More than three years after the October 2017 firestorm, Santa Rosa finally has a line on $38.5 million for affordable housing to help rebuild from the Tubbs fire’s destruction.
And even before the City Council unanimously inked the deal Tuesday evening, City Hall felt the pressure from developers eager to tap into the fund to get their projects across the finish line.
The $38.5 million is a relatively large chunk of the $162 million the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has allocated since April 2018 to help areas of California where destructive wildfires the year before destroyed thousands of homes, including 3,000 Santa Rosa homes, or 5% of the city’s housing stock, in the Tubbs fire.
HUD’s disaster recovery award — boosted by $38 million in May from its initial amount of $124 million — included another $47 million for California homeowners to repair and rebuild their own homes. Sonoma County was awarded another $4.7 million for rebuilding and $1.2 million for water infrastructure projects.
Santa Rosa appears to be one of the first jurisdictions to finalize an agreement with the California Housing and Community Development Department to get the ball rolling on local projects. Though many on the City Council were anxious to get moving — key tax credit deadlines loom in early 2021 — City Manager Sean McGlynn cautioned it may take some time to see the fruits of this investment.
“You have multiple years to spend these dollars,” McGlynn said, adding, “We want to make sure that it’s a full process, right, that gets community input and that these dollars ... have the most impact in the community that they possible can.”
But multiple council members indicated they’d already heard from developers eager to build housing by packaging some of Santa Rosa’s disaster recovery funds with hundreds of millions of dollars in state low-income housing tax credits that become available next year. The coronavirus pandemic has hammered California’s budget, casting doubt on whether future tax credit offerings will be as generous.
“Without those funds, all of the housing that is lining up to get done in Santa Rosa will lie fallow and be put in a drawer for who knows how long,” said Michelle Gervais , a lobbyist for the Santa Rosa Canners development group that has long eyed a project in Railroad Square.
Santa Rosa’s agreement with the state comes more than three years after the Tubbs fire and more than 18 months after HUD in March 2019 approved California’s 201-page plan for spending the disaster recovery money.
So, why did it take so long?
“I wish the answer was as simple as the question, but it’s not,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration.
Federal officials acknowledged the government shutdown of late 2018 and early 2019 delayed their progress in reviewing the state’s plan in a letter to the California Department of Housing and Community Development.
It then took until August 2019 for state and federal officials to reach a grant agreement and establish a line of credit.
“That essentially occurred after lots of back and forth with HUD” over policies and procedures, Heimerich said.
The program will be locally overseen by the Santa Rosa Housing Authority, which aims to issue a notice to developers in late December or early January that they can apply for funding, according to city staff. After proposals come in, the city will select its preferred projects and forward them to the state department for approval.
A separate program with roughly $47 million is available to eligible California homeowners to apply for funds directly.
Fire survivors can check their eligibility by going to recover.hcd.ca.gov and inputting their income level — funds will first be awarded to low- and moderate-income households — and other personal information as part of a survey.
The state amended its plan by early 2020 to accept the additional $38 million that HUD allocated and posted that plan for public comment from late March to late April.
You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @wsreports.