Santa Rosa endorses plan for fire aid but questions federal damage figure

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Santa Rosa council members on Tuesday accepted a disaster relief plan that will give the housing- and cash-strapped city $38.5 million for new apartment construction, while also calling out findings that federal officials underestimated the damage to local homes in the 2017 wildfires by more than half.

The grant funds for housing represent a slice of the $124 million set aside by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for parts of Northern and Southern California devastated by wildfires in 2017.

Santa Rosa was the hardest hit, losing more than 3,000 homes, or 5 percent of the city’s housing stock.

But a city-funded consultant’s report said postfire inspections by the Federal Emergency Management Agency “grossly underestimated” how many homes the fire damaged, council members revealed Tuesday

The flawed assessment led to an analysis by HUD officials that found the cost of repair or rebuilding wildfire-damaged homes minus insurance proceeds and certain federal grants and loans was $40.8 million.

However, the true unmet housing recovery cost was more than double that amount — $96.7 million, the city consultant found.

“What’s been allocated for this disaster falls far short of what the needs are,” Mayor Chris Coursey said. “We’re going to deal with that, and then keep pressing forward.”

The discrepancies were unearthed by Illinois-based Hagerty Consulting, which has a $1.5 million contract to guide Santa Rosa through the federal disaster-recovery grant process through June 2020.

Using Santa Rosa local inspection data, Hagerty found that 4,107 homes were either destroyed or sustained major damage in the city. That’s far higher than the 1,285 homes with major to severe damage identified by FEMA in its initial inspections.

In some instances, city inspectors found serious damage to homes that FEMA first-responders determined were minimally impacted by fire. Hagerty went with Santa Rosa’s findings in those cases, upping the damage level for the affected homes, said Rebecca Rothenberg, the lead consultant on Hagerty’s report.

In other cases, the confusion was inexplicable.

“FEMA gave a value of zero damage for many homes that were completely destroyed,” Rothernberg told the council. “We don’t exactly know why, because this is the first time that we’ve seen this to this scale.”

Coursey, who was incredulous at times during the discussion — one of his last on the council — could not resist a sarcastic remark.

“I hope you had some real experts doing those inspections to see if the houses that burned down were damaged,” the mayor said to scattered laughter.

Santa Rosa’s unmet fire losses — those not covered by insurance policies or government grants and loans — now total about $300 million, about a quarter of the city’s overall fire costs, according to the new report.

The new grant funds for apartment construction could be used to spur projects already in the pipeline or attract additional government money for housing.

Dave Gouin, the city’s housing and community services director, informed council members that nine affordable housing projects representing 981 new units were in Santa Rosa’s pipeline. Local contributions of about $45.2 million would be needed for those projects, Gouin said.

Some of that housing is intended to replace low- and moderate-income units lost in the fires, he said, including the former Journey’s End mobile home park.

Additionally, the consultant’s report identified an additional $101 million in needed disaster preparedness projects. The bulk would be expansions and improvements to three main roads to make it easier for motorists to evacuate in case of another historic catastrophe.

HUD is expected to finalize the allocation of an additional $88 million in California disaster relief in the coming months.

At Coursey’s prodding, the council decided to urge the state of California to provide additional funding that was closer to Santa Rosa’s true disaster costs.

The state’s draft budget for the $124 million in federal disaster relief dollars also proposes a state-run $47.6 million program to aid homeowners hit by wildfire.

Grants from that fund would be prioritized to benefit low- to moderate-income residents in the most impacted areas, though there is some “wiggle room,” said Maziar Movassaghi, an official with the state Housing and Community Development Department.

An additional $4.7 million would be directed to Sonoma County for apartment housing and $1.2 million more would go to county water infrastructure projects. California has until Dec. 18 to finalize its plan to spend the HUD grant money.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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