An experiment is underway at a motel on a downtrodden stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue just outside the city limits.
If successful, supporters say it could provide permanent lodging for Sonoma County’s most imperiled homeless people and save taxpayers thousands of dollars per year by steering residents away from emergency rooms, jails and other high-cost treatment facilities.
Akash Kalia, a 24-year-old college dropout who left school in 2012 to purchase his parents’ floundering motel, is converting all 104 rooms at The Palms Inn into single-room-occupancy housing for homeless people and military veterans.
“Being where we are on the south side of Santa Rosa, I see the need for this on a daily basis — there’s a lot of people in this area who can’t afford housing, especially now in this market,” Kalia said. “I’ve had people stay at the hotel who can’t find anywhere, and it’s a mother, father and two kids and they’re working three jobs and they still can’t qualify for an apartment.”
Kalia said he moved back to Santa Rosa from Oregon to help his parents, who were struggling financially. He originally planned to run his motel, catering to construction and trade workers in town on temporary jobs. He changed his mind when he was approached by his attorney, Jenni Klose, a Santa Rosa City Schools trustee. She’d worked on a similar project in San Francisco, where a substandard, largely vacant building located at 250 Kearny St. was transformed into single-room-occupancy housing for homeless veterans.
“It was known as the ‘house of horrors,’” Klose said, referring to the San Francisco single-room-occupancy hotel that had a bad reputation due to its filth and squalor. “My clients purchased it and made the deal with the city ... I saw it when they signed the lease ... that’s where I got the idea.”
Kalia said he immediately saw an opportunity to fill a need in his neighborhood by replicating the model.
“There’s more to life than just making a bunch of money or running a business. It’s about helping others,” Kalia said.
When The Palms transformation is complete — it is expected to be ready for tenants in early January — it will provide 104 units for chronically homeless people who have been on the streets for years and for veterans who have struggled to find subsidized housing. Residents, who will pay up to 30 percent of their income, will be connected at the site with substance-abuse treatment, mental health care and other social support services.
The program will provide housing for 60 veterans and 44 homeless adults. The venture is a partnership between Catholic Charities, a local nonprofit, the local Veterans Affairs office and Kalia. Catholic Charities and the VA will provide specialized counseling for the tenants and 24-hour on-site case management. Kalia will retain ownership and lease the property to the two agencies. His income — from tenants’ low-income housing vouchers — is expected to be slightly less than what he’d earn from running the motel. He is also donating furniture and bedding to each of the future tenants.
Housing and services for tenants at The Palms Inn is expected to cost $1.9 million annually, with the bulk of the funding — $1.7 million — from state and federal sources.