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Sonoma County approves purchase of George’s Hideaway in Guerneville for homeless housing

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this week agreed to purchase a shuttered bar and restaurant in Guerneville in hopes of converting it into housing for local homeless people.

Supervisors on Tuesday approved spending $985,000 in state and local funds to buy the former George’s Hideaway tavern at 18100 Highway 116 while the county waits to learn if it will receive a $7.5 million state grant to renovate the property.

If the county gets the grant, it plans to create eight permanent housing units and up to 13 tiny homes at the site. County officials are optimistic they’ll receive the award in the coming weeks, in which case construction and renovation could be completed within the following eight months.

“We have heard back from the state just last week (and) our impression is this application is in final review,” said Dave Kiff, interim director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, the county’s top homelessness and housing agency.

The county had hoped to use part of the grant from California’s roughly $3.5 billion Project Homekey homeless housing program to buy the property. But the $200 million set aside for the Bay Area region in the program’s current funding round ran out last month, meaning the county has been stuck waiting on a separate statewide source of Homekey funds.

In the meantime, the county’s agreement to buy George’s Hideaway was set to expire on Wednesday. And the property owner wasn’t willing to wait any longer for the sale, county officials said.

That effectively forced the county to buy the property this week or jeopardize its plans to provide housing and services for homeless people in the lower Russian River area.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes George’s Hideaway, said the historic former tavern is one of the few sites in her district that many residents agree makes sense for homeless housing. The county has discussed turning the property into a homeless services center and shelter for over a decade, as west county communities have struggled with how to address homeless encampments that dot local streets and the bank of the Russian River.

During community meetings about the planned site, there was “a strong support and preference for George’s Hideaway as a potential homeless services location,” said Hopkins, noting she hopes for additional meetings in the future.

According to the most recent available homelessness data from a “point-in-time” census count in early 2020, there were 327 unhoused people living in west county, up from 312 the year prior. Across the entire county, the count found about 2,700 homeless people. Nearly two-thirds lived outdoors. The rest were in shelters.

The nonprofit West County Community Services is set to manage the Guerneville housing site if it gets up and running. The group plans to open a day center at the property, open to both residents and local unhoused people, to connect them with case management and mental health services and help them find lasting homes.

“If Homekey is funded, this will meet many of the most pressing needs expressed by the business community, by law enforcement and our first responders, and most importantly for our people without homes,” said Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services.

To buy the property, the county is using $270,000 in state homelessness grants that it’s already received, as well as $750,000 in county redevelopment funds earmarked for homeless housing in the lower Russian River area. Should the county receive the Homekey award, that spending would go toward a funding match agreement with the state as part of the grant.

If the county doesn’t get the money soon, it could temporarily use the property as a safe parking site for homeless people living out of their vehicles, officials said. In that case, the county would likely need to apply for the next round of Homekey funding in the fall to transform the aging complex into permanent housing.

Launched in 2020, Homekey gives local jurisdictions and tribal governments money to repurpose existing buildings for homeless housing and to build new sites. It’s so far on track to help fund the creation of nearly 9,000 units statewide, according to state officials.

Blue markers are proposed sites in the process of applying for state funding. Green markers are sites that have already received funding and yet to open. Yellow markers are sites currently housing formerly homeless residents.

In Sonoma County, the state has awarded six projects a total of about $54 million to create around 280 units of permanent or interim homeless housing. That includes sites in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma and Healdsburg.

Five other proposed local projects, including George’s Hideaway, are currently in different stages of applying for Homekey funding. If approved, they could add about another 150 housing units.

County officials say the local projects will be mainly for the region’s roughly 500 chronically unhoused people.

The two currently open sites in the county, the former Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa and Sebastopol Inn near The Barlow shopping center, currently house about 100 formerly homeless people across around 70 units.

To pay for ongoing services at many of those sites, Sonoma County is setting up a funding framework that would provide $6.7 million annually over the next seven years to split among as many as eight homeless housing projects. Federal housing vouchers, which help cover housing costs for low-income people, will be a key part of the framework, officials said.

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

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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