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Sonoma State University on June 6 held a ribbon-cutting event in Petaluma to mark the opening of its new 90-unit multifamily housing complex, the university’s first foray into providing housing for its faculty and staff.

The five-story multifamily complex, called Marina Crossing Apartments, consists of studio apartments, as well as one, two and three-bedroom apartments. Pricing ranges from $1,774 per month to north of $3,300 per month, according to SSU.

The location is within walking distance to the SMART train and, in fact, a train whizzed by during the ceremony.

SSU paid $42 million for the complex, according to Joyce Lopes, vice president of administration and finance at SSU. Basin Street Properties, the project developer, was initially set to build a business complex on the site but petitioned Petaluma to change it to housing after the October 2017 wildfires, she said. The wildfires destroyed thousands of homes in Sonoma County and aggravated a housing crisis.

Lisa Vollendorf, provost and executive vice president at SSU, said, “We, as employers in the region, have been challenged in our recruiting and last year we had one in five of our recruits not come because of lack of housing and housing price concerns. We hope this sets the stage for more innovative thinking about employee and workforce housing for the whole county.”

In November 2018, SSU gained approval from the California State University Board of Trustees to purchase the Petaluma complex for staff. The university took ownership of the project in February.

“By acquiring this project, we also are able to address our housing needs more quickly,” Lopes said. “We estimate that acquiring an apartment complex that was already near completion allowed us to provide housing to our employees four to six years sooner than if we had tried to build it from scratch.”

SSU has designated the apartments for newly hired staff and faculty members to live for up to three years as they fully transition to life in Sonoma County, Lopes said.

SSU’s dean of education and an employee who works in the president’s office will be the first two tenants at Marina Crossing, said Vollendorf. They are in the process of moving in and awaiting final clearance, she added.

Sonoma State owns 10 condominiums just south of campus, across East Cotati Avenue, available to new faculty members and others in need of temporary or transitional housing.

Ethan Brown, a program manager at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, told the Press Democrat he’s not aware of any other workforce housing project of comparable size. Brown said projects such as these, particularly in response to the 2017 wildfires, are becoming a priority for local employers, the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber and local government officials.

SSU president Judy Sakaki, who lost her home in the 2017 Tubbs fire, understands firsthand how hard it can be to find housing in the county.

“My husband and I had to move six times before we settled in a new residence,” Sakaki said. “It’s particularly difficult for those who come to Sonoma County from outside the area, and have to search for a home while simultaneously trying to settle into a new work environment.”

Sakaki said SSU also is working to provide more housing for its students. It currently can house 30% of its 9,400 students. The university has set a goal to raise that number to 50% by 2040, she said.

“While we are still at a conceptual stage, our hope is to build 600 housing units for freshmen on campus,” she said. “We know that’s an ambitious goal, but we’re confident we can do it.”

The Press Democrat contributed to this report.