Petaluma City Council declares shelter crisis. Here’s what that means

Council members passed a new ordinance to expedite the development of more homeless shelters in Petaluma.|

The Petaluma City Council unanimously declared a shelter crisis at its Monday night meeting, then followed up with a new ordinance intended to help the city develop more shelters for those experiencing homelessness.

Declaring a shelter crisis was a prerequisite to passing the ordinance, which Assistant City Attorney Dylan Brady said “would allow the city the flexibility to approve these homeless shelters quicker and to obtain more units.”

According to a city staff report, declaring a crisis "will provide relief from existing regulations and processes that make it difficult or impossible to act quickly in addressing immediate shelter needs.“

This is the third time the city has declared a shelter crisis. The two previous instances were on Sept. 13, 2021, and Nov. 5, 2018, Brady said.

Both the resolution and ordinance have a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2026, and can be terminated sooner by City Council, he said.

During deliberations, council members modified the ordinance to allow them to determine the location of the shelters. The city manager, meanwhile, has the ability to suspend city zoning and building standards in order to build emergency housing projects on city-owned property.

Recent shelter projects implemented by the city include the Petaluma People’s Village behind Mary Isaak Center on Hopper Street, which has already seen success, and the Studios at Montero on Montero Way.

The shelter crisis declaration also has other potential benefits, including: It helps the city qualify for the state’s Homeless Emergency Aid Program grant, prevents the city from liability related to emergency housing, allows for exemptions under the California Environmental Quality Act, and allows the city to adopt “reasonable local standards and procedures for the design, site development and operation of homeless shelters,” according to the staff report.

To declare a crisis, the city must find that a “significant” number of people cannot find shelter and that “the situation has resulted in a threat to the health and safety of those persons,” according to Brady.

Based on the 2023 Point in Time Count, there were 245 people experiencing homelessness in Petaluma at the time of the count last spring.

Petaluma “currently suffers from low vacancy rate and high costs for homeownership and rental,” with a vacancy rate for owner-occupied units at 0.1% and rental units with a 1.6% vacancy rate, according to the city.

Petaluma’s housing values have increased by more than 130% since 2011. Average monthly rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is $2,381 – 71% higher than the fair market rent cost for Sonoma County, which is $1,711, the city report said.

Mayor Kevin McDonnell commended staff for facilitating the production of housing resources, specifically giving a nod to Montero, a former hotel now providing permanent housing for 60 people experiencing homelessness.

“Getting this crisis ordinance through and getting us eligible for state funding for those steps forward is what’s changing our homelessness situation,” McDonnell said just before the Monday night vote.

The new ordinance will go into effect on Oct. 11.

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Sawhney at 707-521-5346 or jennifer.sawhney@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @sawhney_media.

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