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How long will Elderberry Commons be empty?
The former Sebastopol Inn has been empty since the end of April. How long before its rooms will be ready to house the homeless again?
I wrote in March about “The Changeover at Elderberry Commons.” The former Sebastopol Inn was purchased for $6.3M with state funds as part of the Project Homekey in December 2020. Its 31 rooms were targeted for those in the homeless population who were the most vulnerable to Covid, particularly those at congregate shelters.
The County contracted with DEMA to manage Elderberry Commons. DEMA, a for-profit organization, would provide security, medical and food services for $3.7M (for at least 10 months). DEMA, which also managed other hotels converted to house the homeless in Sonoma County, is now being audited by the County for its billing for services after a Press Democrat investigation of DEMA. The reporting points to a lack of independent oversight of DEMA by County administrators.
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At a December 17, 2020 community presentation, titled “Update on Project Homekey at the Sebastopol Inn,” County officials detailed the purchase and management of the site,; the hotel was said to have 32 rooms, two of which had kitchenettes. (A source who lived at Elderberry Commons says that the two rooms with kitchenettes were reserved for the staff of DEMA but were not used much.) The presentation said that “all units will have a small kitchenette following the renovation phase, after the initial move-in.” It also referred to a “phased renovation process” as a next step.
The presentation wasn’t explicit that Covid-vulnerable homeless group would be housed temporarily at Elderberry Commons, but it did specify that the units were not permanent supportive housing, and eligible for housing assistance, as defined by the federal government. (During the 2022 Point-in-Time Homeless Count, those who stayed at Elderberry Commons were counted as homeless, a point that City Council member Diana Rich made on her blog.) Despite the technical terms, those residents of Elderberry Commons thought of themselves as no longer homeless because they were off the street and not in a group shelter.
The transition of Elderberry Commons to permanent supportive housing, while part of the plan at the beginning, was not planned for in advance. The idea of a “phased renovation” was dropped without explanation and instead, officials decided that the facility had to be shut down and all residents moved out before the transition could take place. The timing of the transition was dictated by the approaching end of funding for DEMA to manage the property and care for its residents.
Most residents were surprised by the notice they received in February 2023 that they had to move out of Elderberry Commons. Many government officials were also surprised, especially when they saw that little planning had happened to place the current residents in alternative housing. Under pressure, Homelessness Services had to step up its efforts to find other housing or shelter for the residents, and it took longer to move everyone out. At the beginning of March, the nineteen remaining residents had a deadline of March 31st to move out, but it was then extended to April 15th.
The transition was more complicated than originally thought, but it was made worse because no one person or agency was really in charge. There seemed to be a lack of urgency in managing the transition so that a facility purchased for $6.3M would transition to permanent supportive housing as soon as possible.
The transition involved Homelessness Services needing to relocate residents and then closing Elderberry Common; Sonoma County’s CDC planned to transfer ownership of the property to Burbank Housing, which required approval by the Board of Supervisors; then Burbank Housing would apply for building permits before construction could begin; Burbank would manage the construction to add kitchenettes to the hotel rooms and make other upgrades, and this would be be paid for by the federal Housing and Urban Development agency; after construction finished, Burbank Housing would contract with West County Community Services to manage the upgraded facility. Only then could residents return, and even then, former residents would have no priority.
The County’s FAQ for Elderberry Commons said construction would “likely take 4-6 months.” The first estimated date for re-opening Elderberry Commons was around October. At a Sonoma County Town Hall meeting online in April, Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins brought together County administrators to present the above plan with a timeline. The transfer of ownership was expected to be approved by the Board of Supervisors in May. Then permits would be drawn in May and June, and construction would begin in the fall with Elderberry Commons finally re-opening February 2024.
What has happened since that April Town Hall Meeting? Sebastopol’s e-permitting portal reports that the Elderberry Commons project is still at the “planning” stage, which is the first of five stages. It’s not listed as having moved to the second stage: “In Progress.”
I wrote to Fifth District Supervisor’s Lynda Hopkins’ office and heard back from Tracy Lyons, who recently replaced Leo Chyi as the Chief of Staff. She said that on June 12th the Board of Supervisors “approved the exclusive right to negotiate an agreement with Burbank Housing Development Corporation for Elderberry Commons (Consent Item #7 here).”
“We just finalized the term sheet with the County and things are in motion, “ said Rich Wallach, Burbank Housing Senior Director of Housing Finance & Business Development by email. “The County is leading the permitting process with the design team until the property transfer. We hope to start the rehab work sometime this fall with work to complete in the first or second quarter of 2024.”
Lyons shared the following timeline for re-opening Elderberry Commons.
Design and permitting complete: 09/30/2023
Construction complete: 03/01/2024
Occupancy begins: 03/15/2024
So, the County’s current timeline says Elderberry Commons will be empty for about a year or more from the time the County began moving its residents out.