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Housing needed for fire victims

Since cataclysmic fires first erupted across the county 11 days ago, Petalumans have distinguished themselves by generously opening their arms to more than 2,000 people who were suddenly displaced or left homeless. Church groups, non-profit organizations, businesses, local government employees and thousands of residents here all came together to provide food, clothing, financial donations, comfort and relief to their neighbors from Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley who suffered terribly amidst what is being called the worst fire disaster in California history.

Now, as the fires are extinguished and evacuees return to their homes, Petalumans should continue to help by making room for some of the many thousands who now have nowhere to live.

Many Petaluma-area teachers, health care professionals, first responders and hundreds of employees at dozens of local businesses need temporary housing right now while their homes are rebuilt. Without housing, they may be forced to move elsewhere. Losing our workforce would severely damage Petaluma’s economy and the overall quality of life. Finding replacement workers for those jobs would be hindered by the county’s near total lack of available housing.

Providing temporary housing will be an enormous challenge requiring creativity, innovation and commitment by city and county officials as well as the community. Provisional housing, in the form of trailers, recreational vehicles or tiny houses, could be established on city-owned properties, such as the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds, with access to utilities like sewer and water. With new regulations and incentives, local vacation rental properties can also be converted into temporary rental housing.

Several Petalumans have already begun to help by signing up for the Share Sonoma County program with Petaluma People’s Services, a program aimed at matching fire victims with homeowners who have extra space.

In addition to temporary housing, the need for permanent housing is enormous. Before fires destroyed approximately 5,000 Sonoma County homes, Petaluma and the rest of the county were already gripped by a relentless housing crisis. With median home values hovering at around $650,000, and with median monthly rental costs of about $2,800, even people with moderate incomes have been priced out of the market and many have left because there isn’t enough affordable housing to meet the demand. The vacancy rate for rental housing, which before the fires was hovering between one and two percent, is now closer to zero.

In addition to arranging temporary housing, government officials here and in Sacramento need to adopt far more aggressive tactics to streamlining the often laborious and time-consuming process for approving and constructing new housing. Petaluma should look at new ways to expedite the construction of rental housing. The latest proposed housing development is a 184-unit mixed-use apartment complex between Petaluma Boulevard North and Water Street. Called North River Apartments, it has been wending its way through the city approval process for several years. It is past time to get the project approved and built.

On Jan. 1, a new state law went into effect aimed at streamlining the permitting of granny units, residential dwellings under 1,200 square feet on the same parcel as an existing single-family house. Making it easier to obtain permits for granny units helps persuade homeowners looking for extra income, like empty nesters, to explore converting part of their home to a granny unit. A few months ago, Petaluma officials recently adopted such policies on accessory dwelling units, but should now look at new ways to incentivize homeowners to get them built.

The need to provide some temporary and permanent housing to Sonoma County’s fire victims is not exclusively Petaluma’s responsibility. After all, not a single home was burned in Petaluma. And providing transitional shelter for fire victims will certainly inconvenience many of us here.

But doing our part to take care of our neighbors in a crisis is what Petalumans do best.