Posted on: October 30, 2023
The opening of the project marks a milestone in Santa Rosa’s recovery six years after the Tubbs Fire and was celebrated by regional officials and housing advocates Friday as a testament to the community’s resiliency.
Author: PAULINA PINEDA
Source: THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Barbara King used to cry at the sight of the scorched palm trees that once stood outside her kitchen window in the Journey’s End mobile home park as she drove across the Mendocino Avenue highway overpass.
For years, the trees were all that remained of her former north Santa Rosa community after the debris from the firestorm that carved a path from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in October 2017 was cleared.
The palm trees were eventually uprooted as plans for new apartments on the property moved forward. Those emotions soon subsided, too.
“When they pulled them out it was the beginning of a new life for me,” King, one of the first residents to move into the development, recounted during a ceremony Friday to mark the opening of the first phase of the project.Construction of the first apartments was completed earlier this summer and residents began moving in July 14.
Named Laurel, to represent triumph, it will add 162 apartments for low-income seniors 62 and older once complete and is being developed by Santa Rosa-based nonprofit Burbank Housing and Related California of San Francisco.
The opening of the project marks a milestone in Santa Rosa’s recovery six years after the fire and was celebrated by regional officials and housing advocates Friday as a testament to the community’s resiliency and the strong partnerships between various levels of government, nonprofit organizations and the private sector that helped make the project a reality.
It was also a coming home for some of the former Journey’s End residents like King.
But advocates who worked with displaced park residents in the years after the fire to access insurance payouts and housing and some former residents say the path to return home has not been an easy one for all.
Some who waited for a chance to live in one of the new units ran into barriers from new age requirements to income requirements, said Kendall Jarvis, disaster relief attorney with Legal Aid of Sonoma County. Some who did qualify ultimately decided to look for housing elsewhere because they felt they couldn’t afford the monthly rent.
Just six former residents have signed a lease at Laurel so far, according to Burbank, far fewer than the few dozens officials had said earlier in the planning process they hoped would return.
Burbank CEO Larry Florin said more former residents are going through the application process or are on a waitlist for future phases of the project. Still, the need for senior housing is great and the project is a “gamechanger” for the broader community and a symbol of what recovery can look like, he said.
“After the fire so many of us looked at how do we take disasters and turn them into opportunities,” he said. “I think we really showed that you can really rebuild and build better and improve the community and that’s what we did here.”
Project helping redefine northeast Santa Rosa skyline
The mobile home park opened in 1956 and had long been a refuge for low-income and senior residents who enjoyed some of the lowest monthly space rents, easy access to nearby shopping and medical centers and the tight-knit community that had formed there.
The fire destroyed 117 of the park’s 161 homes and the 44 units left standing were deemed uninhabitable because the park’s utility system was too badly damaged. Two park residents died in the fire.
The future of the park after the fire was uncertain but Burbank and a group of developers worked with the property owner to figure out how to redevelop the site.
Ramsey Shuayto, a co-owner of the family who owned the park for about 50 years, said Friday they received offers from investors interested in acquiring the property but the family wanted to ensure whatever was built allowed former residents to return, was affordable and replaced the homes lost.
Seeing the new apartments that had risen there was a dream come true, he said.
“Everyone felt a strong sense of responsibility to rebuild and not just rebuild the community that was lost but build something that was beautiful, a place that is welcoming, where residents could form a healthy and thriving community,” said Ann Silverberg, CEO of Related’s affordable housing division in Northern California.
Laurel consists of one- and two-bedroom units plus community amenities like indoor gathering spaces, including a lounge with board games, large kitchen and a theater, two outdoor courtyards and health and wellness services for residents.
Construction of the second phase that includes 38 apartments was completed in August but Burbank hasn’t started leasing units in the building as it focuses on getting the first building fully occupied. Just over half of the first 94 units have been leased, according to Burbank.
A third phase that includes the final 30 units is in predevelopment. Developers are in the process of lining up financing and hope to break ground in 2025 and complete construction in 2026.
Developers declined to comment on the total project cost but previous estimates put the cost at about $117 million, which was being paid for through federal low-income housing tax credits and grants geared toward disaster-impacted areas, local funds and loans.
Land is being graded to make way for another 260 market-rate homes across from Laurel being built by a subsidiary of housing giant Lennar that will round out the 13.3-acre property.
The garden-style apartments will include a clubhouse with a pool and a 1-acre park and construction is expected to be completed in early 2025.
The project along with apartments going up caddy corner at the former Fountaingrove Inn site, will transform the skyline at the northern end of Santa Rosa. Together the projects are expected to add about 650 units combined and represent the largest redevelopment in the burn area of the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed more than 3,000 homes in the city.
As redevelopment plans inched along through the planning process, some former residents set roots at other mobile home parks, moved in with family or left the county or state in search of cheaper prices. Some of the community’s most elderly residents have died in the years since the fire.
Some have had to move multiple times since 2017 as they attempted to find permanent housing or waited for the new project to open.
Mobile home parks have long been one of the last bastions of affordable housing and residents at Journey’s End paid about $500 a month in lot fees and utilities. Many had sunk their life savings into buying their trailers and thought they’d live out the rest of their days at the property.
Housing costs and the cost of living have gone up in the years since the fire and it has put a squeeze on low-income earners and the most vulnerable, including seniors, many who are on fixed income.
Jarvis said about 50 former residents indicated an interest in returning to the property after outreach efforts.
She heard from some who applied that they didn’t qualify because they weren’t 62 or because they didn’t earn enough, or in some cases earned just too much. Some who did qualify felt rents would burden them financially and didn’t sign a lease, she said.
Apartments are available to seniors earning 30% to 60% of the area median income and residents must earn annually around $25,000 to $77,000, depending on the household size, to qualify. Monthly rents range from $668 for a one-bedroom to $1,605 for a two-bedroom unit depending on household income and size.
Tricia Roberts bounced around from a hotel to spending months living in her car after the fire before landing on her mom’s couch last November.
She had moved into a spare room in a mobile home owned by a good friend’s father, Michael, who had lived at the park for 25 years, sometime around late 2016, just months before the fire tore through the area.
It was finally a place of her own, she said.
Legal Aid and other nonprofits helped her access financial assistance to pay off outstanding bills and apply for an apartment at a Burbank community near the fairgrounds but she said she was denied because of her rental history.
She wanted to return to the Journey’s End site but the 51-year-old doesn’t meet the age requirements and though she considered applying with her mom together they earn too much to qualify.
The experience has frustrated Roberts, who said she feels as though she’s been abandoned as other fire survivors found permanent homes or other assistance.
“All this money has come down to Sonoma County for housing but yet here we still sit. It’s not housing for people like me,” she said.
Now Roberts is considering relocating to another state where the cost of living is more manageable.
Burbank data shows 37 former residents added their name to the interest list for a unit at Laurel.
Twenty-seven went through the application process and, of those, five didn’t qualify, five are on a waitlist for a unit in a later phase and 10 chose not to sign a lease for a variety of reasons from the size of the units, ongoing construction at the site or felt fine where they were, according to Burbank.
Jarvis said some of the project funding put constraints on who was eligible, which came as a surprise to residents who thought they would benefit from the new apartments. Now some who waited years for a unit there are in limbo, waiting for units at other affordable housing sites to open up, she said.
“Many fire survivors were able to rebuild their home but that wasn’t possible here,” Jarvis said. “As a community, I think we fell short on helping some of the most vulnerable and it’s a huge loss for the community.”
Council member Victoria Fleming, whose District 4 spans northeast Santa Rosa, said the concerns speak to a broader issue. Despite Laurel being targeted to seniors earning 30% to 60% of the area median income, that still leaves out a significant portion of the area’s senior population, Fleming acknowledged.
“It would have been my hope that everybody who had lived here prior to that atrocious night would be able to return here,” she said.
She said new financing tools are needed to provide permanent affordable housing for acutely low-income populations.
Residents form new community at Laurel
Fleming, who was elected to the council in 2018, said hearing King talk about the relief she felt as construction on Laurel began resonated with her.
She remembers driving through the district tearing up at the destruction in the northeast hillside but it had been a while since that happened, she said.
“I didn’t realize until (King) said it that that stopped happening with this new project,” she said. “It has lifted a weight off of my community and a weight off my chest, it’s like a sadness that has been alleviated.”
That was evident Friday as community members toured the new apartments and mingled over lunch in the community kitchen ― everyone’s attention on the future and the new community forming at Laurel.
Robert Sparks, 86, one of the new Laurel residents, said he sometimes feels overwhelmed as he looks out his third-story window to where the mobile home he used to rent on Angelus Street stood.
“It’s surreal,” he said.
He moved seven times as he waited for the property to be redeveloped but knew he wanted to return. He was one of the first to sign up on the interest list and one of the first to relocate in July.
He walked through the site with his former neighbor Rick Snyder, who’d lived on Angelus Street for 29 years, pointing out the new amenities.
Snyder, 70, was able to purchase a new coach after the fire and settled at another mobile home park in Santa Rosa though he joked Friday had he known the new apartments would be so beautiful maybe he would’ve stuck around.
Returning to the site was also a no-brainer for Pat Crisco, who had lived at the park for 13 years before the fire.
“It’s home,” the 73-year-old resident said.
Crisco lived in her daughter’s back room immediately after the fire and then purchased a travel trailer she parked at her daughter’s house while she worked with Burbank to find a more permanent solution.
She moved into Fitch Mountain Terrace, a senior community near Healdsburg, in mid-2018 and lived there until moving into her new apartment in July.
She was attracted to Journey’s End because of the community it provided and the pool but has begun to create a new group with familiar faces and new friends who gather to watch movies in the theater room.
“Knowing that the residents who have been through so much are back home again and creating a new community is so rewarding,” Silverberg, of Related, said.
King said the anniversary of the fire used to be a somber reminder of what was lost but this year the day came and went in her new apartment without much notice. It’s proof of how far the community has come, she said.
“I put all that away,” she said of the feelings she still harbored following the fire. “Now I’m so happy.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.
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