FEMA gradually closing trailer city for 2017 wildfire survivors in Sonoma County

A makeshift neighborhood of trailers housing fire survivors who lost their homes in the 2017 firestorm is gradually being closed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, though local officials have secured an extension for a handful of occupants to remain into early summer.

At its peak, the Sonoma County Fairgrounds’ RV park was home to 120 trailers brought in by FEMA to shelter homeowners and renters whose homes were incinerated in the October 2017 wildfires, which destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County.

FEMA had previously set Friday as the last day renters were eligible for its temporary housing program. At the last minute, seven renters who lost housing during the fires were given a reprieve allowing them to remain in a FEMA trailer until July 10.

The extension came too late for 15 renters who relinquished the keys to their government trailers Friday to comply with the FEMA deadline. Five others are in the process of losing their trailers because they violated agreements with FEMA, said David Passey, the agency’s regional director of external affairs.

Pam Peavler, a Healdsburg native, moved into a FEMA trailer in November 2017 shortly after the Tubbs fire destroyed the Santa Rosa house she was renting. On Friday, she was hauling her belongings out of the trailer and into an RV while her boyfriend, Scott Struckman, busied himself preparing the vehicle for the couple to move on.

Peavler said the couple did not have a permanent destination in mind but hoped to become camp hosts, perhaps somewhere farther north. T-shirts on hangers and socks strewn on a rack had yet to join the rest of the couple’s stuff as noon approached, with bundles of bedding and crates of clothes marking Peavler’s moving progress.

“I’ve got laundry coming out of my head,” Peavler said.

In all, FEMA supplied temporary housing to about 230 Sonoma County families after the 2017 wildfires, said Brandi Richard, a spokeswoman for the agency. She could not say how many got FEMA trailers and how many were housed by other means, such as a government lease of an existing apartment.

FEMA typically provides trailers to displaced disaster survivors for 18 months, setting April 10 as the end of the program for October 2017 wildfire survivors. Earlier this year, Santa Rosa and Sonoma County secured extensions from FEMA, which pushed back the deadline for homeowners by three months to July 10. But renters, many of them lower-income, received just one extra month, giving them until Friday to find an affordable rental in Sonoma County’s tight housing market.

While Peavler and others in the RV park prepared to leave, local leaders including Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm and City Manager Sean McGlynn traveled last week to Washington, D.C., making last-ditch efforts to persuade federal officials to extend the deadline for renters.

Mike Gossman, the county’s director of recovery and resiliency, said FEMA officials had been concerned that local officials weren’t doing enough to house people. Local officials said the city and county were doing what they could, including the issuance of 48 city housing vouchers to displaced renters facing the deadline to leave the fairgrounds, he said.

“We’ve been able to get a lot of people housed,” Gossman said. “To me, that’s a compelling argument for us to have a few more months.”

Negotiations continued until Friday afternoon, when Schwedhelm received word that FEMA had begun crafting an extension. Passey confirmed the extension Saturday.

Normally, the fairgrounds’ RV park has a 28-day limit on stays, but some residents have been living there in FEMA trailers for 19 months. Fairground managers have fielded complaints about the residents of the FEMA trailers from travelers passing through the RV park.

A “good handful of folks” living in FEMA trailers at the RV park had trouble with the law or had violated park rules against late visitors and after-hours noise during their stay, said Becky Bartling, CEO of the Sonoma County Fair.

“The question is, what happens if they just don’t leave?” Bartling said. “We certainly want to help the folks that have been good (residents) during this timeframe and that truly lost a home during the fires or lost a rental facility and have no place to go.”

But with little concrete information Friday, most weren’t sticking around.

Stacey Gonzales was one of the renters who didn’t have a plan beyond taking personal belongings to storage. She is resigned to living in her car if she can’t find anywhere else.

As if losing the Coffey Park home she was renting with relatives wasn’t bad enough, Gonzales’ mother, daughter and sister-in-law all passed away in the months after the fire, leaving her to care for a teenage son with special needs and a 6-year-old grandson.

“It’s just been bad luck all the way around for me,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Jamie Sutton, a former resident of the fire-ravaged Journey’s End mobile home park, lived in a FEMA trailer in the fairgrounds park until earlier this year, when she was arrested on a warrant for missing a court date. When she got back from jail, her trailer was gone, Sutton said.

She took a break from reminiscing about the fire with Gonzales to point out the staircase that used to lead to her trailer. Now it sat before nothing but air.

Sutton remains optimistic about the future, noting that she survived the fire’s wake with stronger connections to her old neighbors and new friends like Gonzales.

“We’re family now,” Sutton said. “We went through this horrible war, and we came out a little singed.”

“We’ll be fine,” she added. “We’re survivors - duh!”

A few trailers over, Tyler Shinn, who happens to be Struckman’s nephew, wasn’t so certain about what would happen to him and his dog Jackson.

Shinn said he had congestive heart failure and cited medical care to treat the condition as the reason he missed a key FEMA deadline to show he was making a good-faith effort to move out, prompting an eviction notice more than a month ago. He said he felt “super fortunate” that he still had a roof over his head.

Shinn was working with a local nonprofit to come up with a plan, but said the strain of his poor health and housing instability has left him overwhelmed.

“Life has hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said.

Another impact remaining renters may feel soon: bills for rent and for overstaying their welcome.

Under federal regulations, FEMA can start charging rent to disaster survivors who remain in trailers after an extension has been granted, starting with the first day of the first month after the extension. Several remaining renters said they already faced a bill for May’s rent, as well as penalty fees of about $4,000 for future months that aren’t covered by a FEMA extension.

The agency starts its billing calculations with the fair-market rental rate determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - about $1,900 a month, according to several trailer occupants - but FEMA can reduce that charge based on individual households’ ability to afford rent, said Richard, the FEMA spokeswoman.

“Ultimately, the rental of the unit is based on that individual family and that household and their needs and what works for them,” Richard said.

Trailer occupants could appeal their initial rent charge, like Jerry Canaday did after receiving his bill for about $1,900. He was a Coffey Park homeowner before the fire, but his house wasn’t properly insured. Though he said he understood FEMA’s businesslike approach, the weight of the rent bill made Canaday shake his head.

“It’s impossible for a guy like me,” he said.

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