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Sonoma County lays out plan to wipe out homelessness

Sonoma County supervisors appear ready to embark on an ambitious campaign to wipe out homelessness, envisioning a regional effort supported by local cities and public-private partnerships to create new affordable housing for an estimated 2,000 people.

It could take up to $110 million in local investment, but supervisors Tuesday said some of the costs would be recouped elsewhere through reduced spending on emergency room visits, drug and alcohol treatment, incarceration and other, more expensive interventions commonly needed by those who are homeless.

Despite the financial implications, there is a moral obligation to address the problem, several members of the Board of Supervisors suggested.

“Our county, having 2,000 people homeless right now - even though we’re doing better - is not a reflection of our values,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “We can do better. We must do better.”

Tuesday was the first time supervisors have tried to determine just what it would take to provide permanent housing for the county’s disproportionately large homeless population.

An estimated 5,574 individuals are homeless at some point during the year, more than 1 percent of the county population, according to Kathleen Kane, executive director of the county Community Development Commission.

There were 3,107 homeless people in Sonoma County in the most recent homeless census, down 27 percent from the 2013 count of 4,280, likely reflecting an improved economy, housing officials said. The count, conducted this year on Jan. 23, is done on a single day every other year.

A total of 1,037 had some type of shelter on the day of the January count, but 2,070 were living in cars or sleeping on the street.

County staff laid out a variety of housing, financing and land-use strategies through which the county and its partners could create 2,000 new homes over the next decade. The 103-page report, dubbed a “Policy Maker’s Toolbox for Ending Homelessness,” proposes a range of housing types, such as single-room apartments, portable tiny houses and other creative options for high-density housing.

Supervisors, acting as the Sonoma County Community Development Commission, conducted a three-hour study session on the report Tuesday and, though light on specifics, embraced a host of options they wanted to explore.

A small sampling includes creating new development impact fees based on unit size rather than number of units; zoning certain parcels at densities that would support affordable housing; density bonuses; and housing overlays on low-occupancy commercial or industrial areas.

The board also discussed creating a countywide housing trust fund, expanding use of hotel bed taxes and affordable housing fees, and utilizing other financing tools.

The effort is an extension of county supervisors’ recent embrace of a national approach known as “housing first,” which asserts that getting someone into stable housing should come before any attempt to link them with social services intended to address the reason or reasons for their homelessness.

The board has invested deeply over the past year and a half to expand the safety net for some of the most vulnerable - funding a cold-weather response program, for example, as well as a safe-parking program that permits people to sleep in their cars in secure areas, with access to restrooms and warming stations.

It also is supporting an outreach services team staffed by Catholic Charities that has made contact with hundreds of individuals in the homeless community to try to connect them with programs and services, and get them into housing.

In her report to the board, community development commission director Kane said the county’s historically low vacancy rate for rental housing leaves no room for those on the margins. Many low-income households who do have housing pay more than 50 percent of their monthly income for rent, she said.

So, as much as the county has invested in emergency responses to the problem, they mostly offer temporary relief.

Kane said a growing body of research suggests the cost of providing supportive housing that would help get homeless individuals off the streets for good - at an estimated cost of $31 a day - represents a significant savings compared to costly interventions like jail and emergency rooms.

But creating housing units would take significant creativity and investment, with an estimated cost per unit of $160,000 for new construction and renovation, about $55,000 of which would have to come from local sources.

Board Chairwoman Susan Gorin said the board is hoping to “jump-start” its housing campaign in the coming months with a few short-term strategies that would include identifying opportunities to refurbish existing housing, as well as starting information campaigns to help renters understand their rights and how to protect themselves from eviction, a common cause of homelessness.

But the broader picture involves bringing municipal governments, special districts and other entities together to understand the regional needs and benefits of working together to provide housing that is dispersed throughout the region in appropriate measures.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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