunity to think about how we do all development throughout Sonoma County, and I’m hoping and praying that encourages all the municipalities to come to the table to really think about how each of them plays their part to make sure housing is at the forefront,” said Elece Hempel, the executive director of Petaluma People Services Center.
Hempel’s nonprofit has led the charge for temporary housing countywide with its Shared Housing and Resource Exchange (SHARE) program, which utilizes vacant rooms in existing residences to shelter evacuees. About 300 families or individuals are seeking the shared housing accommodations, while about 160 people have been placed, Hempel said Tuesday. About 1,700 homes have offered to open doors, she said.
Nowhere to turn
As entire neighborhoods were leveled, refuge seekers may first turn to Petaluma, Housing Coordinator Sue Castellucci said. But, like many other parts of the county, the outlook is dreary.
A recent quarterly survey of the city’s major apartment complexes showed a 1.12 percent vacancy rate, with only 35 vacant units out of the total 3,125 units. The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $2,260 in April. The median rent in Sonoma County has jumped 36 percent – to $3,224 – in the week long period after the fires, compared to September, according to online real estate site Zillow. A state law prohibits landlords from hiking rents more than 10 percent above advertised pre-disaster rates.
“They will come here first,” Castellucci said. “If they can’t find any housing, they’ll probably have to go farther out, like Vallejo or Fairfield or farther up north. … I hate to be a downer, but I just don’t know – we don’t have any available units.”
According to the city’s list of major developments, projects in the planning process or under construction could bring as many as 1,780 housing units to the city. That includes the east side 199-unit Brody Ranch subdivision and the 150-unit Altrua Apartments off Baywood Drive, both of which include affordable units.
Santa Rosa and Sonoma County Tuesday adopted a slate of policies to allow fire victims to move into temporary living situations, while easing fees and prioritizing home reconstruction. Petaluma city council members seemed to be in favor of a more cautious approach, though no concrete policy discussions were on the table this week. City Manager John Brown and two senior city planners did not make themselves available for comment.