Close to Home: Don’t just spend settlement money, invest it — in housing

Santa Rosa and Sonoma County should dedicate a portion of their PG&E wildfire settlement money to local housing needs.|

Our community is facing a perfect storm of crises — housing, health, economic. We have a singular opportunity to overcome all these crises at once by investing in our people, our homes and our future.

More and more affordable housing has topped priority lists for the city of Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and the community for several years. For good reason. We didn’t have enough housing before wildfires took 5% of the city’s housing stock in a single night, and more countywide.

Even local kids worry about housing, with a recent survey revealing that 91% of the county’s students naming affordable housing as our No. 1 community need.

Now, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare that housing is inextricably linked with our community’s education, economy and health. The economic shutdown is speeding us toward an enormous rental shortfall that threatens the housing and health of thousands of community members, the ripple effects of which will accelerate our local economy’s downward spiral.

Jenni Klose
Jenni Klose

Just when we need it most, the city of Santa Rosa and the county have received their PG&E settlement dollars. Together, they reportedly received $245 million — $95 million to the city and $149 million to the county.

A fair share of the settlement money will and should go to unmet fire recovery needs and fire prevention. Our needs certainly eclipse the remainder, so prioritizing that spending is a critical decision point. The city and county can spend it on short-term projects, or they can invest it in long-term solutions.

On Tuesday, Sonoma County supervisors are scheduled to discuss how to spend the county’s share of the settlement money.

Generation Housing urges the city and county to invest. They should seize this one-time opportunity with one-time money to be bold, collaborative and innovative to keep people in their homes and to work toward solving our housing crisis. This investment also would work to catalyze our economic recovery as homebuilding is a powerful economic engine and local job creator.

Generation H urges investment in the following initiatives:

First, create a COVID-19 Rent Assistance Fund. Generation H research, done in partnership with New York University, shows the magnitude of the impending rental shortfall supports a joint rent assistance fund of $28 million for our community.

The $28 million would cover six months of rent for the more than 25,000 households in Sonoma County suffering a COVID-related job loss, so long as enhanced benefits are extended by either the federal or state government.

This program could support the health and well-being of local residents having to endure job loss due to the pandemic as well as protect rental housing providers. This is how we can continue the flow of money through our local economy — helping us pivot toward recovery.

Second, fully seed the Renewal Enterprise District’s Housing Fund. The city of Santa Rosa and the county earned statewide accolades for their collaboration and innovation in creating the Renewal Enterprise District. Now we have an opportunity to put their bold initiative to real work.

The district is facilitating the creation of a new housing fund in response to our well-documented, unmet need for affordable and market-rate infill housing. Initial seed capital of $20 million would grow by attracting significantly more outside funding, empowering the fund to push projects across the funding finish line and get shovels in the ground.

These two initiatives, totaling $48 million, may seem pricey, but it’s only 11% of the settlement. Isn’t that a reasonable amount to invest in our No. 1 priority? Isn’t that a small price to keep thousands of our neighbors in their homes, make a leap toward solving our housing crisis and jumpstart our economic recovery?

We encourage our elected leaders to boldly meet the singular opportunity of the moment by investing in housing and pivoting us toward economic recovery. This isn’t spending. This is investing with generational impact.

Jenni Klose is executive director of Generation Housing, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit.

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