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How Sonoma County plans to create 230 new units of housing for local homeless people

Proposed Project Homekey Sites

Santa Rosa - 2400 Mendocino Ave. (Gold Coin Motel)

Santa Rosa - City block bordered by A, Morgan, Sixth and Seventh streets (Caritas Center)

Santa Rosa - 1670 Santa Rosa Ave. (The Redwood Inn)

Rohnert Park - 6020 Labath Ave. (modular housing)

Healdsburg - 70 Healdsburg Ave. (L&M Motel)

Guerneville - 18084 Highway 116 (George’s Hideaway)

Sonoma - 18820 Sonoma Highway (tiny homes)

Petaluma - TBD

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.

Proposed Project Homekey Sites

Santa Rosa - 2400 Mendocino Ave. (Gold Coin Motel)

Santa Rosa - City block bordered by A, Morgan, Sixth and Seventh streets (Caritas Center)

Santa Rosa - 1670 Santa Rosa Ave. (The Redwood Inn)

Rohnert Park - 6020 Labath Ave. (modular housing)

Healdsburg - 70 Healdsburg Ave. (L&M Motel)

Guerneville - 18084 Highway 116 (George’s Hideaway)

Sonoma - 18820 Sonoma Highway (tiny homes)

Petaluma - TBD

By contrast, the county estimates creating 230 new Homekey units would each cost an average of around $260,000.

Those per-unit figures, however, are predicated on the state granting local governments about $60 million to build the new Homekey sites. And local officials concede there’s no guarantee they will receive all of the money they request in their applications.

Of the $1.45 billion currently available to cities, counties and tribal governments this year, the entire Bay Area, with the second largest homeless population after Los Angeles County, will be allocated just $200 million. But local jurisdictions will also have the opportunity to apply for grants from a statewide pool of money, as well as through a third round of Homekey funding next year.

If approved, Homekey grants for the current funding round will be awarded on a rolling basis through May 2, 2022.

For some local Homekey sites, such as the Kashia Band’s hotel conversion, the amount of money received from the state has proved too little to bring projects over the finish line. The shuttered Economy Inn the tribe bought last year is in need of significant repairs after getting red tagged for being too dangerous to inhabit.

“Taking on this project is very daunting,” said Jocelyn Lin, associate director of housing development for Burbank Housing, the Santa Rosa-based nonprofit renovating the hotel.

While the project wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the Homekey funds, Lin said, the Kashia are applying for additional public and tribal grants in hopes of filling the gap in funding. The tribe aims to open the site in March.

For other projects, private donations are also an option, and Sonoma County plans to make at least $1 million available for site construction.

Another challenge for local governments is finding the money to provide ongoing medical, health and case management services at Homekey sites.

“How do we help cities and then the county itself fill up the cup on the services side, even as we're asking for all this money for capital investment?” said Kiff, the top county housing official.

To help answer that question, Kiff’s agency, the Community Development Commission, has come up with a local framework to fund projects for the next seven years.

It would provide $6.7 million annually to split among all future Homekey sites in the county. The money would come in part from Homekey funds, as well as additional state homelessness grants, federal low-income housing vouchers and Measure O, the county’s voter-approved quarter-cent sales tax county for mental health and homelessness services.

(Ongoing funding for the Hotel Azura and Sebastopol Inn is set to come from various state and federal grants, according to the county.)

But the framework makes a few key assumptions about its funding. First, it presumes the state will renew its homelessness grants beyond the current end date in 2023. Second, it trusts the amount each local site would receive would be enough to cover all expenses.

The plan would cover costs at $80 per person per day. But daily expenses at supportive sites in the county, including the Los Guilicos Village tiny homes shelter off Highway 12 in east Santa Rosa and the Hotel Azura and Santa Rosa, often run above $110 per person, according to the county.

All of that means local governments may have to chip in additional tax-payer money to provide full wrap-around services and security.

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins believes local officials would be willing to step in with that commitment if necessary.

“There's a common commitment across all of the city and county to really drive forward with a solution to homelessness,” Hopkins said.

Adrian Covert, vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a regional think tank, said paying for sites to shelter the most distressed and vulnerable living on the streets is well worth the investment.

“When you decide not to invest in housing or shelter, you’re deciding to invest in police and emergency rooms,” Covert said.

It’s not just public money Project Homekey could save.

Last winter, Gill, the homeless resident in Sonoma, watched as her brother-in-law became sick with pneumonia and eventually died in the hospital.

“He passed away on the streets in the cold,” she said. “We miss him.”

Gill hopes an overnight shelter in Sonoma Valley can help keep homeless people from the same fate. She plans to work at the proposed shelter, which would be managed by the nonprofit Homeless Action Sonoma and could eventually be converted to permanent housing.

“I hope to be able to help other people by showing them that I’m a success, and that I got off the streets and that they can too,” Gill said.

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the address of the proposed site in Rohnert Park and Amber Gill’s age.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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