The Displaced

Sonoma County's housing crisis just got a whole lot worse

The infernos that ravaged Santa Rosa have destroyed 5 percent of the city’s housing stock and caused at least $1.2 billion in damage, as thousands of first responders worked through the week to beat back the stubborn Tubbs, Nuns, Oakmont and Adobe fires.

As evacuees begin to head home this week, the numbers are piling up: More than 4,000 homes and structures burned across the region. Forty-one confirmed dead, 22 of them in Sonoma County, and more than 50 remain missing as the fires continue to burn. There was some pretty good news, too, as the number of missing persons drops day by day and an intense outpouring of public support continues, which has buoyed spirits as the fires grind on into their second week.

Four-hundred-and-one persons remained in emergency shelters as of Tuesday afternoon, said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, down from a crisis peak of 5,000. More than 60,000 people were evacuated due to the fires and as of Tuesday, fire officials reported that 36,295 persons had returned to 13,956 houses that escaped the flames.

The county has received 1,969 reports of missing persons since the fires broke out on the early morning of Oct. 9, and has been mainly searching for the missing in homes or what remains of them, while the National Guard has been scouring evacuated and burned-out areas for remains.

Twenty-four of those calls were reports filed about missing homeless persons, said Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum early this week. None of the victims so far identified, he said, was one of the homeless persons that was the subject of a missing-person report. On Tuesday afternoon, SCSO Sheriff Rob Giordano said the number of missing that his department was still looking for was 27; the Santa Rosa Police Department is meanwhile searching for an additional 26 missing persons.

Meanwhile, pending a hopeful forecast of rain for Thursday, fire officials were cautiously optimistic early in the week that they’d have 100 percent containment on some, if not all, of the fires by the weekend, ending nearly two weeks of the wind-driven crisis.

The civic response to the disaster has been staggering and heart-rending in its scope. The questions now raised by the fire are equally staggering. Against the backdrop of a massive tent city that has sprung up at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds—for the thousands of first responders who have come to Santa Rosa to battle the blazes and secure the city—the unfolding of a housing crises on top of an already extant one and questions about where everyone would go once they fires were out were top priority for officials interviewed over the week.

Where is the transitional housing coming from? What’s the fate of the already homeless citizens of Santa Rosa? When can homeowners start to rebuild?

For homeowners who have lost everything, now begins the process of filing and settling a claim with their insurance provider. That was a problematic process during the aftermath of Lake County’s Valley fire two years ago, said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in a recent interview at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds command center, and one the state set out to fix.

The 2015 conflagration to the north, said Newsom, provided lessons that would be useful moving forward, as he stressed the state’s role on the legal front and in “making sure the private sector is paid off on a timely basis,” when, for example, contractors are hired to rebuild homes and businesses.

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane approached the lieutenant governor and said, with a friendly pointed finger, “Your Department of Insurance is going to hold the insurance companies liable.”

(State Department of Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones was scheduled to meet with fire victims in Napa on Oct. 17.)

Newsom said Gov. Jerry Brown’s priority when it comes to the state’s role in rebuilding was to “make sure we are here six months from here,” as he pledged to draw down on all available federal assistance.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said supervisors would take up preliminary talks this week about what to do about the thousands of displaced residents who have lost their homes. Sonoma County had an estimated pre-fire homeless population of 2,835, as of May 2017.

It just got a lot larger, as approximately 1,300 structures were burned in the residential Coffey Park neighborhood alone this week.

Rabbitt expected that an initial outpouring of community support would continue, and residents and businesses would “extend the initial surge of generosity” that has met the first week of the unprecedented regional catastrophe.

Rabbitt described the horrifically intensified local housing crisis in terms that were at once sensitive and appreciative of the forward-looking opportunities. The number one priority looking beyond the fire, he said, was getting people out of shelters and back home or into “some kind of transitional housing.”

What will that look like?

The fire, Rabbitt said, could serve as a catalyst for county and city leaders who are “looking for smart, efficient answers” to an affordable-housing question that is now much more complicated. The question for civic leaders, he suggested, was how to rebuild in the face of “a huge economic hit” that the fire will take on the county.

Rabbitt said he hoped all cities in Sonoma County would “take a look at the opportunities” the rebuild might afford, as he noted that the county has given more leeway to homeowners on granny units and other second units than cities in the region.

The potential for small-home developments in county or urban areas remains an open question, and one of many. Supervisors had a preliminary discussion about the path forward on housing Tuesday. Rabbitt expressed optimism in the face of a potential wintertime spike in homelessness. “I think we have the tools in the county to avoid any crisis,” he said.

Rabbitt also noted that the county had reached out to local participants in the short-term rental economy for assistance in providing housing to the displaced.

“We are asking people to take places off of Airbnb,” he said. It was not immediately clear how many had done so, he added.

To ease with the immediate and imminent housing crunch, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were scouting local properties early this week to see where they might bring in some FEMA trailers for the displaced, though officials at the agency said the timeline for their arrival was unclear (see Nugget, p26, for more).

They can’t come soon enough, as the fires still burn, as patience wears thin among residents eager to go home, and as many questions remain, some for another day but others of a more immediate urgency.

For instance: How many homeless persons died in the fire? It’s not yet known. “The goal is to find the victim that we don’t know about,” said Giordano when asked about the potential for “unknown unknown” missing persons.

Santa Rosa chief of police Hank Schreeder said the ripple effect the fire will have on the city’s pre-fire homeless population remains to be seen. The SRPD devotes significant patrol time to checking in on areas around the city where the homeless tend to congregate. Those patrols include areas of Cleveland Avenue that were destroyed by the fire.

In light of overflowing demand for shelter beds and intense pressure on local social services agencies and nonprofits that serve the poor and vulnerable, what’s to become of the pre-fire homeless of Santa Rosa as the nights grow colder and the fires are at last extinguished?

“I wish I knew where we are going to be on that,” Schreeder said.

The looming uncertainty is a common thread as the damage is tallied and the ash settles. There was good news for local homeless advocates when a group of between 40 and 50 homeless camped out in the Fountain Grove area were able to escape the flames, but Jennielynn Holmes-Davis, director of shelter and housing at Catholic Charities of Santa Rosa, said “we’re not clear yet” when it comes to a tally of the homeless.

“We were already in a homeless and housing crisis when this happened, and it will be interesting to see what happens next,” said Holmes. She warned about two waves of housing nightmares facing fire victims. One is in the short term, when the evacuation centers start to close down “and people start heading home, and we’ll see who is without recourse” said Holmes.

The bigger wave of desperation will be in six months, she said, as disaster assistance runs out and fire victims enter the real estate market—only to find themselves priced out of it. “This happened in the foreclosure crisis—they entered the rental market, and then they got pushed out into homelessness,” Holmes said. “I think that may happen even faster here. People who have not been homeless in the past are facing homelessness,” she said. (Ironically, it was only a few months ago, in June, that the county lost some $600,000 in emergency grant money that was funding an unpopular sleep-in-your-car program for the homeless, which Catholic Charities participated in.)

Now, said Holmes, all short- and long-term housing solutions have to be considered, including tiny-house communities within incorporated urban areas of the county.

She said that as leaders sort through the new housing normal in Sonoma County, it will be a while before homeless advocates will track everyone down in their circles—and that there may be unknown homeless still in the ashes that nobody will ever know about.

“We’re definitely worried about that,” she said. Many of the clients her organization works with do tend to fall off the radar. “We don’t see them for a while; they go out of town or out of the county. It’s going to take a long time to find out who is truly missing and who is dislocated for the moment.”

The health issues that attended the fires are magnified for people who were already living outdoors, and oftentimes under and around highway underpasses. “Last week, we were very worried about people living outdoors and being exposed to this,” said Holmes, who adds that “these are people already at a high risk for respiratory disease, and COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and asthma are common among this population already.”

Through it all, the emergent mantra being proffered by officials, for all citizens of Sonoma County, is please be patient. Even when the fires are out, it may be days or weeks before some people will be allowed back into heavily damaged areas. There will be checkpoints and escorts, even for homeowners whose domiciles may have survived amid the surrounding wreckage of their neighbors’ homes—a common and jarring visual juxtaposition of destruction and blind luck that is one of the hallmarks of the great and terrible North Bay fires of 2017.

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