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Former teacher the face of Healdsburg’s housing crunch

Christine Webster has been through five brain surgeries after suffering a devastating stroke that partially paralyzed her, but in the eight years since, she’s had a strong recovery and is able to live on her own in Healdsburg, where she volunteers, tutors grade-school kids and rides her three-wheel bike to the shaded plaza.

Webster loves the cozy, one-bedroom duplex she lives in on Fitch Street, kitty-corner from the junior high school where she used to teach. But after 10 years living there, it looks like a 65 percent jump in rent - from $850 per month to $1,400 - is going to force her out.

Even with Section 8 federal housing assistance, her limited disability income will not stretch that far.

With a low rental vacancy rate and the highest real estate prices in Sonoma County, the lack of affordable housing in Healdsburg is topping the civic agenda, in no small part due to Webster’s help in putting the issue on the front burner.

Although housing was already a City Council priority, Webster’s letters to newspapers and her ability to get the word out on social media spurred a crowd of more than 100 people to pack the last council meeting to demand something be done about the problem of escalating rents and mass evictions in some low-income properties.

“No doubt her letters and her advocacy have struck a chord,” City Councilman Gary Plass said.

The most recent data dramatically underscore the affordability problem in Healdsburg.

For the first six months of the year, the Healdsburg median home price jumped 31 percent to $899,000, according to The Press Democrat’s housing report, which is compiled by Pacific Union International Vice President Rick Laws. That is the biggest increase for any region in the county and the highest median price, too.

“A family making $150,000 a year can’t afford a house in Healdsburg,” Mayor Shaun McCaffery said Friday.

“This has kind of reached a boiling point where our housing situation has been brewing so long. We need to do something about it.”

In Sonoma County, rents have generally increased around 30 percent over the past three years, although median rental prices in Healdsburg are not as readily available because there are few big apartment complexes and companies that track the data tend to compare only market-rate projects of 50 apartment units or more.

But every day there seem to be more stories of long-term renters being handed notices of steep rent increases, some of which are mentioned on the “Healdsburg Affordable Housing” Facebook page Webster helped create. The page has surpassed 600 followers.

Webster highlighted her own situation and that of four of her neighbors who have the same landlord looking to make property improvements and raise rents.

She also brought to public attention the plight of 21 Latino families who were being evicted by the new owners of a low-rent apartment complex, who have plans to fix it up and in some cases more than double the rents.

What especially riled some people was a prospectus put out by Drake Property Group, the Larkspur investment firm that purchased the apartment complex on Prentice Avenue, stating it was seeking “a tenant demographic more appropriate to the refined nature of the Healdsburg community, tenants who value good design and beautiful surroundings.”

To some, the language seemed discriminatory if not emblematic of gentrification, or systematic pushing out of lower-income individuals and their families.

Webster told the City Council, “There is blatant racism, classism and elitism happening to our beloved community. We are literally putting Healdsburg children out on the street, and we should be ashamed of ourselves.”

She also asked the council to enact an emergency moratorium on rent increases, retroactive one month, and restrict future increases to 5 percent per year.

The City Council on Monday evening will take up a discussion on rental housing in what is anticipated to be another standing-room-only meeting.

In his agenda report released Friday, City Manager David Mickaelian noted that the need for increased housing, combined with the shortage of rentals, widens the economic divide in the community.

He said that as a general city law, any rent control enacted in Healdsburg can apply only to apartments built prior to February 1995.

The city cannot regulate rents for single-family homes and condominiums or when tenancies change, in most cases, he said.

Mickaelian noted that the city formed a housing committee that is looking at how to modify a voter-approved growth management ordinance that is perceived as causing insufficient housing stock to be built in Healdsburg over the past 15 years.

For Webster, 47, who lives on food stamps and Social Security disability income of less than $1,000 per month, “it’s about money and greed.” She added that her landlords “don’t have to do this to us.”

She said her landlords recently agreed to a concession to raise her current $850 rent to only $1,100 on Aug. 1, before it goes to $1,400 in January, but she still won’t be able to make rent under the Section 8 assistance guidelines.

“There’s no place my income affords me. What am I supposed to do?” she said. “I have no idea where I will end up, or if I will even be in Sonoma County.”

On Friday, Pam Tauffer of Healdsburg Property Management, which manages Webster’s duplex, declined to comment but said the property owner, Victor Trentadue, would call directly. He could not be reached for comment.

Webster’s friends say she has benefited from the support of the Healdsburg community over the years in recovering from her stroke, which initially put her into the hospital for months.

“The only thing I knew was my name and that I was a teacher. I couldn’t hardly speak, walk or see straight,” she said.

In the ensuing years, Webster has managed to make a remarkable comeback.

“It’s really funny because I’m so grateful. I appreciate everyone in this community. I don’t believe I would have survived the last eight years without them,” she said.

Webster said she feels fortunate after working with stroke survivors who have been blinded or lost arms and legs.

“I tell my gratitude list to the universe every day when I wake up. I add to it at night,” she said.

“I’m just blessed, completely blessed,” she continued, adding that she feels bad “making a stink” about the rent situation but “I feel I have no choice.”

Webster volunteers at the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and the Raven Theater and also serves on a working committee at Kaiser Hospital that helps stroke patients. Friends say she is embedded in the community.

“What do we do with these people - the fabric of the community - as is Christine?” said her friend, Andrea Salmond. “She is really doubly impacted. Not only is she on fixed income, she is also caught up in a sudden lack of housing.”

“There is no affordable housing any longer in Healdsburg,” said Salmond, who lives on Chalk Hill Road outside city limits but with a Healdsburg mailing address. “In the years I’ve been here, there’s been an extreme change in Healdsburg. It’s become an upscale Wine Country destination, and it’s really impacted a lot of citizens that aren’t in the upper 10 percent.”

She said she is very concerned about what will happen to Webster.

Webster says her friends have offered to let her stay with them, but she is reluctant to accept.

“I pride myself on being able to take care of myself, not having to depend on anyone,” she said. “I don’t want to put them in that type of situation where they have to take care of me.”

Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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