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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Hoping to kick-start the region’s recovery from this month’s destructive wildfires, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa government leaders are preparing to act Tuesday on a series of new policies primarily focused on housing the thousands of residents whose homes were destroyed.

Both the county and city are looking to double down on state emergency laws designed to prevent landlords from hiking up rents unreasonably while fire victims are scrambling to find a new place to live. Officials also are considering a suite of housing rules that would allow residents to live in RVs and guest houses, among other places, while recovery is underway.

The idea is to make it easier for displaced residents to find somewhere to live after thousands of homes were lost in a market where options were already in short supply. The devastating wildfires destroyed an estimated 6,800 buildings, most of them homes, in the area.

“I think what we’re trying to do is show the community that we are willing to look outside the box for creative solutions that allow people to stay here through the rebuilding process,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers.

Both the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council will consider ordinances targeting price gouging in the rental housing market. The county’s ordinance would require landlords in the unincorporated area to provide supporting data to justify any increase over the unit’s average rental price from before the disaster, according to county officials.

The city’s proposed ordinance is similar, barring landlords from increasing rents more than 10 percent above the rent charged immediately before the fire. Both proposals are consistent with state law, which normally applies for 30 days after an emergency, but which Gov. Jerry Brown extended through April 18, 2018.

How much support the measure gets from the City Council remains to be seen. All three of the city’s urgency measures, because they go into effect immediately, need five votes to pass.

During last year’s divisive rent control debate, only four council members supported the city’s rent control law, which limited rent increases for most units under most circumstances, to 3 percent. The law was overturned by voters earlier this year.

Additionally, the county is considering a moratorium on new vacation rental permits that would last for 45 days — with possible extensions for up to two years — under an ordinance intended to preserve the existing housing stock for long-term rentals.

A separate emergency housing ordinance would relax various housing rules to expand the range of living options available in the unincorporated county.

One change would allow homeowners to rent their accessory structures, such as guesthouses or pool houses, to fire victims. Similar allowances would also be made for visitor-serving spaces such as inns, resorts, farm-stays and marketing accommodations.

The emergency housing ordinance, which would stay in place through 2019, would also let people live in RVs, including at the site of a destroyed or damaged home they are rebuilding.

“I’ve heard from some who want to just plant an RV on their site and stay right there and oversee the rebuilding of their homes,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “There’s others that obviously want to go rent somewhere while they’re going to rebuild, or there’s those that were renting in the first place that need a new place to live. Without knowing the specific numbers on each individual category, we’re trying to make a whole menu of options available to reinforce the housing market.”

The county ordinance would also allow farmworker housing to be used all year, and the county could sanction more locations for people to sleep in their cars overnight — a program Catholic Charities scaled down this summer amid funding challenges. Jennielynn Holmes, Catholic Charities’ director of shelter and housing in Santa Rosa, said she’s open to expanding the program, known as safe parking, as one component of a broader push to get people into permanent housing.

“We need to put every option on the table and we need to think from every single direction as we move forward in this recovery phase,” she said. “At the end of the day, someone in a safe parking space is still homeless, so we want to make sure we’re recovering their homelessness, which means linking them to housing resources.”

Without enough regional action, Holmes feared the county could be in store for what she called “a new wave of homelessness” prompted by the fires.

“When you’ve got people with higher income or better credit or a long-term rental history as opposed to someone who’s lower income or might have some credit issues — those people often don’t get picked,” Holmes said of the post-firestorm rental market. “So then they end up becoming pushed out of the market and entering homelessness for the first time.”

Santa Rosa, meanwhile, is proposing to establish a special zoning district to cover affected areas and make the rebuilding process “efficient and expeditious,” according to the city staff report.

The new district, being referred to as a Resilient City combining district, would overlay the existing zoning in the affected areas and remain in place for three years.

The five zones identified include parts of Coffey Park, Highway 101/Round Barn, Fountaingrove, Fountainview and Rincon Valley.

Properties within the districts will receive prioritized permit review. Fees for demolition permits will be waived. Homes will be able to be rebuilt as originally permitted, but must conform to new building and fire codes.

That may turn out to be a significant additional expense. For example, since 2011, sprinkler systems are now required in all single-family homes and duplexes in California.

Residential sprinkler systems run about $3 to $5 per square foot, or $9,000 to $15,000 for a 3,000-square-foot home, said Alan Gale, the owner of Alpha Fire Suppression Systems, Inc. in Santa Rosa.

But that doesn’t include the cost of upgrading to a larger water line, which the city could require for homes being upgraded, he said.

“That’s the big ticket item,” Gale said, estimating a new connection could cost another $8,000.

Getting sufficient water pressure is another problem in the hillside Fountaingrove neighborhood in particular, Gale said. Most homes had pressurized tanks to improve the water pressure, but such systems don’t work when the power goes out, making them ineffective for emergencies like wildfires, he said.

The city also plans to make it easier to include granny units on rebuilt properties by waiving some fees and reducing others. The county is considering a similar plan.

Temporary housing, like tiny homes, RVs or manufactured homes, will also be allowed on properties in one of the city’s five zones with a building permit, the fees of which will be waived.

To further speed the review of such permits, David Guhin, the city’s director of the Planning and Economic Development, would have significant new authority to unilaterally grant permits that otherwise might have needed the approval of the city’s Planning Commission or its Design Review Board.

The five zones outlined by the city, however, don’t appear to encompass all the homes destroyed in the fire. There are at least two homes on Sullivan Way north of Howarth Park that were leveled. Guhin said the ordinances can be updated later with additional information if necessary.

To help publicize Santa Rosa’s recovery and housing efforts, the city is also planning to hire local advertising firm The Engine is Red. A contract allowing the city to spend up to $96,000 for the firm’s services is on Tuesday’s agenda, as well.

County and city officials appear to be working closely together on fire-related issues, including meeting twice a week and launching a new website called www.sonomacountyrecovers.org.

This site contains information about the recovery effort, including before-and-after maps, rental housing listings, information about debris removal and where to get financial assistance.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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