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Sonoma County secures nearly $11 million in state funding to buy Santa Rosa hotel to serve homeless population

Sonoma County has secured nearly $11 million in state funding to buy a downtown Santa Rosa hotel to shelter homeless individuals, adding momentum to local efforts to transform several lodging properties into permanent housing.

County officials have since midsummer set their eyes on the 42-room Hotel Azura at College and Mendocino avenues, along with the smaller Sebastopol Inn, to repurpose for homeless housing. To buy the two sites, the county sought nearly $27 million from the state’s $600 million grant program aimed at curbing homelessness amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The $10.9 million state award, announced Friday, did not include the Sebastopol Inn. But it advances the county’s effort to buy the Hotel Azura — a move that some neighbors have opposed, even seeking to block the acquisition by raising their case with the state.

They have objected to the concentration of more homeless services near the downtown area.

In a letter sent after the award was announced, representatives from the St. Rose Historic District neighborhood said they were “shocked and dismayed” at the county’s plans to buy the hotel. “Once again, our neighborhood was expected to bear the burden of an inordinate population of homeless individuals while other areas of the city and county were without any facilities to address the homeless issue.”

County leaders have previously pledged to oversee a transparent public process, including robust community engagement before bringing more homeless housing online in downtown Santa Rosa. It’s not yet clear how quickly the county will be able to finalize its purchase of Hotel Azura, an acquisition for which county leaders set aside $2 million, or how soon the hotels rooms can be made available to serve the county’s homeless population.

A separate effort to buy the Sebastopol Inn, which most city leaders supported, has been placed on a waiting list, said Barbie Robinson, the county’s chief homelessness official. Robinson said the county’s purchase of Hotel Azura is “not a done deal,” saying staff is still in the due diligence process and the Board of Supervisors must still give final approval.

The state money, which comes from federal coronavirus relief legislation, must be spent by the end of 2020, and Gov. Gavin Newsom has expressed interest in rewarding projects that are quickly able to be converted to serve one of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

“Behind every allocation we make for (Project) Homekey is the story of a Californian who will no longer have to sleep in a tent, in a car or on the street,” Newsom said Friday in a news release. “The partnerships with local leaders and their innovative approaches to homeless solutions are inspiring. From helping victims of domestic violence, to LGBTQ youth, to seniors, we’ve seen bold proposals that help a cross section of Californians struggling to find permanent housing.”

The new award for Sonoma County marks just the second grant to serve the county’s homeless population from Project Homekey funding. The first, $2.7 million to the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of the Stewarts Point Rancheria, will help the tribe acquire 20 units of housing to serve members experiencing homelessness. The tribe also is considering an undisclosed Santa Rosa lodging property.

Sonoma County’s push to secure hotel space for homeless residents comes in the wake of a deal with Sonoma State University that opened up space in university dorm rooms and the campus recreation center to be used for isolation, quarantine and surge space, and to house vulnerable homeless residents.

All told, the county spent less than $1 million to serve 344 residents, including 176 homeless residents, over the course of three months at the SSU campus.

Robinson said there’s tremendous need in the county, and praised the work of county housing staff amid the pandemic.

“Since April, we’ve done some incredible work to bring in COVID-vulnerable, unsheltered individuals,” Robinson said, adding that Project Homekey, as one aspect of the county’s efforts, “would bring a welcome solution.”

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

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