William Woodard had just checked out of the hospital after an asthma attack left him gasping for breath.
Back at his room at the Palms Inn, a converted motel that now provides housing for formerly homeless people, Woodard pointed toward splotches of dark mold on his ceiling and around his doorway. After moving in six months ago, his breathing problems got worse, Woodard said, and he feared mold spores were the cause.
“I ventilate this place as well as I can, and then I have cockroaches I’ve got to spray for, and mice — It’s ridiculous,” Woodard said.
“They should demolish it and redo it, and put us in proper housing,” he said.
Woodard lives in one of the 94 occupied rooms at the 104-unit Palms, a permanent housing facility with wraparound social services just south of Santa Rosa.
At its inception six years ago, the Palms was celebrated as a pivotal step toward solving homelessness in Sonoma County.
But a two-month investigation by The Press Democrat found that despite receiving millions of dollars in public subsidies over the past six years, at least two dozen of the units became virtually unlivable. On multiple visits, reporters found apartments infested with mold and insects — issues confirmed in public inspection records. Reporters also spoke with 14 residents, some of whom fear for their safety and say thieves and drug dealers have been allowed free rein on the campus.
Last year, four people died of overdoses on the property. On at least two occasions, bodies went undiscovered for days, according to law enforcement reports and interviews with residents. One of those bodies was discovered by a neighbor who noticed a strong odor emanating from his friend’s door.
The problems at the property at 3345 Santa Rosa Ave. became so widespread that in March, the Sonoma County Housing Authority paused approving new leases for housing vouchers at the Palms until the agency’s habitability concerns are resolved.
“We don't want to put people into an environment that may be unsafe,” said Housing Authority manager Martha Cheever.
During recent room inspections, the Housing Authority found cockroaches, moisture issues and plumbing problems across 22 units. Two other local agencies found many similar issues.
At the same time, Burbank Housing, the county’s largest affordable housing provider, pulled out of its contract to run the Palms in March, accusing the site’s private owner of failing to make necessary investments in the property.
The owner, Santa Rosa-based Akash Kalia, disputes the characterizations and said he fired Burbank for allowing issues at the Palms to fester under its watch. Kalia said he is committed to fixing all inspection issues and violations — some of which public officials said were recently corrected — while also increasing site security.
“We're going to continue to do what we're doing to address these issues,” Kalia told The Press Democrat. “We are trending in the right direction.”
Experts agree that permanent supportive housing facilities such as the Palms are a critical tool for combating homelessness. But recent problems at the site reveal the complex challenges of providing stable homes for the region’s most vulnerable population — at a time when similar projects are being launched at local motels to house hundreds of Sonoma County’s estimated 2,700 homeless residents.
“When (permanent supportive housing) is done right, it’s extremely effective at keeping people off the streets,” said Adrian Covert, a senior vice president of public policy for the Bay Area Council, who was not familiar with the Palms.
“You can’t take someone who's spent years struggling with demons on the street and put them in an old building with inadequate staffing and expect success,” he said.