Sonoma County and Santa Rosa officials signed off Tuesday on a set of new policies intended to help quickly rehouse residents who lost homes in the destructive wildfires this month, hoping to make rapid progress on one of the disaster’s most immediate and far-reaching consequences.
The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved new rules allowing fire victims to move into temporary living situations such as an RV parked on their property or someone else’s, a pool house with no kitchen or a room at a bed-and-breakfast inn.
Supervisors also paved the way for several new sanctioned locations where residents can sleep in their cars or trailers overnight. They put a temporary halt on any new vacation rental permits and waived or reduced permit fees for property owners who want to build granny units.
“We are hell-bent on getting this right quickly,” Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, told supervisors. The department stands ready to issue permits for the reconstruction of burned homes in the unincorporated area.
Across the county, 6,800 structures were destroyed, including 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa.
“The sense of urgency that’s needed in our agency to respond to this is there,” Wick said.
Santa Rosa also approved a suite of new regulations taking effect immediately to waive some permit fees, prioritize home reconstruction and make it easier for residents to erect temporary living situations on their properties while building is underway.
“What I mainly want to do tonight is to act to assure the community that we are committed to recovery and rebuilding,” Mayor Chris Coursey said.
The measures taken by the two government bodies were similar, but differed in one key way. The supervisors decided not to move forward with a local ordinance that sought to combat price gouging in the rental market. The City Council, despite concerns raised by District Attorney Jill Ravitch, voted unanimously to create its own ordinance that aligns with state law.
It prohibits landlords from raising rents more than 10 percent above what they were advertised pre-disaster until April 18. County staff had proposed a local ordinance that would have gone a step further, barring landlords from raising rents at all beyond their average rental price unless they could provide supporting cost data to prove it was necessary.
But Ravitch urged supervisors to table the ordinance, warning it could get in the way of her office’s ability to prosecute suspected price gougers based on state law, which she said already had “a lot of strength to it.” Ravitch’s office has investigated 25 allegations of price gouging since the fires began and is closing in on a few cases that could be brought to court, she said.
“Honestly, I just think you’re diluting what we’re trying to do,” Ravitch said.
County officials were receptive to Ravitch’s plea, though staff members may still revisit the issue if they can craft an ordinance that compliments the efforts of the District Attorney’s Office.
“I think this whole board finds it disgusting that anybody would take advantage of our victims,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman. “So we want you to go after them and get them and stop them.”