County takes broad approach to temporary housing
But no quick fix to the area's housing shortage
Finding housing - however temporary - for the thousands of people displaced by October's wildfires has been a top priority for county and city governments in Sonoma County. The affordable housing situation was bad before the fire, but the loss of over 5,000 living units has put an intolerable strain on the limited housing resources remaining.
Two days after the fires started, county supervisors waived permit processing fees for rebuilding damaged structures. More measures followed the next week.
Preventing rental house price gouging, stopping new vacation rentals, and enabling people to use a variety of temporary shelters were the top three priorities of the emergency ordinances passed on Oct 24.
Price gougingFacing down immediate rent increases is the number one item on the county's to-do list. Pinning down violators may not be so easy, however.
California has a strong prohibition on price gouging during and immediately following disasters - earthquake, fire, flood, you name it - if a state of emergency is declared by a legitimate governing body. Whether California is more prone to disasters than other states is debatable, but Penal Code § 396 has been invoked through emergency declarations many times over the past 20 years.
Evicting tenants to jump rents, jumping prices more than 10 percent over what they were previous to the fire, and other types of price increases are illegal in the declared disaster areas, including Sonoma County, through April of 2018, and the ordinance can be extended.
“The Sonoma District Attorney's Office has taken 79 initial complaints or advisements by citizens,” Deputy District Attorney Scott Jamar said. “From those, 48 were investigated and did not fall in the statute, and we are getting new cases every day. So far, we have no cases to file for criminal charges, but investigations are ongoing and we are subpoenaing records from Craigslist and other databases.”
Sonoma's District Attorney is working with Mendocino, Solano and Marin counties as well as the State Attorney General's office in coordinated investigations, Jamar said.
Violations can be reported to the Sonoma County District Attorney's Office by calling 565-2311 or visiting sonomacounty.ca.gov/District-Attorney. They can also be reported to the state attorney general's office by calling (800) 952-5225, or going to the state website at oag.ca.gov/contact/consumer-complaint-against-business-or-company.
Vacation rental moratoriumOf the over 1,500 vacation rentals already approved countywide, most are not owner-occupied. Previous fires in Lake, Napa, Solano and Mendocino counties have made the housing situation here even worse.
“Conversion of additional single family housing units, including accessory dwellings and junior accessory dwellings, to vacation rentals presents a current and immediate threat to the public health, welfare and safety,” the emergency ordinance proclaims.
The ordinance cuts off permits that are already in the approval process, even if they have been approved but not issued. The initial prohibition period is for 45 days, unless it is extended.
New rules for temporary housingSo many rules were adopted that a new chapter was added to the county's ordinances. The new Chapter 40 will sunset in two years, but, for now, it allows a variety of temporary trailer parking and construction easements.
New regulations immediately approve housing in recreational vehicles and travel trailers for up to two years, extend occupancy of ag and farmworker seasonal housing, and temporary longer term rentals of guest houses and “accessory” residential structures, allow extended rental of winery guest suites, farm stay units, bed and breakfast rooms, resorts, retreats, camps and the like, and allow campers and RV parking at places like the Sonoma County Fairgrounds or veterans building.
Gail and Frank Chapin and neighbors Shelly Lewis and Zach Power intend to live on their respective Treehaven properties while rebuilding.
“As soon as we can, we'd like to move on our property,” Lewis said. She and Power will live in a recently purchased fifth-wheeler as soon as they get water, power and a safety clearance to park it.
Living in limited accommodations for an extended time could be problematic, Gail Chapin noted, referring to the couple's 28-foot RV that would also be parked on the property during reconstruction. “It could be as long as three years; hopefully not. Using it for vacations may not be as appealing as it used to be,” she mused.
At their regular meeting on Nov. 7, county supervisors clarified regulations about parking RVs and travel trailers on ag lands for displaced ag workers, determining that no caps needed to be set at this point since they do not expect more than one or two to be placed on any particular parcel. There are prohibitions against setting up commercial RV parks and multiple extended rentals on empty lots.
The supervisors did agree to review adding affordability requirements to the ag rentals at the insistence of Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who was concerned about potential abuses of RV rentals by people who aren't fire refugees or who do not need affordable housing.
While farmworkers can start living in these units right away, permits will be required within 45 days. Most associated fees have been waived, but there may be a single $83 filing fee for these ag-related permits.
For now, RVs and travel trailers can be placed anywhere in the county for 45 days without county approval, as long as they have adequate septic capacity. Residential owners can use one on their own property while they are repairing or rebuilding the property. Using trailers in burned areas is subject to a variety of safety caveats. Check with the PRMD before putting any living unit on burned out property.
The 180-day seasonal farmworker housing limit has been extended to 365 days, at least for the next two years, providing the infrastructure can support that level of occupancy.
Encouraging new construction and quick repairs are also addressed through fee relief and relaxing other building restrictions. For now, impact fees will be waived for new accessory units (backyard cottages of between 250 and 1,000 square feet) and junior accessory units - adding a kitchen in a bedroom in an existing house (under 500 square feet total allowed). Other fees, however, may apply.
Impact fees are assessed to help fund traffic projects, parks, affordable housing and other areas impacted by new development. The county already allows impact fees to be deferred sometimes (application required). Damaged childcare and educational facilities will get eased rebuilding permits as well.
Less clear is the extent to which nonconforming homes - that didn't meet existing housing standards prior to the fire - will now be permitted to ask for additional expansions when rebuilt.
If you have any questions about how to go about providing a temporary housing unit or building one, visit the county Permit Resource and Management Department's website at sonomacounty.ca.gov/Permit-and-Resource-Management.