By Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane.
As a progress-oriented Sonoma County Supervisor I am open to any idea that might provide a measure of relief to our homeless residents, a population that struggles mightily for basic shelter, even in a relatively prosperous county like ours. You see, Sonoma County has a rental vacancy rate that hovers between 1-2% coupled with one of the highest housing cost to income ratios in the nation. This means that many of my constituents, even those with steady incomes, are having an extremely difficult time finding housing. For residents who are less financially stable, homelessness has become a demoralizing fact of life.
The district I represent has the highest concentration of homeless individuals in the county. My colleagues are challenged by homelessness in their districts as well but because my constituents, both homeless and housed, are most impacted, I am not afraid to be out in front when it comes to combatting homelessness.
My call to action has led to several initiatives, including Sonoma County’s Safe Parking Program that decriminalized sleeping in vehicles and provided County-owned property to accommodate the program. The initiative has been extremely well received and effective.
Most recently I directed staff to vet another unconventional idea that has the potential to give us one more sorely needed housing resource—tiny homes. These small, possibly trailerable, eco-conscious structures could be quickly and economically constructed to address the chronic shortage of shelter for the homeless in the county. In the past, housing stock of this nature would not have been permitted in Sonoma County.
Enter the County of Sonoma updated Housing Element, adopted December 02, 2014. It includes Program 41: Pilot Program Using Non-traditional Structures for Housing. The program description indicates “The County will evaluate the feasibility of a pilot program to develop and monitor different types of smaller and energy-efficient structures that could be used to safely shelter homeless persons or provide temporary housing.” A program like this represents an opportunity for very real progress.
Progress in Sonoma County begins with community engagement, and rightly so. I have already held several meetings with community stakeholders to explore the potential use of a County-owned site that could facilitate an empowering housing pilot project aligned with Housing Element Program 41. If this concept advances beyond the vetting stage there will be considerably more stakeholder engagement. I encourage as many fingerprints as possible on whatever develops.
I am a big proponent of public policy that provides multiple layers of benefit— the proverbial win, win situation. My personal vision for this pilot goes beyond simply providing four walls and a roof. Ideally, I would like to see a small village of sustainable homes and introduce a new economic development strategy to help vulnerable populations achieve personal and financial success.
I envision a project where each resident will pay rent just as they would if they were living in traditional housing. But wouldn’t it be ideal if each monthly rent check could act more like a deposit into an personal savings account, tied to each housing unit? In a sense, the home itself becomes an individual development account to be used for an education, investment, capital to start a small business, a car, down payment on a home, security deposit on a rental unit, etc.
In addition to the individual benefit, the public benefits because the asset-building strategy can help transition individuals away from needing government assistance and give residents greater purchasing power that, of course, supports local businesses and increases local sales tax revenue.
Preliminary meetings with staff determined that further review will require the dedication of resources from a number of Sonoma County departments and agencies. Should the County locate public property that could support the pilot program, and if project planners can lease the land from County of Sonoma for little to no cost, community stakeholders have indicated an interest in raising the necessary capital to build the project, primarily from a combination of grants, crowd-sourcing and private philanthropy.
If the concept moves forward there will be a long list of details to work out. For example, we will need to address issues like who would be placed in the tiny homes, how much money they would cost and how long people would be housed. All those questions are set to be answered in the coming months.
If successful, this pioneering pilot project holds the promise of becoming a model for municipalities throughout the United States by reengineering housing and rethinking asset-building strategies. Most importantly, this relatively inexpensive project will provide homeless and extremely low-income families with safe, secure and stable low-impact housing that is financially empowering and creates a pathway for upward social mobility in Sonoma County.
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane took office in January 2009. Prior to her election she served for 10 years as CEO for Council on Aging. She holds graduate degrees in both Theology and Family Counseling. The Supervisor has over 30 years of experience working in health and human services as a family therapist, minister, hospital chaplain, special education professional, and inner city social worker.