Sonoma County landlords offered $500 to open up space to low-income fire victims

Forrest Smith and his dog Jazz rest on a cot in a pet and owner only shelter at Finley Hall on the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, on Sunday, October 22, 2017. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)


A new program launched by Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa aims to secure housing for those left homeless by recent wildfires by offering homeowners a cash incentive to rent an extra room or dwelling unit they might otherwise not have on the market.

The nonprofit agency is offering signing bonuses of $500 to landlords willing to participate in the program. It is designed to assist displaced people with limited resources who may not qualify for disaster assistance or have insurance coverage, said Jennielynn Holmes, director of housing and shelter for Catholic Charities.

The program is privately funded by $600,000 in donations from two Santa Rosa families.

Homes already have been found through the campaign for nine people who were staying in emergency fire shelters as recently as last week, Holmes said. In addition to housing assistance, Catholic Charities is offering financial aid that may include rent subsidies, security deposits, moving costs and other help.

Dozens of people remained in need of replacement homes when the county’s last fire-related emergency shelter closed Tuesday, Holmes said. With thousands of homes destroyed in the fires, the region’s already crunched housing market is expected to tighten further as more low-income tenants get squeezed out of rentals by those who can afford higher rents and have better credit ratings, she said.

The incentives are meant to motivate owners to expand the pool of housing where possible.

Catholic Charities also will provide case management for participating renters, to make sure they get back on their feet and successfully maintain stable housing, Holmes said.

“We want to get the word out to the landlords that we’re kind of rebuilding this community together,” Holmes said. Offering to rent space “is a way to help.”

The assistance program expands on rapid rehousing services Catholic Charities already offered for those facing homelessness.

The effort was made possible through gifts from the families of James Ratto, owner of The Ratto Group waste and recycling company, and Bill and Cindy Gallaher, owners of Oakmont Senior Living, who together have committed a combined $2 million to established, local nonprofit agencies serving “the most vulnerable and the most needy,” Cindy Gallaher said.

The families have provided an initial $1 million, with $600,000 going to Catholic Charities and $400,000 divided between the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Burbank Housing and The Council on Aging. They have pledged an additional $1 million to handle future needs, family representatives said.

“We wanted to directly affect, as fast as could, where we thought the biggest need was,” said Lou Ratto, James’ son and chief operating officer of The Ratto Group, the dominant local waste hauler. The company is being sold to San Francisco-based Recology.

The Gallahers lost their Riebli Road-area home in the Tubbs fire and were overwhelmed by the generosity of others in the disaster’s wake, Cindy Gallaher said. Her husband is a prominent local developer.

One of their Santa Rosa senior facilities, 63-unit Oakmont of Villa Capri, in Fountaingrove, burned down in the fire.

Cindy Gallaher said the couple wanted to help with community recovery, knowing many victims would have nowhere to turn for assistance.

Ratto said he and his parents, all longtime members of the community, wanted to help keep the community together and extend assistance for what will be a long-term recovery.

“Everybody’s willing to give now, but a year from now, the need is going to be just as strong, if not stronger,” he said.

Holmes said the campaign will focus on low-income renters, undocumented residents, and people who were in nontraditional housing situations — maybe couch-surfing or bunking in a house meant for a single family.

Similar programs typically are funded by government grants and thus apply only to housing that is available at rates below market value, in keeping with outdated formulas set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Private funding also means that Catholic Charities housing experts can look outside the confines of Sonoma County for suitable rentals, perhaps in Novato, for instance.

“We need to have the most flexibility, which is what his is allowing us to do,” she said.

Those interested in participating can call 707-542-5426.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.