If the stock of affordable housing in Sonoma County wasn’t already small enough, the fires that ravaged the region last month have pushed the need to crisis levels — and prompted a community group to alter its approach to confront the problem.
Launched in 1984, Habitat For Humanity’s Sonoma chapter began in earnest by rehabbing existing properties to help low-income families establish more stable housing.
It closely followed the all-volunteer model of the 41-year-old Georgia-based national nonprofit, which surged to national prominence with the involvement of former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.
Today, on top of numerous restorations over the past 30 years, the local affiliate has built 22 homes from the ground up throughout the county, including five in Cotati’s Woodland Hills neighborhood in 2016.
Three more are underway in Santa Rosa, and the group also is planning for 18 more homes across Graton and Windsor as it starts to bolster its development operation.
The Tubbs, Nuns and Pocket fires, however, destroyed 5,130 homes across Sonoma County. More than 1,000 were in Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood, creating overnight a massive housing shortfall that could force many in low- and middle-income households to leave the county for good.
“Our No. 1 purpose is we want to keep those families here, and do not want to lose them from our community,” said Ché Casul, Habitat Sonoma’s volunteer and community development manager. “And without us, they will probably leave.”
The nonprofit relies on volunteer labor for its projects, while its materials, like the land where it builds, are either donated or provided on the cheap. For future owners, that keeps construction costs way down — often at just pennies on the dollar.
With thousands more residents now in dire need, and many outside the organization’s usual low-income target group, Habitat will follow the lead of affiliates in natural disaster zones and loosen its income requirements for aid recipients.
Roughly 70 percent of respondents so far to a fire-impacted household survey on the local chapter’s rebuild website have reported household incomes above Habitat for Humanity’s typical recipient.
Once the group’s board of directors approves the new plan this week, the eligibility threshold will rise from 80 to 120 percent of the area median income, or AMI, which is a formula commonly used to calculate what a household can afford per person for a lease or mortgage.
Moving forward, that will mean a single person making about $74,000 a year, or a family of four taking in upwards of $106,000, can enlist Habitat’s services.
“Before the fires, there was already a dramatic shortage of affordable housing in Sonoma County, as many as 5,000 affordable housing units,” said Tim Leach, chairman of Habitat Sonoma’s new Build & Rebuild Committee. “So now in addition to that traditional strategy, we’re trying to see kind of where and how we can help fire-victim families who find themselves not able to rebuild because of some financial circumstance.”
The group has no set goal yet for how many homes it would hope to rebuild, and its leaders acknowledged that even their expanded effort won’t come close to the activity of private contractors who will handle most of the construction.
The group is considering use of granny or accessory units to house displaced homeowners while their homes are rebuilt. Once construction is finished, the 500-800-square-foot granny quarters could become permanent and rented to a low-income tenant, and be part of the overall equation for owners to pay off their new mortgage.