Habitat for Humanity plans to build cottages for fire survivors in Fountaingrove

Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County plans to erect a temporary 'wildfire cottage' community on Medtronic’s campus in Fountaingrove.|

On a sloping patch of ground near a corporate parking garage in Santa Rosa, an affordable housing group is preparing to build eight compact residences for fire survivors to call home for at least two years.

Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County plans to erect a temporary “wildfire cottage” community on Medtronic’s Fountaingrove campus. The Santa Rosa nonprofit plans this fall to group prefabricated homes from three different companies there, with residents moving in by the end of the year.

The aim is not only to provide at least a few years worth of relief for those in need of housing due to last fall’s infernos. Supporters also want to increase the community’s housing stock by experimenting with building techniques that don’t require as much on-site labor. The cottages are expected to one day move from Medtronic’s property on Round Barn Boulevard and be placed permanently at other locations in the county.

“Temporary housing is not temporary,” Marianne Cusato, an associate professor of architecture at the University of Notre Dame, told supporters who gathered last week at the medical device maker’s campus.

Cusato, a consultant for the project, and others highlighted the “earthquake shacks” that were built to house survivors in San Francisco after the 1906 temblor. A few such cottages still survive there today and reportedly are worth more than $1 million each.

The North Bay wildfires were the most destructive in state history. They claimed 40 lives and burned more than 6,000 homes in a four-county region. Insurance claims have totaled about $10 billion.

The eight cottages will include one- and two-bedroom models and will range in size from 460 to 744 square feet. When moved from Medtronic, they may become “accessory dwelling residences,” also known as granny units, which are placed on properties with single-family homes.

Cusato, who is part of the Louisiana-based nonprofit Cypress Community Development Corp., suggested the eight cottages will be grouped together in a way to promote neighborliness, offering a balance of both privacy and connection.

Margaret Purser, a member of Santa Rosa’s Cultural Heritage Board, praised the project’s design.

“It’s not just the buildings,” she said. “It’s the community.”

Medtronic, a medical device maker based in Ireland, will lease the land to Habitat for $1 a year.

“This is a rare opportunity for Medtronic to do something that is really tangible,” said Erik Kunz, director of workplace solutions for the company’s local operations. “We will see the fruits of our labors.”

Kunz told supporters gathered near the site of the future project that 52 Medtronic workers lost homes in the wildfires.

He later said the Tubbs fire “burned right up to our buildings” last fall at the Fountaingrove campus.

John Kennedy, Habitat’s board chairman and interim CEO, said it might take 15 months after the infernos occurred before fire survivors can move into the cottages. But he maintained the need for temporary housing remains.

“A lot of people are still on couches or in spare bedrooms,” he said.

Eligible households can express interest in the temporary housing by signing up at Habitat’s website

The local Habitat, part of an international faith-based group, had proposed before the fire what many considered an impossible goal: building 600 homes in the county in 10 years. The need since the destruction has only increased, Kennedy said, and construction labor now is even harder to find for both rebuilds and new construction.

As such, the nonprofit is turning to prefabricated and modular home builders to construct basic structures. Volunteers then can finish off the interiors.

“We see a whole new paradigm shift in how we’re going to be building in Sonoma County,” Kennedy told supporters. He predicted “waves of volunteers” will come this fall to help complete the eight cottages.

Santa Rosa Councilman Tom Schwedhelm praised Habitat for the project. He suggested that many would learn from the effort, including the city, the building industry and those concerned about supplying more homes for workers and families.

“How do we attract the best and the brightest to Santa Rosa if we don’t have housing?” he asked.

The nonprofit has yet to announce the project’s estimated cost. Major support will come from Rebuild Wine Country, which has raised $1 million of its $5 million goal for rebuilding efforts in the four-county region.

Also, the Medtronic Foundation donated $100,000 to Habitat’s relief efforts in the county. Additional funding comes from a $150,000 grant from the North Bay Fire Relief Fund, a partnership of Redwood Credit Union, The Press Democrat and state Sen. Mike McGuire.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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