Sonoma Wildfire Cottages construction begins in Santa Rosa

Construction has started on eight to 10 Habitat for Humanity cottages that will be temporarily located on Medtronic’s Fountaingrove campus in Santa Rosa to help house residents whose homes were destroyed in the October 2017 wildfires.

Two of the units are already being framed, and they all should be ready for occupancy in late fall or early winter. In addition, Homes for Sonoma has indicated that it intends to provide two of its prefabricated 480-square-foot, one-bedroom dwellings to this site.

Over 400 attended the groundbreaking ceremony Oct. 12, under a large outdoor tent atop the company’s six-story parking garage at 3593 Round Barn Blvd. John Kennedy, interim president of Habitat for Humanity and chairman of the board, told the audience that this project is designed to test the construction industry’s most innovative building technologies to see how these processes can scale for the future.

“With what this initial project will teach us, we plan to build 600 new homes over the next six to eight years so that very low to moderate income families can have affordable housing,” Kennedy said. “This process has given up an opportunity to learn a tremendous amount about how to build safe and resilient structures that are cost-effective to construct and maintain over time, efficient to operate and designed so occupants can live large.”

Habitat’s Sonoma County model was retooled to focus on multifamily and medium-density designs using environmentally friendly materials and unique construction methods.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, told event-goers that projects like this demonstrate the importance of partnerships as we rebuild our fire-ravaged communities.

“Without housing, you don’t have a community,” Thompson said. “It’s important for all of us to come together to bridge the large housing gap - from where we are today to where we want to be - that pre-existed before last October and was made worse by a series of fires. We’ve got to think outside the box to provide temporary, transitional, permanent and affordable housing. I’ve never seen a community that came together as quickly as Sonoma County to address a common issue.”

He presented Congressional certificates of appreciation to program manager Cypress Community Development Corporation, Habitat for Humanity and Medtronic with in recognition of their outstanding achievement. Cypress is a division of the Washington, D.C.-based advisory and advocacy firm The Cypress Group.

Cypress, a nonprofit specializing in disaster recovery housing programs, will oversee the building and development process. It previously built 450 “Katrina Cottages” in Louisiana after that hurricane, based on award-winning designs by Marianne Cusato, with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and affordable-housing sources.

“This project is a laboratory for the future of residential home building nationwide,” Cusato said.

Three firms were chosen to participate in this pilot: Connect Homes, GigaCrete/Presidio Realty Advisors, and West Coast SIPs. Opticos Designs of Berkeley is designing the master plan for the development.

“We’re all part of an active solution to what happened last year,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore to the audience.

He referred to a poll of area residents that suggests three primary worries: housing costs, cost of living and homelessness. Average family income is $67,000 ($55,000 for Hispanic families). But the average cost of houses is $585,000, and it takes $125,000 to qualify for a home loan.

“This disparity effectively deletes 77 percent of our population who can not afford to live here,” Gore said.

He noted that the public sector has provided about 90 percent toward recovery, from sources such as FEMA, community development block grants, property tax backfill policies. California Assemblymember Jim Wood was instrumental in obtaining $1 billion for vegetation management, Gore said.

“Now it is time to celebrate as we continue to participate in acts of remembrance, honoring our losses and focusing on renewal,” Gore said. “Throughout fire zones people are hosting events, such as Larkfield’s Resiliency Fund to buy trees, replace mailboxes and restore community. People living at Mark West Estates lost 172 homes and 76 percent of these will be rebuilt. People have come together, surrounding themselves with friends, family and neighbors to gain courage and move ahead. There is a flurry of positive activity out there.

Gore said he has attended a number of memorial events marking the passing of 24 residents in Sonoma County and 44 throughout the North Bay. And at one rebuild celebration, a band came up with a long Tubbs Fire recovery playlist of songs to boost community spirit and point survivors toward renewal: “Keep Going,” “Roll With It,” “Ring of Fire,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Burning Down the House,” “Fire and Rain,” “Fire on the Mountain,” “I’m Still Standing,” “Hope You Dance” and “Jesus, Take the Wheel.”

“Everybody wants to know what’s next,” Gore said. “Your vote counts at the polls in November for the housing bond rebuilding effort and to restore our infrastructure. We can all use our resources to help revitalize the North Bay.”

A long list of partners, donors and supporters were recognized at Medtronic groundbreaking event. Company Senior Vice President and President Sean Selmon and Facility Operations Manager Eric Kunz thanked those who provided grants to make this project possible. Those include the Safeway Foundation, Rebuild Wine Country, State Farm, Google, and partners Redwood Credit Union Community Fund, the office of Sen. Mike McGuire and The Press Democrat.

In addition to contributing the use of its land, the Medtronic Foundation donated $100,000 to advance Habitat’s relief efforts in Sonoma County. The Rebuild Wine Country team raised $1 million toward a goal of $5 million for the Sonoma Wildfire Cottages and other rebuild activities by Habitat organizations in the North Bay. Together RCU, McGuire and The ?Press Democrat provided a $150,000 grant.

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