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Sonoma County awarded $6 million state grant to buy Sebastopol Inn

State housing officials have awarded Sonoma County $6.2 million to purchase the Sebastopol Inn for homeless housing, marking the second state-aided purchase of local lodging property in recent months to expand the supply of long-term shelter options.

The first acquisition in that pair of county deals, the purchase of Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa, was finalized Tuesday, and county housing officials are rushing to make final arrangements to meet the state’s year-end deadline to move residents into the converted hotel rooms.

Barbie Robinson, the county’s health services director and chief homelessness official, announced the state’s decision to fund the Sebastopol Inn purchase in an email last Wednesday to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and other county leaders. The project had been on a state waiting list for more than a month.

“We are very excited to move forward with this acquisition,” Robinson said in the email, adding that county officials were prepared to conduct more public outreach with the city of Sebastopol, where feelings were mixed in August during a City Council-sponsored forum on the topic.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Housing and Community Development confirmed the conditional $6.2 million award for purchase of the 31-room Sebastopol hotel Tuesday.

The county estimated the total cost of the Sebastopol Inn project, including two years of operating costs, would reach $10.8 million.

Altogether, Sonoma County has now received $16 million from Project Homekey, the state’s $1.3 billion grant program aimed at curbing homelessness amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Robinson said both hotels will serve the county’s housing-first mission, which prioritizes access to long-term, stable housing for homeless people alongside other resources. She said the investments are paying off in consecutive years of decreasing homelessness countywide.

“We’re excited to, especially for this vulnerable population, to bring them into this housing system of care,” said Robinson, interim executive director for the Community Development Commission, the county’s lead homelessness agency. “This will be their home, so we’re excited for that opportunity to house people.”

The individuals served by the 44-room Hotel Azura in downtown Santa Rosa, and those who would move into a county-owned Sebastopol Inn, are among the region’s most vulnerable homeless residents: people 65 or older, or those with underlying health problems.

In both cases, Robinson said the county is building a plan for ongoing community engagement, including regular meetings and a hotline reserved for resident complaints.

“We really want to share the model … to lay out the entire program, so people understand it’s housing,” Robinson said, speaking of the county’s outreach goals.

In the early days of the pandemic, the county housed 176 qualifying residents at Sonoma State University, isolating them at student dorms rented from the university for $350,000.

The county left the campus in mid-July, and is using Redwood Alliance Conference Grounds, the Astro Motel in downtown Santa Rosa and state-provided trailers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds to house those residents now.

Hopkins said the timing was challenging in terms of public engagement, with community members busy amid the holidays and a newly resurgent pandemic. But she called the news of a state grant for homeless housing “a good thing.”

“At the end of the day, we have to move forward with solutions to homelessness,” Hopkins said. “It’s more critical than ever with the way the pandemic is headed nationally. It’s extremely dangerous, especially with bad weather, to have people living on the streets.”

The owners of the Sebastopol Inn in July approached county housing officials with an offer to sell. The inn is one of only two sizeable hotels in Sebastopol, but its sale could represent a financial lifeline to the motel owners, part of a local hospitality sector ravaged by the pandemic’s economic fallout.

Numerous attempts in the past few months to reach the owners through their San Francisco-based attorney have been unsuccessful.

The county’s proposal for the Sebastopol Inn would situate a permanent supportive housing site, serving vulnerable homeless residents near downtown Sebastopol and at the gateway to the city’s highest-rent commercial district, including The Barlow shopping and dining center. The location has elicited concern and praise from town residents and elected officials.

Mayor Patrick Slayter has voiced support for the project, pointing to the site’s proximity to Park Village, a city-owned low-income mobile home park managed by the nonprofit West County Community Services.

“We see that kind of supportive housing is a success,” Slayter said in August, adding that Sebastopol could play a role in the equitable distribution of homeless services. “The three larger cities should not bear the burden, so for Sebastopol to help with that I think is a really positive thing.”

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

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