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PG&E settlement funds should go to housing, nonprofit says

As Sonoma County supervisors seek public input on what to spend its $149 million PG&E settlement, Sustainable Sonoma hopes to sway the decision to improve housing security.

In a letter to supervisors, Sustainable Sonoma – a coalition of Sonoma Valley business, environment, social justice, nonprofit and government leaders – issued a call to action to use the money to address the county-wide housing crisis.

The nonprofit said that until workers and small business owners can afford to live near where they work, the economy will not be stable, the environment will be adversely affected due to commuting, and the social network will suffer because lower income families cannot stay together.

“Sustainable Sonoma’s take is to restore the resiliency of Sonoma County,” said Caitlin Cornwall, project director. “After the fires, there isn’t another need that is as all-encompassing as is housing security.”

Cornwall said the group recognizes that people and other organizations will try to persuade the Board of Supervisors to spend the money on such things as fixing roads, education, water, and other areas, all of which she agrees are noteworthy and valid. But, housing security touches those areas because of its broad scope.

“Housing is not just an urgent need across the entire community, it’s also an all-encompassing strategy for fixing a lot of problems at once. From local economic vitality to mental health to climate action to social justice to education,” Cornwall said. “Where people live and their ability to have a decent quality of life in their own home where they put their head at night ramifies to the entire community.”

Mark Bodenhamer, CEO of Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce said: “Housing is, first and foremost, a human issue” and a “drain on the environment” and “residents’ quality of life and the economy.”

Housing is consistently “ranked as one of the most pressing issues for local businesses the past few years,” he said. “In order for our economy to truly be sustainable, we need to address the housing shortage across a wide variety of income levels.”

Focusing that $149 million on housing will cross over to the other areas of need, argues Sustainable Sonoma and Generation Housing, a housing advocacy group.

“The construction multiplier is 2.15, which means that for every dollar inputted into construction its multiplier effect on the rest of the economy returns $2.15,” said Jesús Guzmán, policy and advocacy director of Generation Housing.

Bodenhamer pointed out that there is a “focus on tax revenue generating commercial development” in some California municipalities “but the reality is building new housing units is just as likely to increase city and county revenue as it will unlock new efficiency and productivity in our local economy.”

He added that Sonoma Valley is likely to continue to have “some shortage” of housing due to growth limitations, but the shortage of affordable housing was exacerbated by the 2017 Sonoma Complex fires, and other emergencies over the last few years.

Curran Reichert, pastor of First Congregational Church Sonoma, United Church of Christ, said “it pleases me to no end to think that this settlement money might be used to support those most affected by the 2017 fires.” She watched the need for housing support escalate after the fires.

“Families who were already living paycheck to paycheck were forced to go into debt to stay in their housing. People were laid off and unable to keep up with their utility bills and living expenses. Many lost their housing as a result of falling behind with their rents or mortgages,” Reichert said.

“Organizations like FISH and La Luz were able to help a great deal, but even still our Valley lost an important cross-section of our community who were unable to resume work and had to relocate. This hurt our schools, our workforce, and separated families,” she said.

The Board of Supervisors is accepting public input through Sept. 4 and is scheduled to discuss the PG&E settlement money at its Oct. 6 meeting. Cornwall said she wouldn’t be surprised if that discussion is postponed given the recent fire outbreaks.

A request for comment from board chair and Sonoma Valley’s 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin was not received by press time.

Contact Anne at anne.ernst@sonomanews.com.

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