Owner of Journey's End mobile home park in Santa Rosa won't rebuild after Tubbs fire

The owner of the property told residents it is too expensive to rebuild the Santa Rosa mobile home park, a refuge for low-income and senior residents for nearly 60 years.|

The fire-ravaged Journey’s End mobile home park will not reopen, but its owner is seeking to partner with a developer to build an apartment complex on the north Santa Rosa property, residents learned this weekend.

The family that owns the 13.5-acre site at Mendocino Avenue and Fountaingrove Parkway is working with nonprofit Burbank Housing to explore the feasibility of redeveloping the property into a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments, Burbank chief executive officer Larry Florin said Sunday.

“We see this as an opportunity to preserve affordable housing but also to create something more permanent,” Florin said. “There’s a housing crisis, obviously, in Sonoma County.”

The decision not to rebuild throws former residents into another bout of uncertainty, with the hope of someday returning to their economical, tight-knit community now gone.

The mobile home park, a refuge for low-income and senior residents for nearly 60 years, has remained closed since the October wildfires. The Tubbs fire killed two of its residents, destroyed nearly three quarters of the 160 homes on the property, incinerated its electrical and gas systems and irreparably contaminated the well supplying water to the community.

Meeting with residents

After four months with little communication from the family that owns the property, co-owner Ramsey Shuayto told residents Saturday it was prohibitively expensive to rebuild the park. He delivered the decision at a somber and at times tearful meeting with about 75 residents, local government leaders and lawyers from nonprofit legal assistance groups, including Legal Aid of Sonoma County, at the city’s Steele Lane Community Center. Shuayto didn’t respond to several phone messages Sunday.

But those who attended the meeting said he described the options his family considered, including at least one lucrative offer from an entity interested in buying the land, and how they decided, at least for now, against selling because they wanted to ensure any new housing would be affordable.

Several residents said they left the meeting with more questions than answers, and a newfound fear of the future. A housing development project could take years, too long for some of the community’s most elderly neighbors. For others, the financial toll of losing a secure home with low market value is formidable.

“What are we going to do when the FEMA benefits are no longer available?” said Yvonne Rawhouser, a retired hairdresser who lived in her three-bedroom, two-bath home at Journey’s End for 30 years. Rawhouser said she had a small savings account and zero debt before the fires, but her financial security is now gone.

She is among the former residents of the 44 homes still standing, red-tagged and uninhabitable without utilities, who are facing additional uncertainty with no prospect of ever living in their homes again. Some have said they’ve been unable to get the type of assistance available to fire victims because they still have homes, although they cannot live in them.

“I feel so not-in-control of my future,” said James Blair Robinson, 70, whose single-wide home was damaged but not destroyed by fire.

Florin said Burbank Housing is in the process of formalizing a legal arrangement with Shuayto and his family. He hopes they will end up with a long-term lease so they can pursue financing for a redevelopment plan for the site.

The goal would be to build at least 160 affordable units - which would be offered to Journey’s End residents first - and possibly more affordable and market-rate units, Florin said.

Shuayto’s family kept rents artificially low, which made it difficult to find another mobile home park ownership group to take it over, Florin said. Burbank staff has helped about a half-dozen residents find new housing, and they intend to communicate with the residents of all 160 homes.

“We will also be meeting, individually, with each of the residents to discuss their desires,” Florin said.

Housing project

The prospect of a housing project at the site, close to local hospitals, would be a boon for a city and county grappling with a unquenched demand for new housing. Sonoma County was already dealing with a housing shortage when the October firestorms destroyed 5,100 homes.

It could require an amendment to the city’s general plan to open up the site to a type of development other than a mobile home park, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said.

Coursey said he attended the meeting to listen and “let the residents know that my interest is to see senior, affordable housing on the property.”

Florin said his staff will conduct an assessment to determine whether it could be feasible to restore utilities to the 44 coaches not destroyed in the fire. The Army Corps of Engineers has not finished its debris removal work on the site, which must be done before any assessment is made, Florin said. He didn’t know how long that might take.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees mobile home parks, issued a report Jan. 24 extending an order barring people from living at Journey’s End because of the extensive damage to the park’s infrastructure. The state agency said the property owner estimated it would take two years to rebuild the utilities infrastructure, including the power grid which requires a total overhaul.

Some denied payouts

Some insurance companies have wrongly denied payouts to Journey’s End residents with units standing, according to Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County.

In some cases, they’ve claimed residents aren’t able to live in their homes due to government action - the state order barring people from living there - and not because of the fires, she said. Legal Aid is working with residents to ensure they understand their rights as plans advance.

“That’s a really tough spot,” Coursey said. “You own a home. You can’t use it. It doesn’t have anywhere near the value that it once did. It has a high value to you and a much lesser value to the rest of the world.”

Residents who lost their homes have described dwindling FEMA assistance and inadequate insurance payouts, putting them at risk of being unable to pay higher rents they’ve found elsewhere, Rubinoff said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said she left the meeting with a sense of the anxiety and frustration felt by many residents. Some said their health has worsened, and many reported difficulty finding adequate assistance to relocate. Zane said she’s discussing a resource fair where Journey’s End residents can talk with representatives from multiple assistance agencies in one room, to ensure they are getting all the help available to them.

“Our seniors, especially lower-income seniors, are going to have the hardest time in terms of the fallout from the fire,” Zane said. “I think it’s important that we be cognizant of that and provide additional outreach and care for them right now.”

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