How Sonoma County plans to create 230 new units of housing for local homeless people
This time last year, Amber Gill was living out of a pickup truck in Sonoma Valley, spending nights huddled with her brother-in-law as the weather turned colder.
Come this winter, the 61-year-old, currently staying with a friend, is hopeful she’ll be able to move into a tiny home on a now-vacant lot just outside of Sonoma.
A home of her own wouldn’t just be a place to shelter from the elements. It would give Gill a sense of stability and allow her to focus on her landscaping and housekeeping jobs.
“It would mean I could get to work easier and save up money to get my own place,” Gill said of a planned tiny home village at the property. “When I don’t have a stable living situation, it makes it really hard.”
The site is one of at least eight proposed homeless housing projects that could be created across Sonoma County through Project Homekey, a $3.5 billion statewide program that’s already helped fund around 6,000 housing units. That includes 95 rooms locally at three former hotels in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.
Officials see Homekey as a game-changing new strategy to provide supportive housing for the county’s homeless population. But many of the local projects will likely need more money to complete, as well as additional dollars for ongoing services to keep people from slipping back into homelessness
And in era of unprecedented spending on homelessness by local and state government, it remains unclear exactly who will cover all of those costs.
Over the past two fiscal years, Sonoma County and Santa Rosa spent at least a combined $92.4 million on homelessness, a 550% increase compared to the two years prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly half of that amount went to pandemic programs including Homekey and its predecessor, Project Roomkey, which place homeless people at high risk of COVID-19 complications in rented hotel rooms.
“Funding streams come and go, and there’s not often permanent funding, so you’ve got to learn how to be flexible,” said Stephen Sotomayor, Healdsburg’s housing manager.
City and county officials like Sotomayor are now working with nonprofits in applying for state Homekey money to create permanent and interim housing sites in Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Healdsburg, Guerneville, the Sonoma Valley and three in Santa Rosa.
The applications include a range of proposals such as buying hotels to convert to permanent housing, building prefabricated modular apartments on city-owned property and erecting tiny homes on private land, as in the case of Sonoma property.
David Kiff, the county’s top housing and homelessness official, estimated the millions of incoming state dollars could help create an additional 230 units for homeless people. That’s only enough housing for a fraction of the region’s roughly 2,700 homeless individuals, nearly two-thirds of whom sleep in their cars or on the street, according to the county’s 2020 homeless count.
Still, Kiff said Homekey’s impact would be felt in the community since sites will be primarily for the chronically homeless, who are the most visible on neighborhood streets and often require regular medical attention or counseling.
“It's where they need the most intense services, the most intense oversight and security, and to stabilize whatever is going on in their lives,” Kiff said.
The hope is that for many local homeless people, the sites would be the first stop in moving through the county’s system of care and toward more lasting and independent living situations.
“They'll feel the stability of having shelter, and then you can actually provide the services that they need,” said Michelle Patino, owner and director of DEMA Consulting and Management, which operates two local Homekey sites.
Last fall, the state granted Sonoma County about $16 million through Homekey to help buy and renovate those hotels, the 44-room Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa and the 31-room Sebastopol Inn.
The county quickly placed dozens of unhoused people at highest risk of COVID-19 complications at the hotels, moves that riled some neighbors and nearby businesses. The plan is to convert the sites from emergency pandemic shelters to permanent housing in 2023.
The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians has also received over $2.5 million to buy a 20-room hotel in Santa Rosa for homeless tribal members.
In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an expansion of Homekey totaling $2.75 billion — the majority of the funding coming in the form of federal stimulus money — opening the door for many more homeless housing sites across the state.
Officials and experts are touting Homekey as a cheaper and faster way to build subsidized affordable housing, which in the North Bay costs an average of about $500,000 per unit.