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Petaluma housing market tightens after fires

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.”

Development question

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.

Mayor David Glass said a Nov. 16 meeting will be held with city and county officials to better understand regional challenges. He lauded the city’s initial thrust to house fire victims and said he’s willing to “keep an open mind” about policies, so long as the vetting process and quality of the end product are not compromised.

“I don’t know the answers, but I’m willing to listen and I’m willing to go through the process to come up with whatever we deem to be a viable solution,” he said.

Councilman Chris Albertson, the council’s liaison to the planning commission, said the magnitude of the disaster is overwhelming. He hopes the city can play a responsible role in moving projects forward while still evaluating community impacts, such as additional traffic.

“I don’t think we should shortchange the community on quality. We’re going be living with these buildings for decades. We need to make sure they’re the quality our community has come to expect and the residents could appreciate once they’re living there,” he said.

Councilman Mike Healy said he’s reaching out to developers of major projects in the city to glean an understanding of what, if any, measures could be taken to move projects forward.

“There are so many levels of fine detail that have been built up, you need to be very surgical,” he said.

Jon Ennis, the president of San Francisco-based BDE Architecture who is involved with several proposed infill projects including the 184-unit North River Apartments on Petaluma Boulevard North and the 178-unit Pacifica project at 215 Weller St., was critical of what he described as a lengthy approval process.

He said it can take multiple months after complete plans are submitted to the city for a public hearing, which can often be continued and further delay construction.

“For both parties, I think that submittals to planning staff should be more complete earlier. The planning staff and commission should be expedited, and I think that’s reasonable,” he said. “That means people focus more and work harder, it doesn’t mean we have to change systemically.”

Nonprofits step in

In the short term, Rebuilding Together Petaluma, a nonprofit that taps volunteers and businesses to repair homes for low-income residents, is distributing large quantities of donations for fire relief efforts, Executive Director Jane Hamilton said. She’s waiting to partner with other agencies for rebuilding efforts.

“Everyone needs a safe and healthy home, and this is a huge opportunity to turn around a lot of the things that already weren’t working,” she said.

Meanwhile, Committee on the Shelterless, which operates the city’s Mary Isaak Center homeless shelter and a portfolio of other housing, food and employment programs, has worked with countywide nonprofits to coordinate resources in past weeks and plans to expand its programs.

The housing COTS offers is already at capacity with a hefty waiting list, and it’s clear to Executive Director Mike Johnson that the need for services in the county will only increase. A January county census found that 2,835 people in Sonoma County were homeless, 1,847 of whom were living without shelter.

“We don’t really know at this point what the full impact of this countywide disaster is going to be on homelessness,” he said. “We know there will be more to serve, but we don’t really know how long it will take before those folks are impacted directly or indirectly and have exhausted their very last resource. … The already-tight housing market is going to play an even bigger role than it did back in 2008 and 2009.”

Johnson also hopes the years of rebuilding will be a time for officials to rethink housing, examining policies and zoning laws, such as further easing restrictions on granny units that can be built inside an existing residential footprint as Petaluma has already done.

“Think of all the people that are part of our community, part of our infrastructure, part of our schools, our firefighters, our police and first responders – they’re very important to us as a community, and they’re faced with the prospect of having to move because the housing market isn’t able to absorb them after this happened, or they can’t afford it,” he said. “That’s a shame, and we don’t want to be a position where we can’t house the people who have lived here all their lives.”

Mayor Glass said that the task will not be an easy one.

“Let’s explore it and see clearly. This is going to be the challenge of a lifetime for everyone involved in local government, today and for the next five years,” he said.