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Groups advocate for Sonoma County residents living in tiny homes, trailers

A Sebastopol woman whose tiny home has been red-tagged by the county for a zoning violation has until Jan. 19 to move or make repairs.

One of the violations cited is her use of a composting toilet when hookup to a septic tank, costing thousands, is required. Compost toilets use natural plant material and enzyme activity and are said to be good for the environment, according to Kathleen Finigan, spokesperson for Homeless Action of Santa Rosa.

Homeless Action and a group called SAGE, Stop All Government Evictions, has highlighted the case of Copperwoman Saso, 70, a music healer, singer/songwriter, as an example of what activists in the group consider inequities in the county permit system and state law. They said they understand that some situations are life-threatening and unsafe, but believe enforcement of “antiquated” laws is putting people out on the street in other cases.

SAGE, founded by journalist Jonathan Greenberg, who runs the Sonoma Independent website, recently organized a concert in Santa Rosa, featuring Saso and property owners/musicians Andrea and Bob Culbertson. Funds raised were to be used to defray costs associated with the movement to stop what they believe are unfair and unnecessary citations. It was promoted as a “Benefit to Support Housing Rights” and sought donations of $10-$20.

“We’re trying to save her from eviction,” said Finigan. “She’s 70, quite delightful and she deserves to have her home. It’s a lovely, place, just adorable.”

Greenberg said more than 189 units have been ordered evacuated in the past year (ending Sept. 1) by Permit Sonoma.

“These mobile and converted dwellings are being offered not by slumlords, but by property owners who provide about 10 times as many affordable units of housing than every unit built by the county and through developer set asides during the past two decades put together,” he wrote in a report.

Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma, said the county does not issue eviction notices, “we enforce the (state) building code. We require that landlords with substandard housing bring their property up to code. We have a way to defer enforcement that allows them to do the upgrades. There are minimum safety standards and we need to enforce them.”

He said there have been 75 complaints about unpermitted structures between Aug. 30 and Sept. 1, 11 being used as vacation rentals, including pool houses, chicken coops, room additions and garage conversions. There were also 74 complaints about unpermitted travel trailers, 12 of which were on unpermitted cannabis sites. Of about 118 dwellings that occupied travel trailers, 27 complaints were unfounded or unverified, nine were unoccupied and a sprinkling of tiny homes and one yurt were occupied.

SAGE went to the Dec. 14 Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ meeting to urge supervisors to pass a moratorium on Permit Sonoma evacuation notices to low-income renters in simple homes. Saso spoke to the board during public comments.

Supervisors said they couldn’t alter the agenda item and voted to extend allowances for fire survivors to keep RVs on their property. But they acknowledged the need to put the issue of the use of compost toilets on the agenda for January.

West county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins has been a champion of composting toilets since she was first elected in 2016. She said she agrees with SAGE that “there are lot of people in west county who are housed safely in dwellings that are not strictly to code. It’s better for them to stay where they are as long as it’s truly habitable,” she said. “I’ve been having conversations with the county counsel about a way to do a moratorium on citing these structures.”

In a letter to supervisors before the Dec. 14 board meeting, Greenberg said “thousands of unpermitted renters live with the constant fear that one call from an anonymous neighbor to Permit Sonoma could all too well result in a dreaded 30-day eviction order, standard operating procedure whenever a code inspector shows up to look at a trailer, yurt, tent or tiny home, regardless of how safe they are.”

He said “modern alternatives such as composting toilets and trailer bathrooms, which are more affordable, conserve water and help to preserve the environment” are allowed in other regions in the state but not in Sonoma County.

Dunn said Saso was first cited Aug. 20 and on Nov. 19 was given another 60 days.

“We tried to work with the building owners and Copperwoman,” he said. “We are very cognizant of the housing crisis in the county. We need to protect the market for those on the lower end. Currently the state building code does not allow that kind of housing. A compost toilet is one part of it.”

He said the case was settled with “an agreeable disposition” during a hearing.

Apparently it isn’t agreeable to Saso, who grew up living in cabins. The musician, who said she got the name Copperwoman when she made copper jewelry years ago, said she bought the tiny home about a year ago in Sebastopol, and the Culbertsons allowed her to stay where it was built on their property in exchange for $625 space rent. They bonded as musicians, she was allowed to grow a garden that provides food for everybody.

“It became a community,” she said. “I’m living in a community but I have my own house.”

Then someone in the area where she lives on Heather Lane submitted complaints about three dwellings, she said. Now she said she is fighting to save her home and those of others.

“It would be nice if we could change some things,” Saso said.

At the hearing on the 260-square-foot tiny home, which was attended by property owner Andrea Culbertson, the county forgave fines and left them with administrative costs of $2,000.

“I’m supposed to get hooked up to septic or unplug and move,” she said. “Hooking up to septic ”is not something that my land people (property owners) want to do.”

Saso said she’s researching mobile home parks that might accept a tiny home.

Sonoma County Legal Aid Executive Director Ronit Rubinoff said more than half the seniors who come to her office are dealing with housing issues.

“Housing is so scarce and expensive,“ she said. ”People will do anything to have a roof over their heads. One senior woman had a bathtub that would back up with sewage, and she didn’t say anything. It’s really disturbing that this is having such an impact on our senior population. At some point you should not have to worry about a roof over your head.“

Allowing people to live in unsafe, unsanitary conditions is not acceptable and red-tagging is important, Rubinoff said. “But they (SAGE) are looking at a different issue. They are talking about places that don’t strictly meet code. There could be a need to re-evaluate the code.

“Perhaps it’s time to say there should be different rules for alternative housing. We’ve got people living in cars. We’re doing safe parking (for homeless people). We make exceptions for ADU (accessory dwelling units like granny units), so we change rules to accommodate different housing types,” Rubinoff said. “Is there room for a change in code to make room for composting toilets when it’s just for one person? We want people to buy tiny homes because they’re affordable, then we make it unaffordable because they have to hook up to septic.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at kathleen.coates@pressdemocrat.com, or 707-521-5209.

As someone who grew up in a small town, I enjoy covering what's happening in Windsor and Cloverdale, which are growing in their own unique ways.  I delve into issues by getting to know people and finding out what’s going on in the community. I also pay attention to animal welfare and other issues that affect Sonoma County.

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