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Rohnert Park takes first steps toward creating new housing for homeless people

Rohnert Park is taking its first steps toward creating new short-term and permanent homeless housing, which could be funded in large part by a fledgling program to curb homelessness across the state.

In an — at times raucous — special meeting Tuesday afternoon, Rohnert Park City Council was presented with potential sites and different housing options.

Many residents loudly objected to housing homeless people in residential Rohnert Park, citing safety concerns and fears of falling property values.

Yet, council members directed staff to provide, by the end of month, more information on three proposed locations and start the process to apply for state funding for permanent housing with services for homeless people.

“We all know the only solution to chronic homelessness is permanent supportive housing,” said Mayor Gerard Giudice.

Two of the three sites under consideration are on underdeveloped city-owned property. They include 751 Rohnert Park Expressway West, across from the Rancho Verde Mobile Home Park, and 6020 Labath Avenue, near the city’s Fire Station 3, according to city officials.

The third site, 1450 Medical Center Drive, is owned by Providence Health and Services.

The nonprofit hopes to develop around 100 units of short- and long-term supportive housing at the property next to its urgent care facility.

Should the city reject the project, Providence Health may still be able to take advantage of state laws to bypass much of the local approval process, city officials said.

Tuesday’s discussion by council members addressed residents’ growing concerns about homelessness in Rohnert Park, the third-largest city in Sonoma County. According to the 2020 annual county homeless count, there are about 250 homeless people in this city.

Last week, the city cleared an encampment at a commuter parking lot near Roberts Lake. It had grown to about 20 tents and about 10 vehicles.

City officials contend Rohnert Park, which does not have its own homeless shelter, needs more housing for the homeless to effectively enforce its camping and overnight parking ordinances.

That’s because a 2018 federal court ruling requires homeless campers be offered adequate shelter before authorities can clear an encampment, officials said.

At the council meeting, many residents were unconvinced by that reasoning.

They implored city officials to take a harder line on encampment enforcement instead of creating homeless housing, particularly in residential areas near parks and schools. Council members on Tuesday decided not to consider a potential site in a neighborhood near Gold Ridge Park.

“The laws are being unevenly applied and enforced in our town, and frankly we’ve had enough,” said Debbie, a Rohnert Park resident who spoke at the packed council meeting, which was also broadcast digitally. Her last name was not available.

To pay for the new housing, the city is considering turning to the state’s Project Homekey program, which was launched during the pandemic to help cities and counties buy hotels to convert to permanent housing for homeless people. The state is making a total of $2.75 billion available going forward, on top of the $846 million it already put toward 94 projects across California.

City officials have worked to identify possible hotels to purchase. But they said Homekey grants could also be used for the city’s preferred option of building new housing at public sites or helping pay for Providence Health’s planned project.

Officials stressed the potential plans are still in early stages.

The council has not committed to how many sites may ultimately be developed or the total number of beds that could be made available.

How the city will pay for operating any new sites is also unclear. But officials pointed to the state and Measure O — a quarter-cent sales tax county voters approved in 2020 for homelessness and mental health services — as potential sources of ongoing funding.

The council may need to act fast, though, if it hopes to secure its share of $1.45 billion in Homekey money, which will start to become available this year.

The application process for that upcoming round of funding opens later this month, and the state will award the sought-after grants to qualifying projects on a first-come, first-served basis.

Rohnert Park council aims to consider applying to Homekey on Sept. 28.

Santa Rosa may also apply for the state funds, city officials there confirmed.

Last fall, Sonoma County received roughly $16 million in Homekey grants to purchase the Sebastopol Inn, now named Elderberry Commons, and the Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa, now named Mickey Zane Place.

At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Vice Mayor Jackie Elward made it clear she intends to see through the proposed housing plans.

Over a chorus of shouts and taunts, the city’s first Black councilwoman appealed to residents attending the meeting to work toward a common goal.

“Rohnert Park is changing whether you like it or not,” Elward said. “So how about we come to a solution that works for all of us.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

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