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More than 200 students dropped out of Santa Rosa Junior College in the wake of the October wildfires, unable to secure affordable housing after family homes and rentals burned in the blaze. Facing a growing uncertainty over future enrollment as more people get priced out of the housing market, college officials now are looking to build student dormitories.

SRJC President Frank Chong is eying the 8-acre site west of the Santa Rosa campus that houses the California National Guard armory and a Cal Fire administrative office to build an estimated 500 housing units for the college’s students and staff. He floated the idea last week at a Sonoma County housing workshop after the wildfires destroyed the homes of 900 students and 63 faculty, staff members and administrators.

“I talk to many students who are commuting as far as Cloverdale and Lake County,” Chong said. “There was a problem with housing shortages prior. Now with the fires, it’s made it much more difficult for students to find housing.”

Taking over the armory site, however, could prove a costly and cumbersome endeavor, if not unlikely.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, this past summer called at the request of college officials a meeting with a senior California Guard official to discuss moving the armory, where St. Vincent de Paul Sonoma County currently operates a homeless shelter during winter.

Although it’s unclear how much it would cost the college to take over the state-owned property, McGuire said the colonel laid out a “complicated and expensive” process involving multiple government agencies, including the federal government.

“The Department of Homeland Security has very specific construction requirements for new and modern armory facilities,” he said. “The vast majority of cases, the entity that would be moving into the former armory property would be responsible for securing the new property and paying for a lion’s share of the construction cost.”

Still, McGuire encouraged college officials to sit down with the California Guard, again.

“We’re now living in a new reality since the North Bay firestorm,” he said. “Regardless if housing is going to be built at the armory site, we have to work together.”

However, National Guard Lt. Col. Thomas Keegan said they has no interest in giving up the armory.

“The California Military Department does not plan to divest the National Guard armory located in Santa Rosa,” he said in a statement. “As evidenced during last year’s wildfires, the property is critical to the National Guard’s emergency-response efforts across Northern California. It is also essential to the readiness of the hundreds of National Guard soldiers who train there for state and overseas missions.”

Keegan said Gov. Jerry Brown allocated $5.6 million to renovate and modernize the property.

Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick said there could be the possibility of relocating the armory to or near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport if the National Guard considers a move. However, it would require approval from the airport commission.

“We can do this, but it’s a matter of intergovernmental cooperation — and money,” Wick said.

Chong, who plans to meet with county and city officials this week to discuss how to move forward on a project, said the college currently is searching for a planning consultant who specializes in student housing.

“This is still very preliminary,” he said, noting the college still is looking into how to pay for student and workforce housing.

SRJC Trustee Dorothy Battenfeld said the college is looking at the armory because of its size and proximity to campus. Students could walk to class, alleviating parking problems and reducing their carbon footprint. It’s also exploring building new dorms on campus, she said. SRJC could turn to private-public partnerships as other colleges around the state have done to construct new student housing.

“Clearly, we don’t have the funding as the college to do it. We’re going to explore and research options for funding,” she said.

SRJC used to have dorms on campus. However, the college tore down the aging Kent Hall dormitory 15 years ago.

Battenfeld said the board has been talking about creating housing options for students since she was elected four years ago. The discussion only intensified after the wildfires. Housing is linked to student success — they’re less likely to stay in school or finish college on time if they don’t have stable housing, she said.

A lot of the students displaced by the fires already faced many challenges, Battenfeld said. Many came from low-income households or were foster or first-generation college students.

“We want those students at the JC, and we want those students to be successful,” she said. “To do that we have to deal with housing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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