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PD Editorial: Target rebuilding aid to counties with biggest losses

Nearly 80% of the homes lost in California's dreadful wildfires of 2017 and 2018 were in just two counties - Sonoma and Butte.

Sonoma County lost 5,334 homes, including Journey's End, a 160-unit mobile home park in Santa Rosa whose residents were mostly older adults on fixed incomes.

The lot at the north end of Mendocino Avenue is still vacant 2½ years later.

Congress passed legislation to help replace some of the affordable housing units lost in California's worst fires. One of the beneficiaries could be an apartment complex planned for the Journey's End site with at least 162 affordable units.

The funding mechanism is complicated, involving the sale of tax credits to raise the money needed to price housing at below-market rates for low- income renters and buyers.

It proved successful after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, and Congress brought it back to help California after the fires.

Unfortunately, the state's plan for distributing the money still shortchanges Sonoma County and could leave the Journey's End project out of the running.

The current proposal, developed by state Treasurer Fiona Ma's office, is a big improvement over the original draft, which could have made communities that weren't affected by wildfires eligible for funding. That drew justifiable objections from Sonoma County.

The new plan restricts eligibility to the 13 counties where homes were burned by wildfires in 2017 and 2018. But it sets a minimum funding level that would leave Butte and Sonoma counties with less than half of the benefits despite suffering 80% of the losses.

Sonoma County's share would be $14.5 million - about two-thirds of what it would receive if the assistance was distributed proportionally to the number of homes burned.

On its face, that's a relatively small amount of money, especially considering the cost of building affordable housing.

But the program involves renewable tax credits, good for 10 years, rather than cash subsidies. So the difference for Sonoma County adds up to about $70 million - enough to pay for about 150 units of affordable housing.

Burbank Housing, a major developer of affordable units in Sonoma County, and others are asking the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee, which is reviewing the regulations, to lower the minimum funding level to ensure that Sonoma County receives a share equal to its fire losses.

In a letter to the commission, Burbank CEO Larry Florin noted that Congress's goal was to replace affordable lost in the fires. “Allocating less than half of the credits to the two most-affected counties makes this goal unachievable,” he said.

Florin also asked the commission to give priority to rebuilding on fire-damaged sites, specifically to push back a deadline for local land-use planning approvals to ensure that the apartments proposed at Journey's End are eligible to compete for tax- credit financing. “We anticipate receiving all entitlements by end of 2020,” he wrote.

(Burbank would partner with Related Housing of San Francisco on the affordable units, with market rate apartments to be built on the same site by North Bay Mendocino Holdings, a group headed by Darius Anderson, who is the managing member in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.)

The state commission is expected to adopt final regulations in June.

Sonoma County suffered historic damage in the 2017 fires, exceeded only by Butte County's unprecedented losses a year later. It's only fitting that these counties receive rebuilding assistance commensurate with their losses.

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