Before the destructive fires that ravaged Sonoma County last month were even extinguished, the Santa Rosa City Council and Sonoma County Board of Supervisors passed temporary regulations to help rehouse those who lost homes in the blazes.
The fires destroyed nearly 7,000 structures across the county, most of them homes, and officials with the county and city of Santa Rosa acted decisively and with a sense of urgency for a region already gripped with a severe housing shortage.
In Petaluma, the county’s second largest city, officials have shown none of the leadership on this issue that our neighboring municipalities have demonstrated. In the two city council meetings since the fires started on Oct. 8, Petaluma has not even taken cosmetic steps to address rehousing victims.
Meanwhile, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved new rules allowing fire victims to move into temporary living situations such as an RV, a pool house with no kitchen or a room at a bed-and-breakfast, and they paved the way for several new sanctioned locations where residents can sleep in their cars or trailers overnight. They put a temporary halt on any new vacation rental permits and waived or reduced permit fees for property owners who want to build granny units.
Petaluma was luckily spared any fire damage, while Santa Rosa and communities in the unincorporated county were decimated, so it makes sense that those governments would act quickly to rehouse their residents. But many victims will be looking farther afield for available housing, and turning to Petaluma to find shelter.
Unfortunately, they won’t be finding much in the way of available housing. A recent quarterly survey of Petaluma’s major apartment complexes showed a 1.12 percent vacancy rate, with only 35 vacant units out of the total 3,125 units, and even those may have been snatched up by now.
Since the fires, Petaluma city council members predictably favored a more cautious approach to housing, a stance that has only exacerbated the current housing crisis. This is the wrong approach.
Instead, Petaluma should use this opportunity to address its housing shortage while also helping some of its recently homeless neighbors find places to live. Immediately, the city should adopt some of the temporary measures that Santa Rosa and the county were quick to enact, a move that would show solidarity with our neighbors to the north.
Longer term, the city should revise its policies that have delayed projects and long frustrated developers of even the most sensible, community-friendly projects. There are many parcels within the city limits that are zoned for residential development yet are sitting vacant and blighted because planned projects have stalled for various reasons.
These infill projects represent the kind of walkable development that progressive leaders have touted as adding benefit to the city, yet they languish in our byzantine bureaucracy.
Not all development is bad. Well-planned development can enhance the community and finally address the housing crisis that was made worse by the wildfires.
Petaluma shouldn’t reflexively recoil at any new development. Now is the time to discuss ways to expedite the projects that would add the most benefit to our community.
With a combination of temporary housing and long-term housing solutions, Petaluma can play an important role in rehousing victims of Sonoma County’s wildfires.