Sunday, March 6, 2016

Don't Sell Chanate Short

Don’t Sell Chanate Short

Housing and homeless advocates have been dismayed by the County’s plan to dispose of its 100+ acre site on Chanate Road in Santa Rosa to the highest bidder. That means we’d likely see dozens more million dollar homes plus a few token units affordable to low or moderate income families. We’d like to see the site developed with housing that’ll address some of the area’s critical housing needs - for government workers, teachers, and others of modest income; for lower income families; for persons with serious mental health problems and for persons transitioning out of being homeless.  

The County issued a request for proposals (‘RFP’) last month for the site. Applications must be submitted by interested developers by April 7th. A 'pre-application' meeting and tour of the Chanate site that was advertised for 11 am on March 2 was switched to 9 am by County officials without notice to many of the interested participants. What’s up with that?

There are many perfectly usable buildings on the Chanate site. Most, like the Norton Mental Health crisis center and the well-designed shelter for women and children, are currently in use. County officials claim the two former hospital buildings are not earthquake safe, and want them demolished, But earthquake standards for emergency hospitals are much stricter than for residential uses. Rehabbing older buildings is normally vastly less expensive than tearing them down and starting from scratch.  Repeated requests to inspect the hospital buildings with our own expert inspector have been rejected by County officials who claim that the two buildings are too unsafe to even enter. What’s the problem with letting an independent expert evaluate whether and how this can be done?

- County Supervisors talk about the urgent need for workforce and affordable housing, "Housing First" is official County policy for reducing the huge numbers of homeless persons in and around Santa Rosa. Supervisor Shirlee Zane published an Op Ed here recently citing the dire shortage of  County emergency mental health services, but these services are being provided at Chanate and have been provided there for decades.  Why close these urgently needed facilities down and sell off the land to the highest bidder?

- County officials claim they want to sell the land to help fund construction of new County office buildings down the hill in the county administration complex.  No doubt, it'd be more convenient to get registered for food stamps and MediCal all in one location without traveling to two or three different county offices.  But is that 'convenience' more important than addressing the housing crisis and urgent mental health needs which this site has and could continue to do? If not at the Chanate site with land and buildings already zoned and used for these purposes, then where - and when? 

- Thousands of public employees working in the County’s administration complex, and  at the Santa Rosa Junior College campus a few blocks away can't find or afford housing in Santa Rosa. Many live far from work sites. They drive long distances to work because there's so few places to rent or buy that are affordable to regular county employees and regular SRJC staff. Why not build workforce housing at Chanate, with preferences given to households with a member working for a local public agency? Their 'convenience' should count for something. And count the tons of toxic GHG pollutants avoided if housing were available close enough to County employment and the SRJC to allow employees to walk or bike to work. 

This wonderful 100+ acre property shouldn’t be sold off to the highest bidder for high end development. County elected officials need to walk their talk and come up with a plan to re-use this land, which has been devoted to meeting urgent public health and housing needs for a century. Save the family homeless shelter, save the mental health Wellness Center and Norton crisis beds. And find a way to keep the Bird Rescue Center on the property. Injured birds need a home too. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Home Ownership for the Homeless

By Scott Wagner

One excellent solution for providing homes for the homeless in Sonoma County may be to have them buy their own homes. Sounds crazy, doesn't it? Well, it's not! A preliminary look at the numbers and the deal structure shows that it might well pencil out, given the county's need to start attacking homelessness aggressively. A proposal is being looked at and picked apart that takes advantage of 3 unusual aspects of opportunity locally in 2016:

1) The county has land that can be made available for homes. Building on county land would save lots of money, not just by eliminating having to buy land, but also because of the potential to waive many of the very high development fees through county involvement. Also, development of a relatively large number of modest homes might be possible for the truly low- or no-income as a standalone development, without having to come in as the traditional 20% low-income 'bribe' for a developer who only builds 'low-income' housing (actually middle-income housing) so they can build very high-priced homes.

2) We can build modest-sized homes of about 150 square feet per person that take advantage of modern design to be comfortable, provide all the normal home amenities, provide a large storage area (an often-overlooked necessity), and allow potential expansion. These homes can be formed into attractive, cohesive communities. Using the mid-tier cost estimate of $200/square foot, a home could be built for about $30,000. If we estimate $20,000 each for electricity/water/sewer expense, and $10,000 for renegotiated fees, total cost would be $60,000 per person, which is much lower than the estimated cost of $160,000 for studio rental apartments, the only other current proposal for building housing.

3)  This is an incredible interest-rate climate. The average landlord is making a very good return on their mortgage investment, because rents are so high and interest rates are very low. This climate is a disaster for getting the homeless into rentals- but if the homeless ARE the homeowners, the problem gets turned on its head, into a great opportunity! Interest rates are so low that a $60,000 home, including all homeownership and utility expenses, nothing down, and a 15-year mortgage, would be about $400/month. If the county is willing to guarantee a significant amount of the mortgage, similar to the structure of a VA or Fannie Mae loan, some banks will likely finance the mortgages. The price and payments are so low that very modest subsidies, much lower than Section 8 housing subsidies, could make the home free or nearly free. Consider the power of a $10,000 subsidy upfront, and $150/mo. in help with the mortgage: that would reduce monthly costs in this scenario to less than 200/month per person! Homeless people could well have a home of their own in Sonoma County, which they couldn't have even dreamed of, and enjoy the dignity, safety, consistency, and mental and physical health advantages of having a permanent home, thereby saving the government the costs associated with chronic homelessness. At the end of 15 years, such a home could be free and clear, providing people with a solution when they're elderly. 

There are many details to iron out, and we're still consulting experts, but we wanted you to be able to think about this before floating it to politicians. Please make any comments, suggestions or critiques to Scott Wagner,