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Sonoma County identifies site for village of tiny homes to house homeless

Sonoma County is inching closer to erecting a micro-community of tiny houses for homeless people - a model that if successful, could be replicated on vacant lots and unused county land inside and outside city limits.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is set to consider whether to use a county-owned parking lot at its sprawling administration complex in Santa Rosa to house up to 12 small structures for two years.

County officials have proposed locating the houses - which could be shipping containers, prefabricated mobile trailers or custom-built cottages - on a 10,000-square-foot lot northwest of the intersection of Mendocino Avenue and Chanate Road. The site, at Paulin Drive and Fiscal Drive, beat out five others in Santa Rosa that county officials were eyeing over the past two months.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who is spearheading the project, argued that the shelters can help boost the local housing stock faster than other affordable housing developments and provide much-needed units for homeless people in a time of crisis.

“We have a dire supply-and-demand problem,” Zane said. “Rents are going up ... threatening not only homeless people who want to get into housing, but people who are just one paycheck away from becoming homeless.”

The county has embarked on an ambitious effort to house the 2,000 people identified in last year’s homeless count as being without shelter of any kind, and end homelessness in Sonoma County altogether by 2025. It would cost roughly $110 million to house those 2,000 people, according to county estimates. Zane said the concept of tiny homes is just one of many ideas supervisors are exploring to provide housing for homeless people.

She said if the two-year pilot program is successful, the tiny homes could be relocated to a more permanent site, and more could be built on other public and private land across the county.

“If it works, and it’s cost-effective, we could expand it,” Zane said. “We have a lot of county land out there that is not being used, so this could provide an ample opportunity to explore those areas ... let’s put that land to good use.”

If the county complex site is approved on Tuesday, county housing officials are expected to quickly begin seeking proposals from developers. All bids would be required to be submitted to the county by Feb. 26.

Many of the details about the tiny home village would be up to potential developers, said Kathleen Kane, executive director of the Community Development Commission.

Sonoma County is not the first to experiment with tiny houses for homeless people. Nashville, Tenn., is trying it, and similar communities have popped up in Madison, Wis., Olympia, Wash., and Eugene, Ore.

In other areas, the sites are structured differently. For example, some require residents to pay a percentage of their income for rent, while others charge residents a monthly fee of $20 to $30, plus require volunteer time. Some are run by a nonprofit group; others are governed through a collaboration of tenants and outside organizations. Some are funded with local, state and federal funds, and others are supplemented with outside fundraising.

“There is no one definition of a tiny home, so all of this would be dependent on developers and their proposals,” Kane said. “We’re already seeing a lot of interest.”

The structures would not be smaller than 150 square feet, and they would include cooking and bathroom facilities on site, according to the county. The site would connect to city water and would be required to be equipped with wastewater disposal. The site could house up to 12 houses and accommodate up to 24 people, Kane said.

The proposal adds to a slate of other homelessness and affordable housing initiatives the county has tackled over the past year, including assisting in the conversion of a 104-room motel into permanent single-room-occupancy housing for homeless people - currently underway.

The recent initiatives are part of a local response to a national model of addressing homelessness called “housing first,” adopted by supervisors last year. It seeks to provide permanent housing for chronically homeless people, and is considered an evidence-based approach to ending homelessness. Once housed, people are connected with mental health care, substance-abuse treatment and other safety-net services.

Also Tuesday, supervisors are expected to increase the number of overnight “safe parking” spots for homeless people at the Permit and Resource Management Department from 30 to 50. That site is adjacent to the parking lot where the tiny homes could be located.

Zane defended the spending of taxpayer money and using public land for homeless projects.

“It costs more taxpayer dollars for somebody to remain homeless than it does to put them in a safe, secure place,” she said. “Those costs add up in terms of health care and criminal justice spending when people are out on the streets.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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