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Sonoma County Supervisors, Santa Rosa City Council to discuss fire recovery, housing and homelessness

Santa Rosa mayor Chris Coursey, in Santa Rosa's Hidden Valley neighborhood, that was razed by the Tubbs fire, Friday Oct. 20, 2017. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

J.D. MORRIS,

Sonoma County and Santa Rosa elected officials will hold an extremely rare, if not unprecedented, joint meeting Tuesday to discuss recovery from the October wildfires, housing policy and a possible redesign of the way local governments provide services to the homeless.

The joint session of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council has been in the works for several months as a forum to address what have long been among the region’s most pressing public policy challenges: an extreme shortage of housing options, particularly affordable ones, and a homeless rate more than three times the national average.

Both of those problems were intensified by the most destructive wildfires in California, which devastated the region last month when they destroyed thousands of homes in the county, including about 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock.

“We absolutely have to get people housed right now, in terms of immediate and transitional housing,” said Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane. “But we also have a long-term vision, and that’s what we all need to sit down and talk about ... and reinforce that to the public, in terms of rebuilding.”

Supervisors and council members will meet jointly at 4 p.m. at 35 Stony Point Road in Santa Rosa. They’re scheduled to first hear an update on fire recovery presented by Mark Ghilarducci, the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Then they’ll discuss a potential financing mechanism that could promote housing development, followed by a proposal to make the county’s homeless services system more efficient.

“We had a housing problem before we lost 3,000 houses in Santa Rosa,” said Mayor Chris Coursey. “We need to build more housing, especially affordable housing, in Santa Rosa — that is in addition to rebuilding 3,000 homes that were lost. I don’t want to lose that focus. We have an additional focus because of the fire, but I don’t want to forget the needs we had before the fire.”

At the joint meeting, officials will consider an intricate policy option that won’t do much for the short-term housing needs of fire victims but could arguably reap dividends for the community further down the road.

City and county staff members will raise the possibility of creating special financing districts that would designate certain geographical zones where a portion of new tax revenue, including property taxes, is set aside to help fund infrastructure improvements that could pave the way for housing projects.

“One of the things that we’re finding is that, to get housing projects going, financing the infrastructure component — the water, sewer and other infrastructure — is a big barrier to making a project pencil out,” said David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s director of planning and economic development.

A special tax district would be a mechanism for public officials to “try to reduce some of the upfront impacts to make sure housing projects can move forward,” Guhin said.

Staff members aren’t asking to implement the tax districts at this point; they’re looking for feedback from supervisors and council members about whether to study the issue in detail, according to Guhin.

Similarly, staff members will solicit input from the board and council about a consultant’s recommendations to reform the way the county cares for its more than 2,800 homeless residents. The consultant has previously described the county’s homeless services system as “fragmented,” with authority spread across too many different groups, and recommended forming a more unified decision-making process.

“We don’t have specific recommendations in front of them, other than we know we’ve got to move even faster, even more urgently to get housing produced and deal with the fragmented parts of our homeless system of care,” said Margaret Van Vliet, the executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission. “I suspect they’ll tell us to go forward and bring back more specific plans that they can vote on and take action on.”

Zane and Coursey both said Tuesday would mark the first time either of them could remember the board and council meeting concurrently.

“I hope it’s the first of many,” Zane said. “Our residents need us to be unified on these issues right now — now more than ever.”