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Sonoma County eyes Sebastopol Inn as potential homeless housing

Sonoma County housing officials are negotiating to buy the Sebastopol Inn, eyeing the 31-room boutique hotel near the heart Sebastopol’s downtown as a landing spot for vulnerable homeless residents amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move opens a new front in the county’s battle against homelessness, and would expand county control over more commercial real estate as it struggles to contain a deadly disease and combat one of its most intractable socioeconomic problems.

Located along a key west county gateway, the Sebastopol Inn is one of just two hotels in Sebastopol, according to city officials. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the area, said it was the inn’s owner who got the county’s attention with an offer to sell.

Supervisors will hear more about the potential purchase in a closed session during the board’s Tuesday meeting. Terms of the tentative deal were not disclosed by the county. A message left Monday with a hotel representative was not returned.

Hopkins, who has long cited the lower Russian River’s status as leading the county in per capita homelessness, embraced the Sebastapol Inn proposal, offering a stronger immediate endorsement of new homeless services than often accompanies such proposals.

“I absolutely welcome this,” she said.

The Sebastopol Inn is the second hotel Sonoma County housing officials are seeking to acquire as a temporary shelter for vulnerable homeless residents. Like the first, the 42-room Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa, the inn could later be converted into permanent supportive housing.

“There’s need throughout the county,” said Barbie Robinson, interim executive director of the county’s Community Development Commission and director of the Department of Health Services. “This would be an incredible opportunity for us to address the needs (of the west county).”

Robinson has circled both the Sebastopol Inn and Hotel Azura as projects that could help the county tap into a $600 million state fund meant to aid pandemic efforts to protect vulnerable homeless residents ‒ those 65 or older or those suffering from underlying health problems.

The state program, known as Project Homekey, is funded primarily through $550 million in federal coronavirus relief, as well as $50 million from the state’s general fund, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development website.

Because of the federal rules associated with the funding, the money must be spent by the end of the year.

“The challenge with Project Homekey funds is it is essentially going to be a first come, first served opportunity,” said Hopkins. “These sites need to be ready to go; they need to be turn-key.”

The timing of the state program has aligned well with the county’s push to relocate homeless residents and other community members who were previously in coronavirus quarantine or isolation protocols in student dorms at Sonoma State University.

The county served 176 vulnerable homeless residents, and helped 168 residents quarantine or isolate at SSU before vacating the campus in mid-July. County health officials on Monday were not able to provide the final cost of that contract, which had an upper limit of $5 million.

The county has since secured space for vulnerable homeless residents at the Mary Isaak Center in Petaluma, Samuel L. Jones Hall in west Santa Rosa, the Astro Hotel in downtown Santa Rosa, in newly acquired trailers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, the Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds in Occidental and the outdoor shelter at the Los Guilicos Juvenile Justice Center campus.

County officials also leased 60 rooms at the Best Western Dry Creek Inn in Healdsburg for isolation and quarantine space, at a cost of up to $725,000.

The county’s move to buy at least two hotels may solve a short-term dilemma, but Robinson pitched the effort as part of an longer-term strategy to address chronic homelessness. Down the road, both sites could be used like The Palms, a former hotel on Santa Rosa Avenue that now offers safe housing and services for more than 100 homeless residents, including veterans.

“This is part of a model for permanent supportive housing,” Robinson said. “Our strategy is to bring a holistic model of coordinating needs...”

Hopkins said she attempted to head off any conflict over the Sebastopol deal early, facilitating multiple conversations between city officials and county housing leaders, including Robinson. The approach breaks with months of precedent, as county health and housing officials negotiated in secret for space at SSU, as well as the Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa and the Healdsburg hotel, prompting criticism from local officials.

Sebastopol Mayor Patrick Slayter said communication was better with his city.

“I think that there was a lack of outreach on the part of the county to those other municipalities, and that led to some frustration,” Slayter said. “We don’t like to be surprised, and we like to know what’s going on in our city limits.”

Slayter said he hasn’t yet received any feedback on the potential deal, which wasn’t made public until the county posted an addendum to its Board of Supervisors agenda late Friday.

He said he expects to hear a variety of opinions on the appropriateness of the site, which sits squarely within a popular commercial sector, and across the street from The Barlow, an upscale retail district on the eastern edge of town. But Slayter said he’s supportive of the location, saying “I think this is a project with a lot of potential.”

“The homeless problem, while it’s playing second fiddle to a pandemic right now, it’s not gone away,” Slayter said.

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

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