Project Homekey

A pandemic winter approaches as county pursues permanent supportive housing for unsheltered individuals 

Plans to convert the Sebastopol Inn into permanent supportive housing have stagnated on the waiting list for Project Homekey funding, as the state approval deadline draws closer.

Governor Gavin Newsom created the Project Homekey program to fund city and county efforts to purchase hotels, motels and vacant apartment buildings to develop into permanent housing for homeless Californians vulnerable to COVID-19, according to his office.

The Sebastopol Inn would provide 31 newly remodeled rooms as permanent supportive housing units in central Sebastopol, accommodating 31 or more individuals if it advances to the next stage, said Barbie Robinson, director of the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

However, city and county governments have until Dec. 30 to complete their purchases, according to the governor’s office.

Robinson spearheads the local Project Homekey efforts to house and provide wrap-around services to unsheltered people at higher risk of COVID-19. She also serves as the interim executive director for the county’s Community Development Commission.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of the Sebastopol Inn Tuesday, pending funding from the state. Hotel Azura in Santa Rosa also got the greenlight and can proceed with Project Homekey money secured earlier in the year, according to a county press release.

“Providing permanent supportive housing and other wrap-around services through these Homekey Projects are likely to help reduce the financial, administrative as well as other societal costs on our emergency and criminal justice systems,” said Tina Rivera, interim assistant director of the Community Development Commission. 

Rivera said housing will prioritize those ages 65 and older and people with underlying medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, liver disease, pulmonary diseases and compromised immune systems that make them susceptible to serious virus complications.

In addition, residents at Hotel Azura and Sebastopol Inn would participate in the county’s Accessing Coordinated Care to Empower Self Sufficiency Initiative, or ACCESS, Robinson said.

ACCESS offers unsheltered individuals with individualized, integrated services based on their needs, like primary health care, behavioral health services and supports, economic and food assistance, transportation, employment training and other resources, she said. Food, medical and security services will also be provided on-site, she said.

Paul Osmundson, special project director of the Community Development Commission said the state had been very tightlipped about the status of waitlisted projects across California.

He guessed the state faces a ratio of about two to one in terms of the applications it’s fielding and the projects it can fund, with $1.1 billion in requests and only $600 million to spend.

Osmundson said there were probably less than a hundred other projects in limbo with Sebastopol Inn. “It’d be safe to say that as soon as the funding’s expired or Dec. 30, whichever comes first, will be when we’ll find out if Sebastopol Inn gets off the waiting list,” he said.

Robinson said, “What we were told is to continue with our processes as if we were getting funded. That’s the only way we can continue to have ourselves in position to be able to take advantage should funding become [available].”

Osmundson said he thought the process was going so quickly that the state government probably does not want to give any applicants an unfair advantage or disadvantage, so the commission remains hopeful and prepared. “And we’re constantly checking with the Chief of Staff to be sure that we’re ready to go,” Osmundson said

Newsom assigned $550 million in federal Coronavirus Aid Relief Funds to Project Homekey and pitched another $50 million from the state to assist acquisition and initial operating costs, the county press release said.

Rivera said the governor was so impressed by project applications across the state that officials were moving to engage philanthropists to fund some waitlisted projects.

Robinson’s presentation calculated the project to cost $205,645 per unit for a total of $6.375 million for 31 units. Rivera said the application for Sebastopol Inn was submitted for Project Homekey for the $6.375 million in acquisition costs and $744,000 in operation subsidies, marking the total project costs with acquisition, developments and improvements to be $10,302,704.

“These units are more important than ever given COVID, as well as the wildfires over the past few years, which has reduced our available housing available for sheltering our homeless individuals,” Robinson said.

The opportunity for permanent supportive housing in Sebastopol wanes as the county continues to face a lack of affordable housing, which has continued to worsen since the wildfires in 2017 and most recently this August when the Walbridge Fire struck west county.

Similarly, the pandemic pushes those communities closer to the edge financially with increased unemployment and complicates life for people without a roof over their heads or access to soap and water as shelters reduce capacity. Sonoma County has the fourth largest homeless population for large suburban areas in the U.S., the county’s Project Homekey webpage says.

Sonoma County 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said there is always overwhelming community concern and often opposition when homeless services arise.

“But at the end of the day, everyone does want to solve homelessness and they have to solve it somewhere. And that involves folks actually stepping up and instead of saying, ‘Not in my backyard,’ saying, ‘Yes, in my backyard, yes in everyone’s backyard, we all need to be a part of this solution,’” Hopkins said.

(4) comments


Those commenting have some very valid points about the disparity of where homeless facilities are located and the apparaent avoidance by our Supervisors of utilizing public facilites and/or County property to house the homeless . The County also is ignoring the 2020 Grand Jury report findings which specifically state that they need to spread homeless services across the ENTIRE County. The Hotel Azura is on the edge of a neighborhood that already has the massive Caritas Village affordable housing project along with the Catholic Charities Homeless Services and Family Center facilities. A quarter mile away is the Redwood Gospel Mission and the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen. The neighborhood is already heavily impacted by the homeless using these services. It did not need the County purchasing the hotel on the edge of the neighborhood to add more - especially when the County has no direct experience in running such an operation. This will not decrease calls to the police (the Palms Inn had 800 calls for police and Fire in 2019). It will also not address the Covid Pandemic considering it won't be completed for 3 years. It appears to be an end run by our Governor to avoid public input and provide another poorly planned response to our states homeless population. These hotels will result in millions of dollars spent for a very small population with little to show in return. Had the governor provided funding for increasing facilities that could provide additional mental health and addiction services, maybe there would be a chance some of the folks on our streets could get the much-needed help they need. In the meantime, Project Homekey is just an expensive bandaid that will make politicians feel like they're effectively addressing the homeless issue, when in fact they aren't.


It should also be noted that while philanthropist may give a tax deductible donation to purchase these hotels, it is highly unlikely that the hotels will be in their communities. State and local homeless policies disproportionately impact working and middle class families. Project Homekey is another example of this. Hotel Azure is in a working and middle class neighborhood. The Sebastopol Inn is located among small, locally owned businesses. There will be no hotel conversions in affluent neighborhoods, partially because the grant itself had a limit on the price per room which would only make it applicable to lower priced areas. Thus lower income communities will lose revenue from their hotels while seeing an increase in need for city services. Wealthier communities will not have their tax base impacted and will not see an increase in need for services. If the Hotel Sebastopol is converted, Sebastopol residents will see a decrease in revenues and an decrease in funding for city services while still paying the same property taxes. Newsom's wealthy philanthropists will get a tax deduction and no change in their local communities. In addition, removing hotel rooms increases the potential transition of residential properties into AirBnBs. A likely outcome is that losing 31 hotels rooms will prompt the conversion of long-term rentals into vacation rentals thus decreasing housing stock and contributing to our current housing crisis, impacting housing availability for the working and middle classes.


If this project goes through, the County will need to reimburse the City of Sebastopol for lost revenue. The City's budget primarily consists of property tax, sales tax and transient occupancy tax all generated by Sebastopol Inn. One might assume there will be some additional increase in services with 31 new residents. Developers usually pay impact fees and property owners usually pay property taxes which off-set the increase in service generated by new residents. Sebastopol's budget is around $10 million annually which comes to around $1300 in city services per resident. Currently, the City is facing a $2 million budget deficit. From this article, cost to operate the Sebastopol Inn is $744,000 per year or $24,000 per year per resident. If they get the funding, the first two years will be subsidized by state taxpayers funds. The cost to stop high school consolidation in West County is around $751 per student per year or $1.2 million. If this project goes through, taxpayers should ask for funding priorities to be balanced between our youth, our public infrastructure and homeless services. Ironically, there will most likely be a vaccine in 2021 so we will be providing on-going services at $24,000 per year, per resident forever even thought the pandemic will most like look differently by June of 2021. These hotel rooms do not address affordable housing so it is unclear where residents will go once they are stabilized - one can assume if they are over 65 with health issues that they will always need some government subsidy. Unless there is a plan to also build permanent housing or to transition people to less expensive areas, it seems like it might be difficult to transition people out of the hotel rooms.


We have calculated the cost to be closer to $350k per converted hotel room for both the Santa Rosa historic district Hotel Azura and for the Sebastopol Inn at Gravenstein Station.

Sonoma County is just having the first winter rains and our 3000 street dwellers urgently need shelter and help. A prefab pallet home costs approximately $8k with heat and ac and could be erected on county land and infrastructure within a month. Instead the plan is to spend incredible sums of money on putting kitchens and fire prevention systems in tiny hotel rooms that were never designed to be 'homes' which will be ready for a few people to move into in in three years time. This is an absolutely crazy direction in a pandemic year and the county board of supervisors need to be held accountable for their autocratic and incompetent strategies.

For the monies being spent on taking hotels out of use and converted we could quickly house well over 2000 homeless in prefabs on county land and have plenty of money to help these people get back on their feet as the HUD 'Moving On' initiative provides guidelines for.

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