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September 19, 2021
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Sebastopol Inn rechristened as ‘Elderberry Commons’

By: Brandon McCapes
January 22, 2021

With 14 residents having moved into their new homes at the Sebastopol Inn, the County of Sonoma has renamed the project the Elderberry Commons.

The City of Sebastopol Housing Subcommittee gave city councilmembers an update on the Elderberry Commons project at the Jan. 19 regular city council meeting.

The Housing Subcommittee is made up of some of the biggest names in Sebastopol city government: Mayor Una Glass, Planning Director Kari Svanstrom, City Manager Larry McLaughlin and Councilmember Patrick Slayter. 

The County of Sonoma purchased the Sebastopol Inn as part of Project Homekey, a state program that awarded counties funding to provide permanent supporting housing for homeless residents with pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe Covid-19-related infections. 

The county received over $14 million to purchase the Sebastopol Inn alongside a hotel in Santa Rosa, and according to subcommittee members, the county has been following through on its word to work with the city and local businesses in the implementation of the program. Because the county purchased the property in a deal directly with the property owners, the city did not have a say in whether the process was approved.

“Even though they are on county property, they plan to collaborate with our city process on these design and accessibility issues,” Mayor Glass said.

Mayor Glass and Councilmember Slayter detailed two meetings subcommittee members held regarding the Elderberry Commons project: one took place solely between city and county governmental officials and staff, and another invited adjacent business and property owners as well.

Slayter said that while many nearby business owners did not attend, the county has shown its eagerness to work with local businesses who have expressed varying degrees of support for the project, some fearing it will exacerbate existing problems with Sebastopol’s growing homeless population. Still, Slayter said so far everything has been running smoothly.

“Everything seems to be going well with the vendors and DEMA as the operator, and the private security hired by DEMA on site,” Slayter said. “Granted it is a very small period of time, but to date things are going as we had hoped.” Petaluma organization DEMA, Inc. provides nursing-home level care for residents and runs the program on the ground.

Slayter emphasized discussions regarding fencing for the project, which the county will run through the city’s Design Review Board, responsible for ensuring building projects comply with the City General Plan’s functional and aesthetic guidelines.

Glass also noted that the county Community Development Commission (CDC) heading up the Elderberry Commons project alongside DEMA have been looking to incorporate local businesses as vendors for the project. For instance, the county purchases a large quantity of coffee daily from nearby Coffee Catz in Gravenstein Station.

“It was really a heartwarmingly collaborative situation that we were hearing about,” Glass said.

Concerning the $375,000 the county has promised the city to offset lost hotel tax revenue and potentially fund a homeless outreach coordinator, Glass said the county is still working to provide that funding and will report back in the coming months.

The name “Elderberry Commons” was chosen because, according to Glass, prior to Western colonization, local Native American tribes frequented the Sebastopol area to gather elderberries.

The committee report also addressed the effects of Covid-19 on housing security among Sebastopol residents and an affordable housing project still in the planning stages.

Glass said funding from the recent federal Covid-19 relief package will likely make its way down from the federal government to the state and eventually Sonoma County. From there, Glass said West County Community Services, which provided, among other things, rental assistance from October through December via the CARES Act, will likely help distribute the funds.

According to the results of a study announced earlier at the meeting by consulting firm Co-Mission, of the nearly 1200 respondents in a survey of Sebastopol residents and those living in the 95472 zip code for in surrounding unincorporated areas for whom Sebastopol is a cultural and commercial hub, seven percent of respondents reported seeking outside help for rent or mortgage payments. 

Co-Mission’s COO Johnny Nolen acknowledged that the survey results were skewed towards more affluent, older and Caucasian residents (with only three percent of respondents of Hispanic origin, compared to the approximately 10 percent within the target population), so the number of those negatively affected by Covid-19 in terms of economic and housing insecurity is likely larger.

Council members and staff concurred that despite the disproportionate responses, the survey would still be helpful in providing informational guidance for the city in meeting the needs of its residents.

Planning Director Kari Svanstrom updated councilmembers on an 84-unit 100-percent affordable housing project proposed on Bodega Avenue, which is still in the preliminary stages of the approval process, working with the Design Review Board. The developers submitted a formal application in Dec. 2020, which will eventually progress through the Planning Commission before heading to the city council for approval.