Sonoma County and Santa Rosa’s top elected leaders projected confidence Tuesday in their ability to work together on the recovery from the region’s worst natural disaster on record, and they signaled early support for new policies they believe could address some long-term consequences of the historic North Bay firestorm.
At a joint session of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council — the first such gathering in recent memory — officials agreed to move forward with a pair of ideas to advance housing development and improve the county’s vast homeless services system.
The proposals were put in motion months ago, but both the region’s housing shortage and its disproportionately high rate of homelessness were made even worse last month by California’s most destructive fires on record.
“We’re facing some really tough times right now, in terms of the disaster that we all experienced only a month ago,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman. “These two bodies sitting here today have a unified vision. We care about rebuilding: We want to build better, we want to build smart, we want to build fast. We want to get people back into their lives, because when those homes burned down, it wasn’t just structures. It was lives.”
The joint meeting was planned long ago to foster greater collaboration between the region’s largest governments on housing development and homeless services — two of the foremost policy challenges vexing them both.
Tuesday’s gathering at a city building on Stony Point Road still focused heavily on those topics, but the conversation was inevitably altered by the deadly October wildfires, which destroyed about 5 percent of Santa Rosa’s housing stock and fueled fears of a possible surge in homelessness as the city’s most visible encampment nearly doubled in size.
“Of course, the fire makes this more timely, but even without that disaster, we face issues such as housing and homelessness that don’t pay any attention to jurisdictional lines,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. “There may be efficiencies to be gained and better outcomes to be achieved if we can find ways to work together more often and better.”
City and county staff proposed conducting a detailed analysis of potential new financing districts that could promote more housing construction. The districts would encompass specific physical areas where a portion of certain tax revenues, namely property taxes, would be earmarked for major infrastructure improvements to encourage developers to build housing projects.
“It’s one of the mechanisms that can be used to pay for some of the infrastructure developments necessary for long-term housing recovery,” said Caroline Judy, the county’s general services director.
Council members and supervisors were generally receptive to the idea, though they raised some questions about how the proposal would be implemented. County and city staff members are planning to conduct further analysis and bring back more specific plans, including locations for the financing districts, over the next several months.
Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn also urged supervisors and council members to lobby state officials for a “rapid rehousing redevelopment district” that could be created quickly, since he said the infrastructure financing districts would require voter approval to fully implement.
“That’s a long, long road to go (down) — I do not believe that we have a long, long time to address these issues,” McGlynn said. “This is a place where action is required. We can’t wait for a vote.”
The proposal was met with some skepticism by members of the public, including Santa Rosa resident James Arietta, who suggested private developers could benefit inappropriately from the financing districts. He told officials he didn’t think they “fully comprehend what you’re doing or what you’re signing up for.”
However, Mark Krug, business development manager with Burbank Housing, said his company supported the concept, which he called an “important tool” for generating much-needed home construction.
Supervisors and council members also decided to further review of a consultant’s recommendations to streamline homeless services. Consultant Patrick Wigmore of HomeBase said the system is hindered by a large number of service providers that could benefit from the creation of a centralized decision-making body.
Zane and Coursey formed a joint subcommittee of the council and county board that will examine the plan further.
“It couldn’t come soon enough,” said Supervisor Lynda Hopkins of the centralized decision-making process.
The housing and homeless discussions followed an initial update on fire recovery efforts led by Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services.
More than 4,200 burned properties have been cleared of household hazardous waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and officials have received more than 2,000 right-of-entry forms from fire victims who want to participate in the government’s debris removal program, Ghilarducci said. About 4,000 properties must still decide whether to sign up for the public cleanup effort by the Nov. 13 deadline.
To help fire victims with their debris removal paperwork, local officials will host two “resource fairs” this weekend. The first is on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. at 35 Stony Point Road, the same spot as Tuesday’s meeting. The second is on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building.
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @thejdmorris.