RP votes to sell B Section houses
Five houses projected to go for $1.7 million; money to be used to fund future affordable housing projects
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By Mira Brody  May 16, 2014 12:00 am

Dozens filled Rohnert Park City Hall on Tuesday, May 13, representing the “new face of homelessness,” in hopes of swaying the city council to sell five vacant B Section houses to the Community Development Commission to turn into Integrity Housing for the homeless. The council instead voted 3-1 in favor of the staff recommended plan, to sell the houses at market value and instead use the $1.7 million for future affordable housing projects.

Emotions ran high as B Section residents, mostly opposed to the homeless housing program, went head-to-head during public comments with those representing Integrity Housing, a program extremely successful in Petaluma that has housed and rehabilitated 249 people since 2006.

“Tonight there are going to be 3,300 people in Sonoma County sleeping on the streets,” said Mike Johnson of the Integrity Housing Program. He claims the city has not built affordable housing in nearly five years. “Clearly, Petaluma is doing the heavy lifting. The City of Rohnert Park can and should do more to help them. Transferring these homes would be a great step in that direction.”

The resolution the council voted on included many options, including: to sell the five houses at market value (the staff recommended option); to sell as affordable housing; to retain as rental; or to transfer the houses to the Sonoma County CDC to integrate them into a program the same as or similar to Integrity Housing.

Integrity Housing takes homes and rents the rooms out to those down on their luck for various reasons. The rooms then become more affordable than a studio or one-bedroom apartment would otherwise be in the county. Housemates are held to certain expectations, such as remaining drug free, sharing responsibilities and attending weekly classes to help them stay employed and remain responsible neighbors and roommates.

“Since the program began,” said Elaine Morris, the manager of the program, “we have had no neighborhood complaints, no police calls and we have letters from our landlords letting us know how happy they are with their residents.”

Integrity has 11 highly successful houses in Petaluma and is different from the highly criticized program Rohnert Park has adopted in which many times a residents’ crisis has “spilled onto the city’s streets.”

“It is always less expensive to retain affordable housing than it is to build new,” continued Morris. “That’s a well-established fact.”

“We can do a lot for homeless people with $1.7 million, more then we can do with just five houses,” said RP Mayor Joseph Callinan. “I was elected to serve, and that’s what I’m trying to do. We have citizens of Rohnert Park that don’t want this. Rohnert Park has built more affordable housing than any other city in Sonoma County per capita. Period. You can’t say that we haven’t done our share. My vote is to sell the houses.”

Debbie Bailey, who has been a resident of B Section for 43 years, was not opposed to the program itself, but wished for future houses of the type to be spread around the city and not concentrated primarily to A and B Sections as they have been.

John Hudson, who has been a resident of B Section for 28 years, had strong words for the “dumping” of homeless shelters on his neighborhood.

“We have an entire city council who lives north of the (RP) Expressway,” Hudson said. “No wonder all of the affordable housing and homeless shelters in Rohnert Park and getting dumped on the B section. This is grossly unfair. This is typical of the unfair treatment that we get in the B Section. F and H-Sections get new light poles and we get the homeless shelters.” Hudson is seeking compensation for the property value loss his home might take.

The faces of Integrity Housing varied from an engineering graduate from the University of Southern California, who, after becoming successful at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles, became disabled. Mark Sheldon has a business degree from the University of Alabama and fell on hard times during the economic downturn.

“I’ve often heard that a lot of us are just a few paychecks away from falling on financial difficulties, but I’ve learned first hand what that was actually like,” Sheldon said during public comments. “They have the resources to find affordable housing solutions with great roommates.”

Others had experienced drug abuse, family deaths or injuries and found solace in the Integrity Housing Program. Many moved from Rohnert Park to Petaluma because of the access to the program.

“My strong inclination is to direct city staff not to sell the houses for market, but to go along with this non-binding letter of intent,” said councilmember Jake Makenzie, who was in favor of handing the houses over to the CDC. He remained the only councilmember with a no vote. “I believe there is an opportunity here for us to work with COTS (Committee on the Shelterless) and provide housing assets for less fortunate people in our community.”

John Hay, programs manager for the Sonoma County CDC, promised to handle the proposed program with care and encouraged council to preserve the houses for affordable units. County Supervisor David Rabbit also expressed his support for the program in a letter addressed to council.

“First of all, I don’t think anyone is going to argue against COTS or the quality of what they do, and Rohnert Park experienced that first hand when we formed a partnership with them,” said Councilwoman Pam Stafford. “When people say we haven’t built any affordable housing in seven years, the truth is, we haven’t built one single family home at all in 20 years.”

“We have over 1,000 affordable housing units in our city. These five houses are not in an ideal area for the residents to be able to get what they need to do. That is why I agree with staff to sell the houses.”

Those in favor unanimously agreed that they believed the city would not be able to serve as many people with the B Section houses as they could with the money received upon selling them at market value.

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