Sonoma County launching temporary housing program for Russian River flood survivors

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Alarmed by the prospect of people becoming homeless in the wake of recent flooding along the lower Russian River, Sonoma County officials have moved to provide short-term financial help and expert housing assistance to help the most destitute flood survivors recover.

The program is starting with $150,000, so it’s reach will be limited, officials said.

But the idea is to put a plan in place, see how far it goes and figure out what else may be needed, said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose west county district bore the brunt of the damage when the river overflowed causing the worst flooding in Sonoma County since 1995.

“I’ll be honest: I don’t think it’s going to be enough,” she said, “but it’s going to be a start, and it will help us get the data we need to figure out how much need is out there — how much demand there is.”

The details are still being finalized, and the service will not be operational until some time late next week, said Tim Miller, executive director for West County Community Services, the nonprofit agency contracted to run what’s being called the temporary housing assistance program.

But the community services agency already provides ongoing, similar assistance through its rapid rehousing programs to those who have recently experienced homelessness and will mostly be expanding those services to accommodate flood survivors, officials said.

Hopkins said she’s been concerned since the Russian River overflowed its banks late last month — flooding communities from Forestville to Duncans Mills and raising the Laguna de Santa Rosa so high it spilled into Sebastopol — about the potential for permanent displacement among residents in her district, particularly those in lower income brackets.

The lower river communities have some of the last affordable housing left in Sonoma County, and, though people of diverse fortunes live throughout the region, 1 in 5 residents of Guerneville, where the worst flooding occurred, live below the poverty line, according to census data.

County inspectors have designated 31 structures in the flood zone that were determined to be unsafe to enter as a result.

Another 527 buildings were deemed to have sufficient damage that occupants were at some risk upon entering. Inspectors have been unable to access another 136 properties, Permit Sonoma spokeswoman Maggie Fleming said.

She was unable to say what share of the buildings were residential or business structures.

Hopkins and others say low-income residents are among those who are most struggling now to recover from the disruption and job loss caused by the flood, including renters priced out of the market.

Many more just can’t find a vacancy.

“There’s someone who is camped out in their yard because their home is not fit to occupy,” Hopkins said. “There is just story after story of people who have nowhere to go right now.”

Hopkins said she’s particularly worried about tenants whose landlords raise the rents to cover the cost of flood-related repairs or who instead choose to transition their properties to short-term rentals.

In the meantime, the Sonoma County Community Development Commission already has identified 13 damaged homes belonging to people with federal housing vouchers for low-income households, including an 80-year-old veteran still living in the house while repairs are made because he has nowhere else to go.

Six others reportedly have found new homes.

The Community Development Commission also has documented increased demand for housing help through the coordinated entry program for those experiencing homelessness or at risk of it, indicating “that the flood disaster severely impacted the housing stability for residents in west county, including the Lower Russian River as well as Sebastopol,” according to a report prepared by commission Executive Director Margaret Van Vliet.

The new housing assistance program will provide a housing locator and case manager to guide clients whose homes are not habitable through the process of relocating, as well as arranging for move-in assistance, and will provide up to $3,000 mini-grants for housing repair that will allow low-income homeowner to return to flood- damaged homes.

Recipients have to be able demonstrate they have enough income to maintain permanent housing with a little help from an outside source — say, first month’s rent in a new apartment or money for a few weeks in a motel while flood repairs are being made in a permanent home.

“You have to be able to show that, with temporary assistance, that you’re going to be able to sustain your housing,” Miller said.

Information about a variety of flood recovery issues, including emergency relief loans for businesses, will be presented during a special meeting of the Lower Russian River Municipal Advisory Council beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday at the El Molino High School Library, 7050 Covey Road in Forestville.

More information about the temporary housing assistance program will be available when it’s operational at westcountyservices.org/housing-services.

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

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