State housing czar discusses disaster funds with Sonoma County Latino leaders

The bulk of a $212 million federal aid package is bound for Sonoma County, the state housing czar told Latino community leaders on Thursday.|

Latino leaders in Sonoma County pressed the state’s housing czar Thursday to ensure that minority and low-income residents are not left out in the large-scale, publicly financed rebuilding effort underway after last year’s wildfires.

Ben Metcalf, director of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, oversees the distribution of millions of dollars in federal housing grants, including $212 million pegged for disaster wildfire recovery efforts across the state.

Speaking at a luncheon hosted Thursday by Los Cien, Sonoma County’s largest Latino leadership organization, Metcalf said a majority of that aid package will likely be spent in Sonoma County, which lost 5,334 homes in 2017 fires, far more than any other jurisdiction.

Metcalf acknowledged the aid would not be sufficient to solve the county’s low-income housing needs, but that it could be used to leverage more state and federal funds.

“The federal money that we have specifically to be used for housing recovery, it’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough,” he said. “But it can again catalyze the funds that we need.”

The luncheon, held at the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa, drew a large number of local, state and federal elected officials, including Reps. Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, state Sen. Mike McGuire, county supervisors Lynda Hopkins and David Rabbitt, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey and many city and town council members from throughout the North Bay. Outgoing Sonoma County Sheriff Rob Giordano and Sheriff-elect Mark Essick also were on hand.

The focus of the event was the $212 million in disaster relief slated for California.Those funds are part of a record $28 billion block grants awarded this past spring by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, to communities in nine states and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that have been devastated by natural disasters since 2015.

The funds promised to California include $124 million to be used to repair damaged housing and infrastructure and another $88 million for projects that protect communities from future disasters. Metcalf said his office is set to release next week a recovery plan for allotting the funds.

During a panel discussion at the luncheon, Metcalf heard local Latino leaders describe how last year’s fires exacerbated the area’s housing crisis.

Ana Lugo, a spokeswoman for Community Action Partnership, recounted how her organization distributed nearly $1 million to local residents. She said most of the funds went to housing needs, with half going to rental assistance.

“We all know there is a housing crisis,” she said. “I can tell you a million stories about different people who are struggling ... but we know those stories.”

Alegria De La Cruz, chief deputy county counsel for Sonoma County, gave a lengthy presentation centered on a recent study about the impact of natural hazards on wealth inequality in the United States. The study, authored by Junia Howell of the University of Pittsburgh and James Elliott of Rice University, essentially found that recovery efforts launched after natural disasters and funded by FEMA from 1999 to 2013 widened income inequality between whites and minorities including Latinos and blacks.

“If we don’t do something now, all of these millions of dollars that our community is about to receive to help us rebuild and recover, we are actually going to be worse off,” said De La Cruz. “This is not a zero-sum game. More for some doesn’t mean less for others.”

After the forum, Metcalf pointed out that the HUD block grants he is authorized to administer have different priorities that FEMA funds and are specifically targeted toward low-income residents.

“We’re going to use some of this money in all likelihood to do a program to help owner-occupants rebuild, but it’s going to be a priority system,” Metcalf said. “The first people who get dibs on that are people who can document their lower income, so it’s not open to everybody.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @renofish.

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