Beyond the Santa Rosa wildfire rebuild: North Bay housing construction accelerates in 2020

A group of housing industry executives gave a spirited update about their building activities in Santa Rosa during the Business Journal's 27th annual Sonoma State University Economic Outlook Conference, held Feb. 20 at SSU's student center.

Topics ranged from the types of housing in development and the shared challenges of finding enough workers, to transit-oriented projects and the status of rebuilding efforts following the October 2017 wildfires.

And if you think the rebuild is a tired subject, think again.

“Somebody said to me the other day that we don't need to talk about the rebuild anymore,” NBBJ publisher Brad Bollinger relayed to the audience. “Yes, we do, until every last person is back if they want to rebuild their house, and they're back in our community.”

David Guhin, assistant city manager, Planning & Economic Development, City of Santa Rosa, said there are currently more than 1,200 units close to being approved for building permits; of those, about 37% will be devoted to affordable housing. More than 1,000 homes in rebuild status are currently under construction.

As of Feb. 13, there have been 1,000 homes rebuilt in Santa Rosa, he said, adding that as of Feb. 20, the number has risen to 1,026.

“We're starting to see a shift from the rebuild into building homes in other parts of the city,” Guhin said, adding that 1,500 such units are currently going through the building permit process.

Plans also are being made to encourage high-density, transit-oriented multifamily development in downtown Santa Rosa, he said.

“The train is critical to attracting funding and investment to the downtown core to see that type of investment,” Guhin said. The city is working closely with Simon Malls on several downtown projects that Guhin said he's hoping to be able to publicly share this year.

Gregory Owen, CEO of Fairfield-based Silvermark Enterprises, said structural changes such as fire-resistant siding and sprinklers will further strengthen the homes against fire.

“We see it locally with the help of the city, county and fire (departments), that the local citizens are feeling more comfortable moving back into the Fountaingrove fire areas,” Owen said. “And it's a conversation we have almost every day with homeowners.”

Michelle Whitman, executive director of Renewal Enterprise District, said affordable housing is needed across the spectrum, for both ownership and rental opportunities.

“I was part of a team that just in the last couple of weeks submitted $40 million in grant applications to spur and accelerate affordable and mixed-income housing development here in Sonoma County,” she said. The applications total 349 new units of housing, of which 38% are affordable, she said, adding that one is all-electric and uses no fossil fuels or onsite gas combustion.

“All of them are near transit and services to reduce vehicle miles traveled,” Whitman said. “And all are in amenity-rich areas to enhance community health and social cohesion, and livable, walkable, active environments.”

Keith Christopherson, co-founder and managing partner, Christopherson Builders, LLC, said projects are moving along but that finding enough workers continues to be challenging.

Jeff Schween, a Santa Rosa-based real estate agent with Compass Real Estate said there's been a shift from building, rebuilding and designing custom homes for clients to working on spec homes.

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