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Petaluma seeks creative housing solutions

Earl and Dot Holtz’s faces illuminated as they reminisced about the 53 years they spent building a life on their acre of land in east Santa Rosa. This month, a series of deadly wildfires reduced their home and property to a mangled mass of rubble, sparing only a mailbox and a handmade metal sign in the driveway that reads “Holtz.”

The badly-singed sign, forged by Earl Holtz more than five decades ago, serves as beacon of hope as the couple of 62 years looks to reconstruct their home and their lives on Linda Lane.

After hastily evacuating early Oct. 9 as wildfires ravaged their neighborhood, the couple found themselves living in a 2001 Winnebago RV at Petaluma’s KOA campground. They plan to stay for at least six months as they design their new house while toxic materials are cleared from their property.

Shaded by trees emblazoned with golden autumn leaves, their makeshift home sits in a neat row with other evacuees, employees from insurance companies and workers involved in the massive cleanup of hazardous waste belched out by fires.

Monday morning, 84-year-old Earl Holtz sorted through garbage bags in the trunk of his silver Ford Expedition, piling up gloves, respirator masks and the blackened remains of his family coin collection. Their former home was filled with one-of-a-kind antiques, including a Model T Ford and an expansive assortment of milk bottles acquired over his long career in the dairy industry.

“We could sit and cry, but what would we gain?” Earl Holtz said, intertwining his gloved fingers to stave off the brisk fall air. “We look ahead and have fun looking at plans for the house. There’s no sense crying. We can’t do anything about it.”

For Dot Holtz, making sense of it all is harder. She sank into a cushy chair inside the heated RV as her husband poured over photos of their home, showcasing the structures he made by hand.

“It’s not easy,” the 83-year-old said. “I have to admit, it bothers me.”

The KOA, equipped with 312 slots for campers, has become a refuge for displaced residents, owner Chris Wood said.

“We are doing everything we can do in this situation,” he said, declining to further discuss the issue.

The Holtz’s plight is one shared by many Sonoma County residents piecing together their lives after fires burned 6,800 structures, more than 110,000 acres and claimed 23 lives. Petaluma, which was untouched, is a natural choice for residents displaced from Sonoma Valley and Santa Rosa, given its proximity to schools and jobs.

But with a 1.12 percent vacancy rate in its major apartment complexes, meaning that only 35 of 3,125 total units are unoccupied, it’s a tough go. According to the city’s website, projects in the planning process or under construction could bring as many as 1,780 housing units, though those won’t be immediately available.

Advocates want change

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County last week adopted a slate of policies to allow fire victims to move into temporary living situations, while easing fees and prioritizing home reconstruction.

Earlier this year, the city updated its rules on accessory dwelling units, commonly known as “granny units,” that are attached to residences or built separately on properties. It also legalized “junior second units,” an existing bedroom in a single family home converted into independent living quarters. Currently, only one junior second unit or granny unit is permitted on any residential lot.

Rachel Ginis, the founder of Novato-based nonprofit Lilypad Homes, said the city should further relax its policy to allow for both dwelling units. She said the housing options have a small impact on communities while providing immediate housing and extra income for homeowners.

“They should be begging homeowners to do this,” said Ginis, a Sonoma County resident whose nonprofit sponsored state legislation surrounding junior second units. “It’s a tremendous opportunity.”

Stephen Marshall, who owns Petaluma-based Little House on the Trailer, which builds and installs small, wheeled homes and accessory dwelling cottages, offers models starting at $50,000. The city doesn’t allow for so-called tiny houses that don’t have a permanent foundation.

“We do zero business in the city,” he said.

He’s already seen an uptick in business from other areas of Sonoma County affected by fires, as he did with the Valley fires in Lake County. It takes about three to four months and $150,000 to create, permit and install a tiny home, as opposed to up to two years and much more money for a single-family home, he said.

Talks with the city about altering its code have been disheartening, with planners describing a lengthy, costly process that could take several years, he said.

Short term options

The Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds, which served as an evacuation center with the capacity to house 425 people, was approached by state officials about the feasibility of using its 64-acre site for longer-term shelters, though no concrete plans have emerged, CEO Erin Post said. The city-owned parcel is leased to the fairgrounds, which in turn hosts 11 tenants, including two schools with 335 students, she said.

“We really jumped into action to provide an evacuation center for those immediately affected and as we contact other entities about how we can help, we’ll have those conversations because we’re here to support the community that supports us,” she said. “We’re happy to do that.”

Meanwhile, Petaluma’s streets are seeing an uptick in RVs, despite the fact that city code prohibits sleeping in vehicles. Travel trailers are permitted in driveways and backyards as long as they’re self-sustaining with their own sources of water, sewage and power. If they’re connected to a home for those utilities, permits are required, Code Enforcement Officer Joe Garcia said.

Rather than patrol the streets, Garcia responds to complaints from residents. He hasn’t heard any in three weeks.

“I think people are understanding right now that there are a lot of people displaced … there are a lot of friends and family who have said they can come live until they figure out what they’re going to do for permanent housing,” he said. “We haven’t had any official discussion about how we’re going to handle it yet.”

As housing stock is scarce, he suspects there may also be an increase in substandard living conditions, such as garages rented as rooms.

Open to discussion

City staff is compiling options for housing for consideration by Petaluma’s City Council, which shapes policies and city codes. Details are still being hammered out, and there’s no set date for a public hearing, City Manager John Brown said.

City Councilman Dave King said he’s open to taking another look at the city’s granny unit and recreational vehicle policies, and suggested considering tailoring the short-term rental policy to allow for longer-term stays.

“We’d have to examine those and I’d like to get input from staff about what the concerns would be, knowing there would probably be legitimate neighborhood concerns … there’s very little I’m closed off to considering,” he said.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller said she’s also open to considering a slate of options, as the already-dire housing crisis is only exacerbated by the disaster.

“We’re clearly going to have to do something in terms of housing … we’re going to have to walk that line between trying to get people into housing and not going so far on the others side that we impact the quality of life and the way things look in town. We’re going to have to have some discussions at council about balancing those things,” she said.