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PD Editorial: Opening doors to our displaced friends and neighbors

THE EDITORIAL BOARD, BY THE EDITORIAL BOARD

The numbers are still staggering. If one adds up all the households lost in the fires — 6,800 total — it’s equivalent to Sonoma County losing all of Healdsburg and half of Cloverdale.

Some of the impacts were on display in Wednesday’s edition of The Press Democrat, including a story by Staff Writer Martin Espinoza about how roughly 200 doctors and their families are now without homes. In addition, 200 or so nurses, medical technicians, case managers, facilities engineers and other staff of Santa Rosa’s three largest hospitals — Kaiser, Sutter and Memorial — lost their houses.

Some of these individuals have already found a place to rent. Many are still searching. Still others will leave the rebuilding to others and accept employment elsewhere, making the communal loss from this fire all the more profound.

Keep in mind that Sonoma County already had a shortage of physicians, particularly general practitioners, before the Tubbs fire swept through the region beginning on Oct. 8, taking out some 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa alone. This area also had a teacher shortage and was preparing for a nursing shortage in the years to come.

All of this underscores the importance of the community working together to find housing for our displaced residents and to prevent the situation from getting far worse. We suggest adoption of a form of the Hippocratic Oath. If you can do no good — such as freeing up vacation rentals or cottages to victims of the fire — at least “do no harm” by jacking up rents to unjustifiable extremes.

Some may already be violating that pledge as, according to another story Wednesday, rents in Sonoma County have increased by as much as 36 percent in the 17 days since the fires broke out. Granted, the story was based on information from just one website, Zillow, and the sampling was small, given that few rental units are available. Nonetheless, Zillow found that the median rent had risen 36 percent to $3,224 per month in the week after the fires, compared to September. During the same time, Napa County experienced a 23 percent jump, while Marin County saw a 4 percent decrease.

A Zillow economist said that much of the increase was due to new units, many of them vacation rentals, coming on the market for regular renters. As we noted above, the community would benefit from more people opening up vacation rentals to help house displaced residents. It also can’t afford to lose any more regular rentals, which is why the Board of Supervisors put a halt on any new permits for vacation rentals this week.

The county currently has 1,500 permitted vacation rentals, and Supervisor Shirlee Zane is right when she says these present some of our best and most immediate options for housing displaced residents.

“They have furnishings,” including dishes and cookware, she said. “They’re ready-made for families.”

At the same time, the Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday enacted rules that prohibit landlords from raising rents more than 10 percent above what they were advertised before the fires. The restriction is similar to what already exists under state law, but it will last until April 18.

The council also approved the creation of five special zones — in Coffey Park, the Round Barn area, Fountaingrove, Fountainview and Rincon Valley — where new rules will allow residents to rebuild more quickly and inexpensively while also loosening regulations on temporary housing.

The governing bodies are putting the emphasis where it’s needed most — in creating more opportunities for living space for our displaced residents. As Tennis Wick, the county’s planning director, said, the county is working with a “sense of urgency.”

We all should be.

The county can ill afford to lose these doctors, nurses, teachers and other residents. And it certainly won’t be any easier, given our now-compounded housing crisis, to attract new workers to this area if we have to replace these individuals.

We won’t have a second chance to do this right.