Homes were already scarce and rents were skyrocketing in the county’s second largest city before deadly fires destroyed more than 5,000 homes in surrounding municipalities.
Housing advocates, exasperated at what they views as a lack of city leadership on the issue, have attended several city council meetings since the October firestorm to plead with elected officials for more action on the housing crisis. The city will hold its first public forum about housing solutions Feb. 12, more than four months after the disaster.
With that as a backdrop, community leaders and local officials convened Monday to address Petaluma’s dire housing crisis, a complex issue some say is threatening to alter the social fabric of the city and Sonoma County.
“From the county standpoint, what we did immediately after the fire is loosen up as many regulations as possible,” Sonoma County Supervisor and Petaluma resident David Rabbitt said. “The fires didn’t impact Petaluma, but Petaluma has a role to play in recovery and in housing those who are left houseless in Sonoma County.”
The greater Bay Area is continuing to expand, with 2 million more residents expected by 2040, Rabbitt said. Growth in the job market has outpaced the development of housing, and in some cases, Petaluma-based workers are commuting in from other counties because they can’t afford to live in the city.
Though participants in the forum organized by the Sonoma County Human Rights Commission and the Petaluma Community Relations Council agreed there’s no single solution to the problem, advocates made it clear that collaboration is key.
Recovery will also take a shift in community perspective, said Committee on the Shelterless’ CEO Mike Johnson, a formerly homeless man who now runs the city’s largest homeless services nonprofit.
“How is it we can celebrate diversity in our employment, on our boards of directors and in groups like this that hold up diversity and inclusion as such a high value and yet we come out and decry the negative consequences of affordable housing in our community?” he said. “I believe it’s because we’ve attained a certain level of affluence or status as individuals or families and it’s very difficult for us to accept living with others that are not at the same level from infiltrating our world – we’re not really as inclusive or diverse or broad-minded as we might think.”
Johnson encouraged attendees to rethink what homelessness means and its impacts on those who are living in poverty. He suggested that the city adopt similar measures to those embraced in Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, including expanding additional temporary housing options and streamlining aspects of the permitting process.
“My message to you is that people living in poverty or homelessness or the working poor, because they’re in that situation doesn’t mean that’s their character, it doesn’t mean that they’re not trustworthy or honest or worth having in our community,” he said. “Next time someone proposes a large affordable housing complex, we have to believe that it’s going to enhance our community, not drag it down.”
A homeless man who identified himself only as James urged the panel to do more to create actionable solutions.
“When these disasters happen, lots of people wind up in a fluctuation point right on the precipices of disaster and it doesn’t take very much to just push them over the slippery slope of disaster,” he said. “Be aware of that when you start coming up with all these solutions for all of this. I appreciate all the good work that I hear you’re all doing, but I hate to tell you, from my point of view, it’s an abject failure.”
Gabriela Orantes, a member of the North Bay Organizing Project, asked the city to give tenants more protection by adopting rules for just cause eviction, which would preclude landlords from kicking tenants out of housing unless the eviction meets certain criteria. As it stands, some residents can be evicted for any reason, Orantes said, which creates fear and often causes tenants to keep issues that affect health and safety under wraps for fear of retaliation. In a city that in October had a 1.12 percent vacancy rate in its major apartment complexes, which equates to 35 vacant units, there’s much incentive to hang on to a lease, she said.
“I do feel that (just cause eviction) is a low hanging fruit solution to deal with the very, very real housing crisis that residents in Petaluma face right now,” she said.
The city is currently limited in its ability to make meaningful contributions to help buoy affordable housing projects, since funding sources continue to wane and the city’s funds are lagging, Housing Coordinator Sue Castellucci said.
Currently, developers of major projects are required to either build affordable units into their projects or pay a fee into a city fund that can be tapped to help developers construct affordable housing communities such as Logan Place, a 66-unit complex managed by nonprofit Burbank Housing.
On March 5, the city council will consider increasing those fees, Castellucci said. Recent legislation will also allow cities to require that developers of rental complexes include affordable units, an option the city can also consider, she said.
There are currently 905 units under construction in the city, 48 of which will be affordable, she said. An additional 250 units have been approved but are not yet under construction, she said.
While housing is being built, Petaluma People Services Center currently operates a home share program that’s expanded since the October fires, providing housing for about 100 people, SHARE Sonoma County Executive Director Amy Appleton said. She’s also been in talks with Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College about a similar program for students, she said.
Lina Hoshino, a downtown business owner who last February distributed a petition urging local officials to address a lack of affordable housing, said she hopes action will come soon. Her husband and business partner Angelo Sacerdote praised the city for easing restrictions on accessory dwelling units and junior second units, or bedrooms converted into independent living spaces. Still, their employees struggle with housing.
“They need to do a lot more,” Hoshino said.