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Nearly two years after Sonoma County supervisors began exploring the idea of creating a village of tiny houses for homeless people, their vision is on the cusp of becoming reality in northern Santa Rosa.

Development is moving forward for a village with at least 12 tiny houses, all for homeless veterans, on property the county owns at its sprawling administrative campus south of the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center. Supervisors paved the way this week when they signed off on a three-year ground lease to test the tiny homes concept at 665 Russell Avenue, a few blocks northwest from the smaller site originally slated for the project.

“We’re just on the home stretch here,” Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane said.

Known as Veterans Village, the project has been a long time coming: Supervisors first discussed the idea in the summer of 2015 and ultimately selected Community Housing Sonoma County, a Santa Rosa nonprofit, as the developer in June of last year.

The nonprofit in November secured about $1.9 million in county affordable housing money for development of the village, envisioned as a new approach to alleviate two of the county’s most chronic problems: homelessness and a dearth of housing units.

The local rate of homelessness, 56 per 10,000 people, is more than three times the national rate, and preliminary results from county’s 2017 census identified more than 2,800 homeless individuals, including 211 veterans.

If successful, Zane hopes the county can replicate the tiny homes project on other public lands.

“We’re living in times where we need to be a lot more innovative in terms of how we do housing,” she said. “I think it could give us a great return on investment and really reduce homelessness in a significant way.”

The new location offered easier and cheaper utilities connection and dovetails better with the county’s future plans to remodel its administrative campus.

The initial 10,000-square-foot site, northwest of the intersection of Mendocino Avenue and Administration Drive, could be used as part of that overhaul, as a site for either permanent housing or a government facility, said Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director.

Paula Cook, the executive director of Community Housing Sonoma County, said the 30,000-square foot Russell Avenue location was a better fit for the project.

“It’s more of a residential site,” Cook said. “And it’s a larger site.”

With the deal now approved with Community Housing Sonoma County, the project should proceed on an “aggressive” six-month development schedule, with residents hopefully moving in to the village in December, Cook said.

The nonprofit still needs to request proposals for contractors who would supply the ready-made, approximately 250-square foot tiny homes, according to Cook.

Each of the single-occupancy units will come with a small kitchen, a fold-up bed, bathroom, a built-in desk and some storage space. The units will be wheelchair accessible, Cook said.

Veterans who qualify to live in the village will need to fulfill certain income requirements for housing vouchers. They’ll pay 30 percent of their income toward rent.

Cook said the nonprofit was still figuring out the “optimum number” of units the Russell Avenue site can support, but she hoped it would be more than a dozen. The units may be relocated to a more permanent site elsewhere in Santa Rosa after the three-year test period, but that was also still being evaluated, she said.

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The tiny homes village is one of numerous efforts supervisors have authorized in an attempt to put a dent in local homelessness. It’s also not the only one designed with veterans in mind: The Palms Inn, a Santa Rosa Avenue motel converted into homeless housing, includes 60 units for veterans.

Zane believed such initiatives had already “significantly reduced” the number of homeless veterans in the county. The 2017 county census showed that number had dropped 23 percent over previous year.

“I’m hoping that, in my tenure on the board, that number goes to zero,” she said. “That’s my goal.”

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