Feb 28, 2019
by Will Carruthers
In late February, local veterans experiencing homelessness finally moved into their new homes, a group of 14 small houses located on county-owned land in north Santa Rosa.
The lot, located on the county’s administrative campus, is the location of Veterans Village, a group of tiny houses intended to house veterans receiving federal benefits.
There are approximately 200 veterans living without shelter in the county, out of the total estimated homeless population of nearly 3,000, according to the county’s 2018 point-in-time count of people experiencing homelessness.
The project, developed by Community Housing Sonoma County (CHSC) and championed by District 1 Supervisor Shirlee Zane, was created to fulfill a county pilot program proposed in 2015 to study the process of developing “non-standard” housing to address the homeless housing crisis.
The project was widely celebrated during an unveiling event in December 2018, despite some development delays and cost increases during the process.
“I never lost faith that we could do this because my father, John Zane, a WWII Marine Veteran who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, taught me something about tenacity. Never, never forget the sacrifices military veterans have made to protect our freedoms," Zane said in December.
Now that Veterans Village is complete, Zane says the county will use the project to inform its work on an ordinance legalizing tiny homes in the county, a model which Zane hopes will be copied throughout the state.
Each home at Veterans Village cost $133,000. The project, which was initially budgeted for $1 million, cost $1.8 million primarily due to increased labor costs after the 2017 fires and unexpected difficulty lining up land for the project, CHSC Executive Director Paula Cook said at a May 8, 2018 Board of Supervisors meeting.
Despite the increased cost, the units still only cost a fraction the price of a conventional affordable housing unit, according to Cook.
One recent study from the Government Accountability Office estimated that the median cost of an affordable housing unit in California was $326,000 in 2015. Other studies put the figure higher.
Veterans Village residents, who are picked from a wait list of veterans receiving federal housing vouchers, will have access to two Veterans Affairs case managers living on site, according to Zane.
“It’s always cost-effective to house people,” given the cost of medical and emergency services accrued by people living on the streets, Zane said in an interview in February.
Veterans Village also features native plants, fruit trees and rain catchments designed to make the project sustainable. Once solar panels are installed, the homes will be zero net energy, according to Cook.
The idea of Veterans’ Village was first approved in July 2015 as part of a county pilot program for tiny homes, called the Pilot Project to Use Non-Traditional Structures to Safely Shelter Homeless People.
The pilot project is meant to act as a “trial run” of the concept to allow County staff to determine “what changes to county or state codes will be necessary to allow duplication of the pilot on private sites countywide, potentially leading to statewide duplication,” according to a June 2016 staff report about Veterans Village.
“While there have been a number of ‘tiny home village’ in other states, California’s building and land use laws seemingly prevent some of the innovative models from being carried out legally in California. Sonoma County has the unique opportunity to lead in this area by providing a pilot demonstration project,” the report continues.
Cook also hopes the pilot program will prove effective in laying the groundwork for future tiny home projects on public land.
“It would be nice to utilize what we’ve learned through this process [working on the pilot project] to help house homeless veterans here and around the country,” Cook said.
The completion of Veterans Village is the latest event in an on-going discussion about how the county should spend its limited resources on efforts to shelter the homeless.
Sonoma County has the third-largest homeless population of any mostly-suburban county in the country last year, according to a federal housing report.
In its response to the crisis, the county has adopted a Housing First policy, a method that calls for offering a package of housing and social services to people living on the streets in the hopes of stabilizing their lives and keeping them housed for a long time.
The model was proposed as an alternative to providing permanent housing only after certain prerequisites – such as completing a treatment program - are met by a person experiencing homelessness.
While some activists support quick and inexpensive groupings of tiny homes, safe parking programs and the legalization of pre-existing homeless encampments, Zane favors permanent supportive housing projects, which are traditionally more expensive and more time-intensive to build.
"Nobody is going to be happy about an encampment in their neighborhood," Zane told the North Bay Bohemian in 2015, "and I think we should put our funding into permanent solutions."
With the completion of Veterans Village, Zane stands by her position, saying in a February interview that the encampments only help to perpetuate homelessness, while permanent supportive housing developments like Veterans Village are more likely to keep people off the streets in the long term.
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