Sonoma County fire-recovery plan underscores key role of new housing

Children sign a large banner thanking first responders for their work during the Sonoma County wildfires at Winterlights at Old Courthouse Square in Santa Rosa, California on Friday, November 24, 2017. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


Sonoma County’s recovery from the area’s October wildfires will be linked largely to how it solves its housing crisis, according to an economic recovery plan released Thursday by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The report includes surveys of businesses, interviews with stakeholders about best practices from other areas hit by disasters and an analysis by Beacon Economics of the impact of the fires on the economy and housing. It comes out of the five-year “Strategic Sonoma” economic-development planning the board had undertaken with Avalanche Consulting before the fires. Avalanche was hired to draft a recovery plan.

October wildfires throughout the North Bay burned least 245,000 acres and 8,400 structures. Forty-two people died, including 23 in Sonoma County. The county lost 5,300 homes, including 3,000 in Santa Rosa alone.

Beacon assessed the overall outlook for the national, state, and regional economies, and estimated how much additional housing the county will need create to accommodate future job growth.

Based on employment growth projected through 2020, Beacon estimates that the county will need 8,143 new housing units. That includes 6,204 single-family units, 1,473 multifamily units and 466 mobile and other units, “assuming historical distributions remain intact.” Of those, 5,010 would be owner-occupied, and 3,133 rentals.

The needed number of housing units grows to about 26,000, if “overcrowded” residences are added.

By comparison, the county permitted 730 units in 2016 and 609 in the first three quarters of 2017.

The plan added that solving the housing issue remains linked to how well the economy of the area does in the post-fire years.

“Essentially, if Sonoma County does not create 8,143 new units by 2020 – in addition to replacing those lost in the fires — there will likely be drag in the overall economy leading to slower employment growth,” the report said.


The plan includes five priorities:

1. Empower the local workforce: In addition to housing, the plan calls on the public-private partnership to address transportation options connecting displaced residents with employment opportunities and improved child care.

2. Help businesses and nonprofits recover: Assist nonprofits through local banks and credit unions to “ensure capital needs for recovery are met.” Raise awareness about resources available to businesses. Direct assistance to business in preparing loan and grand applications. Identify and address labor shortages. Reach out to the agriculture community.

3. Impact the direct impacts of the fire: In addition to debris-clearing, is nearly complete, the plan writers said a capital-improvement plan is needed to replace public infrastructure lost to the fires. Nonprofits and businesses impacted by the fires need to be guided through the process of getting U.S. Small Business Administration loans.

4. Develop a robust marketing campaign: Create an ad hoc marketing committee. Encourage people to support area business by shopping online. Encourage people from the Bay Area to visit Sonoma County.

5. Align strategic efforts and build resiliency: Document lessons learned from recovery effort for future disaster-recovery efforts.


The economic development board report also detailed a results of a business survey about the fires.

“Overall, most respondents described serious physical, financial, and emotional impacts to their businesses,” the report stated.

About 84 percent said they had some impact. Thirty-four percent said they lost business, while 18 percent said it cost them sales.

The survey had 194 responses. About 40 percent had one to five employees, while 25 percent had 11 to 50 workers.

As for ways to help businesses recovery, some survey-takers called for an “open for business” marketing campaign as well as help in securing housing for their employees. In fact, 68 percent of the businesses identified housing as the top issue in the recovery.

The overall outlook of businesses about recovering from the fires appeared strong. The report stated 48 percent were “moderately optimistic” about overall Sonoma County growth in the next six months, while 23 percent were “very optimistic.”