Only about 2 percent of Sonoma’s housing stock was available before the fires destroyed thousands of homes, said Raissa de la Rosa, the economic development manager for the City of Santa Rosa. Much of the housing stock is taken up by vacation homes, and the homes that were available were out of reach for many prospective residents.“Housing was a priority before; now, it’s a super-priority,” de la Rosa said. The fire claimed about 5 percent of the city’s remaining housing stock, leaving thousands displaced. According to Guzman, many people “don’t have a lot of hope they’ll find anything. It was hard enough to find something in the first place.”Even before the fire came over the ridge, Santa Rosa was working toward incentivizing denser, more-diverse housing downtown, de la Rosa said. The city’s housing action plan, already in place, focuses on affordable development. But then it lost more housing than it built last year. In the weeks since the blaze, median monthly rent in Sonoma County has jumped 35 percent to $3,224, in response to new demand from displaced residents. This prompted Santa Rosa to install a cap on rent increases to combat price gouging.
In mid-October, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County issued a series of emergency ordinances designed to speed the process of rebuilding and protect those who were displaced. The new policies waived processing fees for burned structures, suspended new vacation rentals, allowed people to live in temporary housing like RVs and trailers, opened up restrictions on secondary units, and extended occupancy rules to allow seasonal farmworkers to stay year-round.
De la Rosa said the city had more than 3,100 units in the pipeline in some way before the fire; her office is now looking at which of those can be pushed through the fastest. Among those leading the charge is Rebuild North Bay, a public-private partnership established by the influential Sacramento lobbyist and real-estate magnate Darius Anderson. Acting as executive director is James Lee Witt, a former FEMA director whose otherwise respected disaster-relief company was the subject of an eight-month NBC News investigation into profiteering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In a recent press conference, Witt said he intends to work closely with local representatives to identify needs and act quickly.
Already, the disaster is spurring debate on how—and even if—some areas should be rebuilt. Recovery presents opportunities to start over in some areas and address housing inadequacies with equity and sustainability in mind, but some worry a hastened rebuilding effort could favor high-end developers and wineries.“We’re acutely aware of disaster capitalism and how this community can be exploited in a way that can make a few people money,” said Annie Dobbs-Kramer of the North Bay Organizing Project. Her organization is pushing to include working-class people in the restoration plans, with affordable housing and tenant protection at the top of its list.In Sonoma, where rents significantly outpace wages, rent control has been a divisive topic. In 2016, Santa Rosa City Council passed a rent-control ordinance that immediately earned the ire of landlords. In June 2017, a signature-collection effort plagued by accusations of fraud forced a referendum. Rent control opponents, led by the National Association of Realtors, a trade group, outspent housing-rights proponents five to one—and broke city campaign-spending records in the process, the Press Democrat reported. The rent-control measure was defeated by 781 votes.
It’s too early to tell how recovery efforts will shake out or how many of Sonoma’s low-income families will stick around. Meanwhile, the region has been flooded with relief funds. A coalition of immigrant rights groups including the North Bay Organizing Project has launched Undocufund to raise money for undocumented immigrant workers who do not qualify for FEMA assistance and face procedural and language barriers to accessing aid.
Guzman recalled that as the fires approached, public officials were slow to relay quality information in Spanish. With no idea of what to do, many Spanish-speaking families instinctively fled to the coast. Guzman said he met with many who were sleeping in their cars on the side of Highway 1. The nearby town of Bodega Bay had opened up two shelters, Guzman added, “but folks just didn’t know they were there.”
AUTHOR: Stephen R. Miller
PUBLICATION: The Atlantic
DATE: November 29, 2017