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Affordable housing crisis in Sonoma County

  • Jill DiPaolo and four year-old Brady in Santa Rosa, Tuesday Aug. 5, 2014. DiPaolo is a single mom who lives in COTS housing but is looking for an affordable one bedroom apartment because her time at COTS is almost up. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014

Jill DiPaolo, a single mom who lives in temporary housing for formerly homeless people in Petaluma, has been searching for a permanent apartment for her and her 4-year-old son for months. Most days, the search is fruitless. On the rare day that DiPaolo finds a one-bedroom in her price range, her application is denied.

“I was looking at a place the other day, and someone actually told me ‘we’re not interested in any of that,’ ” DiPaolo said, referring to her rental voucher she’s using to find housing. “There’s so few rentals here, so it’s insanely difficult to find a place for me and my son. I’m just trying to get back on my feet and I can’t find anything.”

Through the Petaluma-based nonprofit Committee on the Shelterless, which helps homeless people and others who might be teetering on the brink of homelessness find housing, DiPaolo has been in stable housing for the past two years. Now, her time is expiring and she must move on. But her search remains dreary: She’s looked at 60 apartments since January, and already this week she’s had at least one denial.

“She’s doing everything right — taking financial literacy courses, finding a job and going to school, but she has reached her two-year limit,” said Jed Heibel, vice president of programs for COTS. “But she can’t find anything. It’s a reflection of the scarcity of affordable housing in Sonoma County. So many people are being out-priced.”

DiPaolo’s story is not rare. Sonoma County hasn’t built enough affordable housing in recent years to keep pace with a growing population and loss of jobs after the Great Recession, which has largely contributed to a more vulnerable middle class. The population in unincorporated areas is expected to grow by more than 20,000 people by 2040, to more than 170,000.

That influx means scarcer resources for low-income people, and increased pressure on housing providers. But this week, the county Board of Supervisors outlined a new 10-year affordable housing plan structured around building new low-income units, as well as implementing housing programs that aim to help vulnerable populations — from the homeless to migrant farmworkers to the mentally ill.

The affordable housing strategy shined light on one of the most severe housing crisis to hit Sonoma County in decades. The vacancy rate for rentals is below 1.5 percent, homelessness has risen to nearly 10,000 people countywide, existing housing stock is threatened with possible conversion to vacation rentals, tenants of mobile home parks are being evicted, and meanwhile the possible closure of the Sonoma Developmental Center could send hundreds more people onto the streets. But the most aggressive county plan hatched in recent years, which would divert general fund monies into affordable housing programs, would fall short.

Even robust estimates would allocate only $200,000 annually from the county general fund to pay for the array of programs supervisors discussed Tuesday.

Funding would be focused in four key areas: retention of existing housing stock, protections for residents of mobile home parks, providing solutions to meet long-term needs for the homeless for such things as permanent supportive housing, and building new affordable housing.

Meanwhile, pressure on people like DiPaolo, who are trying to make ends meet, has never been greater.

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