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Sonoma County effort to buy Sebastopol Inn for homeless housing draws opposition

Sonoma County housing officials’ push to buy the Sebastopol Inn to shelter homeless residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic started with a move by the motel’s owner offering to sell.

Barbie Robinson, the county’s chief homelessness official, confirmed Tuesday the pitch from the inn was first brought to the county July 29, more than three weeks after county real estate negotiators began working with owners of Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa that county officials have targeted for the same purpose.

Robinson recounted the county’s timeline Tuesday during a meeting of the Sebastopol City Council west county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins sought in an effort to reassure residents and listen to feedback.

Given the 31-room inn’s proximity to The Barlow, a high-end mecca for eating, drinking and shopping, some residents were cool to the idea of converting the property to a homeless shelter.

“I think this location is an absolutely terrible fit for helping the homeless,” Sebastopol resident Rachel Allen said. “I’m also gobsmacked at the pace. It feels rushed, almost like it’s meant to be hidden from the public. This is the commercial gateway to our city’s downtown — the first thing visitors see.”

Hopkins sought to explain the county’s tight timeline, which is tied to newly available state funding.

The governor’s Project Homekey grant program, announced June 30, makes $1.3 billion available for counties to acquire and rehabilitate various housing options, including lodging properties, for homeless, as well as money for supportive services at those sites. The initial application deadline for the program is Thursday, and money must be spent by the end of the year.

Robinson said she had plans Wednesday night to review the county’s application with her top deputy, Tina Rivera, before submitting documentation to the state Thursday.

It’s unclear how detailed the county’s application will be. During the Sebastopol council meeting, Robinson said she didn’t know who would provide the permanent supportive housing services for homeless residents at the Sebastopol Inn site. But she did say the county would fill in the property’s swimming pool to create more outdoor space for future residents.

The governor’s program is part of the statewide response to the coronavirus pandemic, which seeks to protect the state’s most vulnerable residents — homeless residents older than 65, or those with underlying health conditions — by securing isolation space for them.

“We all want individuals to live with dignity,” said Robinson, who is also the county’s Department of Health Services director. “Housing is health care. This is an incredible opportunity to bring 31 units into the county at a time when resources are limited.”

The county’s interest in buying the Sebastopol Inn and Hotel Azura also could throw a financial lifeline to the motel owners, who are part of an area hospitality sector that has been ravaged by the pandemic’s financial effects.

Numerous attempts to reach the owners through San Francisco-based attorney Michael Heath, who is listed on California Secretary of State business filing records as a representative for both hotels, were unsuccessful.

The county’s proposal for the Sebastopol Inn that would situate a homeless housing site near downtown Sebastopol and at the doorstep of the small city’s highest-rent commercial district, including the Barlow, has already proven controversial.

Many residents expressed their views during the Sebastopol council meeting that went longer than four hours Tuesday.

Resident Judith Blankman said she loves the idea of supporting the homeless, but argued the proposed location, across the street from The Barlow, isn’t right. She also said the Community Market there that’s part of that commercial district wouldn’t be affordable for the residents.

Still other Sebastopol residents registered full-throated support, including Eden Trenor, who echoed Robinson’s phrasing that “housing is health care.”

“We have the opportunity to provide housing to people during a pandemic,” Trenor said.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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