Sonoma, Mendocino counties get housing voucher boost tied to wildfire aid

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Read more about the recovery from the October 2017 wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

Sonoma and Mendocino counties and Santa Rosa — all hard hit by last year’s wildfires — will receive a nearly $3.5 million boost in federal funding to provide housing assistance to hundreds of families.

The additional money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will be used to fund subsidized housing vouchers for 220 low-income families in Sonoma County and Santa Rosa and 130 Mendocino County families, according to a statement from Rep. Jared Huffman’s office and HUD data.

HUD allocated $50 million in additional voucher funding to 26 public housing agencies in disaster-affected areas of California, Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida. The three North Coast municipalities are the only areas in California to receive the extra funding.

The fires destroyed more than 5,300 homes in Sonoma County and more than 300 homes in Mendocino County, exacerbating the region’s housing crisis and ratcheting up rents. The cost of subsidizing housing through the vouchers has also increased, limiting local agencies ability to fund such programs, said Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission.

The extra funding will help provide vouchers to additional families, she said.

In Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, the average voucher payment and rent cost increased by about $200 per unit after the fires, officials said. HUD gives each jurisdiction a set number of vouchers — about 2,000 in Santa Rosa and more than 2,800 in Sonoma County, according to Rebecca Lane, program manager with Santa Rosa’s Department of Housing and Community Services, and Van Vliet.

Tens of thousands more meet the income qualifications and are registered, but remain on waiting lists — sometimes for years — before a voucher becomes available. The subsidies cover the difference between the standard rental price and what the tenant can afford.

Reps. Huffman and Mike Thompson, who represent the North Coast, advocated for the additional funding, which was made available through budget legislation signed into law by President Donald Trump in February. The city and Sonoma County both submitted applications for the funding, Lane said. HUD announced the allocation Oct. 19, doling out almost $2.2 million to Sonoma County, more than $800,000 to Santa Rosa and $517,000 to Mendocino County.

“In the aftermath of the devastating wildfires that rocked our communities, affordable housing must be readily available for our local families who are struggling to get back on their feet,” Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in a statement Wednesday.

While the additional funding is a boon, finding housing for those families in a tight post-fire housing market remains a challenge, Van Vliet said. Wait lists for vouchers can take years, and recipients are tasked with finding their own accommodations. Not all landlords accept such vouchers.

“This doesn’t create more stock — it gives people more shopping money,” said Van Vliet. “They have a chance at something in the market … but this doesn’t help the overall shortage.”

Still, the funding is a boost, Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore said.

“Sonoma County’s housing shortage became much more severe in the wake of the fires, and low-income working families and seniors on fixed incomes have struggled to find housing they can afford,” Gore said in Wednesday statement. “The Housing Choice Voucher program helps low-income members of our community rent homes in the private market, so every new dollar helps us fill critical needs.”

Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey echoed the sentiment, noting that the availability of housing still poses a challenge.

“Every little bit of funding that goes toward affordable housing is important for Santa Rosa,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214.

Read more about the recovery from the October 2017 wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

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