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Petaluma will seek up to $24 million to secure permanent supportive housing for city’s homeless population

Petaluma will seek up to $24 million in state funding to buy multi-tenant housing as part of an effort to serve the city’s growing homeless population.

In a unanimous vote this week, Petaluma City Council members empowered city officials to partner with housing development nonprofits to apply for funding through Project Homekey.

“I for one am very happy that we’re getting this opportunity, especially with the wrap-around services,” Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett said during the council’s Monday meeting.

The state launched the $750 million program in July 2020, with the goal of helping communities acquire hotels, motels and commercial buildings that would house people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. By Dec. 29, 2020, the program had housed 9,000 people in 94 projects throughout the state.

In just the past year, the state grant program has allowed Sonoma County to buy and convert hotels in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol into permanent supportive housing for homeless residents. Sonoma County received $16 million to buy hotels in downtown Santa Rosa and Sebastopol totaling 75 units. The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians earned $2.6 toward plans to buy a 20-unit hotel on Santa Rosa Avenue.

Petaluma’s move to secure state funding came after California lawmakers earmarked an additional $2.75 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding to keep the increasingly popular Project Homekey program going for another two years.

The state has set aside $200 million for the greater Bay Area, and Petaluma is looking to secure up to $24 million.

Following the City Council’s decision, officials will now begin a search for a site where the project would be incorporated. No potential locations were identified as of Monday, but city officials are required to identify a site site in order to submit the application.

City officials will have until Jan. 31 to submit the application, but officials pushed the need to move quickly, as the program has become increasingly competitive throughout California.

The move to seek Project Homekey funds is the latest in the effort to address the growing homelessness crisis throughout Petaluma. In September the City Council agreed to move forward with a “tiny homes” plan that would use $338,000 of the $1.7 million federal coronavirus relief dollars to build 25 interim housing units as an extension of the COTS Mary Isaak Center. The project is set to be completed by January, and would also assist residents with mental health services, substance abuse treatment and other on-site services.

In 2020, a total of 296 Petaluma residents were considered homeless, according to the 2020 Sonoma County Homeless Census Comprehensive Report. That included 163 who lived in shelters and 133 who were considered “unsheltered.“

While council member Mike Healy expressed concern about the uncertainty of site selection, Assistant City Manager Brian Cochran reassured that housing officials would reconvene with council members once they have more information and have a signed letter of intent, and they just have not done so at this point due to the tight timeline.

“And we can provide a lot more information about what we think the (Housing and Community Development) contributions would be, what the city match would be, and all of those rigorous financial details,” Cochran said. “I know it is kind of unsatisfying at this point because we can’t talk about the property or a property we have in mind, and that broader financial picture.”

City Housing Manager Karen Shimizu said a local hotel or motel would be preferred, but commercial building sites may also be on the table.

“This would be a project that would provide the permanent supportive housing units, which is very important to our continuum of housing,” Shimizu said. “So we have our street outreach and we have our interim housing solutions - people would be living there for about six months and then moving into permanent supportive housing.”

Vice Mayor Brian Barnacle worried that the program might not go far enough in addressing the needs in Petaluma, and he wondered about interim housing solutions that could serve more poeple. Homeless services consultant Andrew Hening sought to clarify some of the requirements of the state-funded program.

“Rather than the interim housing project where we’re looking at perhaps a pilot three-year period, Homekey is requiring much longer timeline commitments,” Hening said. “(And) if we’re not doing permanent housing, thus don’t have access to that federal funding, then that’s going to be local funding to ensure those services.”

If awarded the funds, Petaluma must report full occupancy of the housing within eight months of the award date, and could receive two years of state operating subsidies thereafter.

Amelia Parreira is a staff writer for the Argus-Courier. She can be reached at amelia.parreira@arguscourier.com or 707-521-5208.

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