Piper Street residents at a loss as apartment building sells

It was a packed house over emptying homes.

City hall was standing-room only during the Healdsburg City Council meeting on Feb. 4. An apartment complex on Piper Street recently gave out notices to vacate for its residents, and people poured out their hearts and minds looking for a way to save the neighborhood.

“What can you do to help us?” one resident asked. “No one can afford to live here.”

Time to talk

Time to talk - Residents speak with councilmembers during a brief break from the Healdsburg City Council meeting Feb. 4. A large crowd spoke out during the non-agenda call to the public in regard to a notice to vacate for tenants at an apartment on Piper Street.

The apartment was one of the few affordable housing structures left in the city, and its removal from the market as renovations – and the rise in rent that follows – highlighted the severity of the issue.

People from many walks of life expressed concern over a lack of options to stay in town. Their words were full of sorrow as they looked ahead to a future without their neighbors, a tight-knit community that had come together over two decades. All the while children played in blissful ignorance between the aisles as their parents wondered what will come next.

A translator had been brought in for those who preferred to address council in Spanish. Even if councilmembers or the public didn’t all speak the same language, the emotion of residents’ statements came through clearly.

Some vented their frustration. Others said they wanted to work with the city to bring more affordable housing to the market. Several said they wished they had a chance to purchase the property themselves, but could not move as swiftly to purchase the property as was needed. Neighbors lamented the loss of knowledge that came with their imminent departure, not to mention the friendships and sense of home that had become so everyday.

Applause followed the speakers, supporting each as they pointed out priority issues they found with the city.

People don’t worry about parks or park funding when they have to work all day and night to pay the rent, one said, wanting more city effort and dollars spent on affordable housing. Rent control may be the solution, said another.

One neighbor across the street from the Piper apartment, Ari Rosen, had much of the crowd not already standing on their feet up and cheering as he laid out where he saw funds in city coffers that could be better applied to this type of problem. Attempting to recall first being welcomed by the neighbors on Piper Street a decade and a half ago was too painful to recount – what was once a joyful memory now choked him up.

Whether it was long hours or a Social Security check that barely made ends meet, from downtown business owners to leaders in the community, all expressed their love of Healdsburg and its people and the unsweet sorrow of their parting.

Mayor David Hagele said that emotionally, it was one of the toughest public comments he’s had.

“I was having flashbacks from 2014,” he said after the meeting.

Hagele had been a renter at a property where he was given a notice to vacate. Though he said it wasn't done out of malice, it still put him in a tough situation.

With funds running out and his deadline drawing near, he almost had to turn to other areas like Santa Rosa instead of staying here. He thought of his children, 1 and 3 at the time, and how his daughter would have to leave a preschool he had just enrolled her in, where she was excelling.

“The anger, the heartbreak, it’s not lost on me,” he said.

After the meeting the council took a quick break and talked with their constituents, their concern plain on their faces.

Hagele said though the city obviously doesn’t have the issue of affordable housing solved, it is taking steps to help.

On the agenda that night was wording that would give local preference to the sale or rental of affordable housing. This wording will be present on all regulatory agreements and should pass during the consent calendar portion of council’s next meeting Feb. 18. It lays out a priority list for future buyers or renters, showing preference for those who already live in the city limits down to those who have ties to the city or at least the surrounding areas. Hagele said he hopes the document will help “welcome back” some of the residents who have left.

Another affordable housing issue covered in the meeting came during the mid-year budget review, where funds from Measure S – transient occupancy, or bed, taxes – were broken down.

City Manager David Mickaelian said the funds, which had an actual ending fund balance of $453,770, were being built up so the city could take on larger projects in the coming years. The budget was $875,798 for the 2018-19 fiscal year and proposed at $1.37 million for 2019-20, according to city documents.

Hagele said the wages paid to handle this fund – the largest expenditure item at $175,587 of the 2018-19 budget – were to leverage the fund to generate more revenue. Mickaelian referenced a $500,000 grant that had been obtained by city staff this way.

All of these efforts may come a day too late for some departing residents but maybe one day, as the community and city continue to work on affordable housing, people will be able to return to the areas they had been priced out of.

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