PD Editorial: Making more room for our displaced neighbors

An aerial view of devastation in the Coffey Park neighborhood caused by the Tubbs fire. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)


And so the cleanup and rebuilding begins.

As more people are allowed back into Coffey Park, Larkfield, Foutaingrove and other neighborhoods to sift through the remains of their homes, the greater the awareness becomes of the monumental task ahead. The process will require a steady and prolonged period of reconstruction. It also will require some creative thinking in how to find living space for those who have been displaced and are still in need of long-term shelter.

During their regular meetings today, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council both will be taking important and much-needed steps in these directions. The governing boards will be considering a number of steps that will smooth the way for clearing burned sites and building new homes as well as clearing the way for more housing options for fire victims.

For example, supervisors will be considering an urgency ordinance that would prohibit landlords from charging more than the average rent prior to the fires. Price-gouging — defined as pricing something more than 10 percent above the pre-crisis price — is already banned under state law following a declared emergency, but this local ordinance would make the restrictions even stronger.

The county also will consider a ban on the creation of any new vacation rentals — for at least 45 days — thus protecting the existing housing stock for victims of the fire.

In addition, supervisors will be looking at loosening rules that make allowances for people to live in recreational vehicles, travel trailers or secondary residential units such as a guest house or a pool house on their property while they wait for their homes to be rebuilt.

Supervisors also will be looking at expanding the safe parking program, allowing individuals to live in trailers, campers and other vehicles in certain public and private areas.

Finally, the county will be waiving — or, in the case of large homes, reducing — the fees charged for new second units. Residents shouldn’t have to be charged a second time for these impact fees merely because of a firestorm that was beyond their control.

Meanwhile, the Santa Rosa City Council will be considering similar emergency steps. Council members will discuss creating a special zoning district that would include the areas damaged by the fire. Property owners inside the zone would be exempt from certain regulations and would have fees waived or reduced for certain improvements. For example, property owners would be allowed to install tiny homes and granny units on their properties while the main residence is being built. City officials say their goal is to ensure the more than 2,900 homes in Santa Rosa that were destroyed are rebuilt as quickly as possible.

It’s a worthy objective — as are all of the steps that these government boards will be considering today. They and their staffs should be commended for their swift action. But it won’t be enough, not nearly enough, to meet the demand. The task ahead will require more ambitious thinking. Could the fairgrounds be used for temporary housing while reconstruction continues? Could the surplus land that once was set aside for the extension of Highway 12 east be used temporarily for housing? Are there other sites that could be used available?

In addition to creativity, the days ahead will require flexibility by existing residents in particular. These steps, if approved, will mean that residents may see a few more cars on their block and more people living next door. That’s as it should be. We need to do more than just make new homes. We need to make room — for our displaced neighbors. Things are going to get cozy. If they don’t, we are not doing our jobs.