Rising rents threaten to change character of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park

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Tom Hutchins was 9 when his family moved in 1988 from Grass Valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills to a modest Santa Rosa home on San Sonita Drive in Coffey Park. He has fond memories of “cruising the neighborhood” with his friends, “hanging out at the railroad tracks, riding my bike off jumps.”

After four years renting on San Sonita, his parents bought a place on Crestview Drive. That house burned, along with more than 1,400 other Coffey Park homes consumed by the Tubbs fire in October 2017. Hutchins’ parents expect to be back in a new house there by July.

His wife, Sarah Giometti, the founder of Rohnert Park-based Provaro Marketing, donates her time and talents to the neighborhood support group Coffey Strong, even though they live 30 miles north in Cloverdale.

“I could live there again,” Hutchins said, “but the simple fact is, Coffey Park isn’t the same Coffey Park anymore, because of the prices. We’re looking at $2,500 to three grand a month to live there. I’d rather live in Cloverdale. I have more property, and my rent’s cheaper.”

Like his wife, Hutchins runs a successful business. It’s not that they’re unable to pay that kind of rent. They’re simply unwilling.

The fire’s unimaginable toll on this 1-square-mile Santa Rosa neighborhood has been well-publicized, as has its inspiring recovery.

“This was a pretty close-knit community before the fire,” said John Allen of APM Homes, which is building 75 houses in Coffey Park. “The way it’s come together since then is simply unprecedented.”

While Coffey Park has gained a stronger sense of community since the inferno, questions are being raised as families move back in, about what it may be leaving behind. As it gets more expensive, the neighborhood is losing some of its middle-class roots. Before the fire, some 40% of the homes were rentals. Because many of those houses were about 30 years old, they rented for around $2,000 a month, sometimes less.

“We’ve been watching them come back on the market for $2,800, $3,000,” Giometti said. “I get that it’s a new house, but to be blunt ... it’s ridiculous right now.

“This has always been an entry-level, working-class neighborhood,” she said, “but I don’t think you’re going to see the same families coming back. Coffey Park is going to lose some of the character that people liked about it.”

The character of the neighborhood is “absolutely” going to change, said Keith Becker, owner of the property management firm DeDe’s Rentals. Longtime Coffey Park tenants, those who’d rented “five or eight years or more,” were paying just under $2,000. When those houses are rebuilt, Becker said, “they’re not by any stretch of the imagination going to come back at $2,000. A three-bedroom house, almost anywhere in Sonoma County right now, is a whole lot closer to $2,750.”

Not only will rental homes be more expensive, there will fewer of them. In the wake of the Great Recession that began in December 2007, some opportunistic buyers snatched up Coffey Park houses on the cheap, then rented them out. Because those properties tended to be underinsured, said Jeff Okrepkie, president and founder of Coffey Strong, owners were more likely to sell after the fire.

While it’s not clear how many of those buyers will end up renting out rebuilt homes, it’s widely expected that fewer renters — perhaps far fewer — will be returning to the neighborhood they fled nearly two years ago.

Disparity with relief funds

A series of recent studies have determined what many Coffey Park renters already know: natural disasters exacerbate wealth inequality. The vast majority of government relief funds flow to property owners, rather than renters.

“The real problem here,” said Pete Parkinson, former Sonoma County planning director, “is that we have a broken housing market in the county. You simply don’t have the range of options necessary” for people displaced by natural disasters.

“In the planning world right now, cities with more resources are focused on ‘resilience.’ They’re hiring resilience officers,” Parkinson said. “Increasing the supply of affordable housing is absolutely one dimension of that.”

Rising rents are changing the demographics not just of Coffey Park, “but all of Sonoma County,” said Tricia Woods, a board member of Coffey Strong. “How can our economy continue to function if working-class people can’t afford to live here?”

Sharing her concern is the city of Santa Rosa. It’s now making “a big push to create additional housing stock, specifically affordable units,” said David Guhin, the assistant city manager.

Last week, he said the city made available an additional $3 million to spur residential development.

That money is intended to jump-start construction of affordable housing and rental units, “to get that moving as quickly as possible,” Guhin said. City officials also met last week with regional banking officials to discuss “funding mechanisms” to help stimulate housing.

“We’ve also heard, anecdotally,” said Guhin, briefly doffing his bureaucrat’s hat, “of landlords rebuilding their properties and allowing the people who were renting them to come back. It’s nice to hear that’s happening.”

Tenants’ financial dilemma

But will those tenants want to come back to higher rents?

“We’ve rented three rebuilt properties in Coffey Park, and rented them quickly,” said Kathryn Baker, owner of the property management firm Baker & Associates. She expressed pride in her clients for charging reasonable rents. Some Coffey Park owners, Baker said, were asking considerably more, for comparable houses.

Her firm’s criteria for prospective renters: their income must be 2½ times the monthly rent. To afford a $2,900 monthly home rental, “you have to make over $7,000,” she said. “Not everybody is earning that much, so they’re priced out.”

While he agrees that rents are going up in the neighborhood, and that it “may be a stretch for some folks,” said Allen, chief operating officer of APM Homes, “I don’t think that’s going to change the face of Coffey Park.”

That depends on what one means by “face.” While Coffey Park’s diversity — economic and ethnic — will take a hit, its pride of place and trademark togetherness were reinforced by the fire.

“It’s an honor to live here,” said John Scally, who used to know his neighbors by their properties. “I’d say ‘Oh, you live in the orange house,’ or ‘You’re the guy with the synthetic lawn.’ Now I know them by their names, and not just the ones in my area. We have all gotten closer. You would not believe the camaraderie.”

Giving tenants a leg up

Right now APM is selling Coffey Park homes in the $560,000 to $600,000 range, and has recently sold lots to buyers who aren’t from Coffey Park, but want to be there even though the neighborhood is going to remain a construction zone for at least the next two years.

This comes as no surprise to Allen, whose pride in the neighborhood runs deep, and whose company’s president, Aaron Matz, is a grandson of Art Condiotti, who built several hundred homes in Coffey Park three decades ago.

Gina Donaldson, who lived in the neighborhood for 17 years, now rents a new three-bedroom, two-bath house on the same Coffey Park cul-de-sac where Condiotti first broke ground in 1987. Yes, her new, post-fire tenants are paying more than the ones who lived in the house that burned down. While she preferred to not share the amount the new tenants are paying in rent, Donaldson described it as “the lower end of market.”

Her former long-term tenants were a couple. Both were teachers. Thanks in part to the reasonable rent Donaldson charged before the fire, they’ve been able to save enough to put a down payment on their first house, not far from Coffey Park.

“For them to be able to do that in this market,” Donaldson said, “that’s a good feeling.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com

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