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The Journey Ahead

Author: Shirlee Zane
December, 2017 Issue



On October 8, I went to bed with the belief we were making gains on building homes for everyone with opportunities to repurpose county properties on Chanate Road and College Avenue, in addition to the SMART housing development proposed in downtown Santa Rosa.  But on Monday, Oct. 9, I woke up to the new reality that our housing crisis had suddenly compounded, exponentially. The dire shortage of housing that existed became catastrophic overnight with thousands of our community members finding themselves homeless.

By 3 p.m. that dreadful Monday, Congressman Mike Thompson and I flew over the devastated neighborhoods in Henry 1, the Sheriff’s Office helicopter. It was too early at that point to know how many lives were lost, but I was already stricken with grief knowing that it simply would not be possible for every person to survive given the magnitude of destruction I was seeing. Many tears were shed on that flight and in the days and weeks since. The congressman and I observed the stark remains of the Coffee Park, Fountaingrove, Mark West and Larkfield neighborhoods. We were stunned into somber silence as we spotted dozens of new fires starting due to drifting embers generated by the Sonoma Complex Fires. 
This devastating loss has given rise to a community-wide outpouring of compassion, kindness and generosity. We’ve been tested and now we are finding out what we’re made of. Over the past several weeks, I’ve spoken with seniors who lost everything and yet remain positive in their outlook. There are so many individual tales of survival and hope.
Many of you have heard me say that disaster is the great unifier and in this case it was also indiscriminate in terms of property loss. These fires impacted every type of housing—everything from the most modest apartments and mobile homes to the most extravagant residences burned. At the peak of the firestorm, more than 100,000 people had been evacuated to the homes of friends and family, shelters and hotels. Red Cross shelters provided relief to victims across the socio-economic spectrum. Some residents evacuated outside of Sonoma County to escape extremely poor air quality due to the smoke. Thanks to our first responders, most had homes to return to. 
It disturbs me, however, that far too many of our families, friends and neighbors don’t have a long-term solution to their housing needs. Long before the Sonoma Complex Fires, the Board of Supervisors found that Sonoma County is experiencing a housing crisis, including a severe lack of rental housing that is affordable to lower- and moderate-income residents. The county is taking initial steps to address the most immediate needs as a result of the disaster, and then coordinating closely with the City of Santa Rosa, in addition to our state and federal partners, on housing policy issues that go beyond the initial steps. 
Insurance companies will rebuild housing stock that existed before the fires, but we must work together to build additional homes, particularly those that qualify as affordable or very affordable. Lack of supply and rising costs are contributing to growing inequality and limiting advancement opportunities for younger Sonoma County residents.  Employers can’t recruit workers, and young people—our kids—can’t afford to live here.  For our lowest wage workers, and our seniors on fixed incomes, this market is devastating.  
Make no mistake, our economy depends on those earning modest wages in education, tourism, agriculture and service industries, among others.  When those workers have to commute long distances to find an affordable place to live, it takes a toll on our roadways and our environment.  When kids don’t have a stable place to call home, they can’t succeed in school. And when seniors and people with disabilities face housing instability, their health suffers, and that impacts hospitals and the overall health-care system.  
A refrain that we regularly hear with regard to housing development proposals, particularly those for affordable housing, rental housing, senior housing, veterans housing and multi-unit housing is: “I know we need the housing, but it will ruin my neighborhood. Put it somewhere else.” This phrase is a polite way of promoting class segregation and xenophobia. 
As we begin the long journey ahead, here is my vision for Sonoma County recovery: 
May Sonoma County be the place where NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard) died once and for all.
May we address the needs of our most vulnerable community members—seniors, hospitality and agricultural workers, and renters, among others.
May we build better, and build it fast.
May we reinvent our government building and planning departments to provide streamlined procedures that encourage efficiency and deliver the highest level of customer service.
May we truly build transit-oriented, smart, walkable, city-centered, high-density housing that encourages community engagement and reduces the human isolation inherent in suburban sprawl.
May our private, public and faith-based communities partner together in our efforts to rebuild.
May we continue to let this catastrophic disaster unify us, and draw us closer together despite our differences. 
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane took office in January 2009. Before her election, she served for 10 years as chief executive officer for the Council on Aging. Zane has been busy the past two years jumpstarting housing for vulnerable Sonoma County populations including homeless veterans, seniors and the disabled. In the wake of the Sonoma Complex Fires, the effort to rebuild lost homes and add new housing will be her primary focus.


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