The Changeover at Elderberry Commons
Current residents who were told to leave face unlikely return
The ownership and management of Elderberry Commons, formerly the Sebastopol Inn, is about to change. The COVID-related funding is ending. The former hotel is about to undergo a transition from “a non-congregate emergency shelter for people particularly vulnerable to COVID” to “Permanent Supportive Housing” (PSH) for the homeless. This conversion requires remodeling 28 rooms to add kitchenettes, turning them into apartments.
Unfortunately, for the current residents, who were told about the situation in February, they will have to leave and find another place to live by mid-April. Case workers from the County have reached out to residents to help them find new housing.
John Sly was homeless before becoming a resident at Elderberry Commons. After living there for six months, he posted on NextDoor on February 23rd that he was told he had to leave because of the remodeling. He was grateful that the County had helped him get a housing voucher but, as he posted several times, he was still looking for an apartment in town.
From Emergency Shelter to Apartment Complex
Permanent Supportive Housing was part of the original plan for Elderberry Commons, and this transition was anticipated back when the hotel was purchased by the County of Sonoma’s Community Development Commission with State funds available through the Homekey project. The first residents were housed there in December 2020. As an emergency shelter, Elderberry Commons not only provided housing, but also medical care, food and security. One person involved at the inception said “it helped get vulnerable people off the street who might have died from COVID.”
Now, to effect a transition to apartments for the homeless, Burbank Housing and West County Community Services have submitted a proposal in response to an RFP from the County to take over “renovation, construction and long-term ownership and management” of Elderberry Commons. The Board of Supervisors will have to vote on the proposal, which is expected to take place in late April, after the date when the current residents have been asked to leave.
The transition raises many questions, including what the timeline is for the changeover, where do the residents go who live there now, who owns the new Elderberry Commons and who will live there in the future. The person responsible for Elderberry Commons is Dave Kiff, who was recently named the Director of the Department of Homeless Services, which is now part of the Department of Health Services in Sonoma County.
Because of the many questions, and the different jurisdictions, there is confusion and worry. The bureaucratic logic driving the process can seem indifferent to the impact on real people and real places. The first of several meetings to discuss the changeover took place this week with Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, City Council member Diana Rich and former Mayor Una Glass who is Sebastopol’s appointed member of the Continuum of Care (a seventeen-member board providing oversight of planning and policy for addressing homelessness). Tina Rivera, Director of the County’s Department of Health Services, and Dave Kiff were also in the meeting.
I was able to talk to Dave Kiff about the changeover. His answers are presented below. He was up front, admitting that the changes “will be very disruptive to the people who live at Elderberry Commons today.”
What happens to the current residents?
DK: Although at least six or seven of them have lived there for over two years, others have lived there between a year and two years, and there's about seven or eight that have been there less than eight months. Twenty-eight people have transitioned out of Elderberry Commons since the County has been operating it.
We started to communicate with the current residents — we, the county teams — in the early part of February where we said the time is coming when construction will be necessary to remodel the units, to add kitchenettes to them. It is fundamental to their long-term sustainability but it's also fundamental towards individuals having a lease in an apartment because that's what PSH looks like.
You move from staying (at Elderberry Commons) without a lease in a shelter environment to actually having a lease and having a tenancy right to the apartment. (The current residents) signed an agreement when they moved in that this is a non congregate shelter and they don't have a right to tenancy.
Will those residents be allowed to return?
DK: People who are eligible to be there have one or more years of homelessness and at least one disability. It’s a process called Coordinated Entry. It's supposed to be a fair and transparent way where the next person on the list who is eligible for housing in a region is able to secure the housing without fear or political favor.
Because of this different referral process, the Coordinated Entry referral process which is required by Homekey, the folks in Elderberry don't automatically get a spot there when it becomes PSH.
So who gets into Permanent Supportive Housing?
DK: The spot, in fact, goes to the next person on the list who is eligible and has a relatively high vulnerability score.
Everybody who's in Coordinated Entry has a score. PSH has a certain threshold score that you have to meet before you can be referred. And it doesn't mean someone is a behavioral problem. It means just someone has these vulnerabilities. And I want to assure the residents of Sebastopol that the people who are ready for Permanent Supportive Housing are really ready for housing. They've been shown to be able to live in a stable environment and maintain it just with a little help – little to modest help, meaning a case worker and maybe a resident manager who's on site.
You wouldn't necessarily come right off the street and be ready for permanent supportive housing, especially if you've been chronically homeless and you have all the behavioral health and physical health concerns that someone who is chronically homeless.
Will any priority be given to people from a Sebastopol who are on that list?
DK: Unfortunately not, but I'll put a “but” to that. That's because Coordinated Entry doesn't have a regional preference. What will happen, this kind of happens by nature, is that groups like West County Community Services, who may be the operator of Elderberry Commons under the PSH environment,—I know I say may because they did respond to a bid and they're a great organization and we would love to have them, but it just has to go before the Board of Supervisors. What West County does is through the Coordinated Entry assignment process, they can make sure that their clients are document-ready and ready to be housed if their name comes up. Coordinated Entry works best when everybody is documented.
So we could run through five names on a list. Joe is first, Jane is second. Dave is third. And if we're not document ready, or if we say, you know what, “I don't really want to live in Sebastopol, it's too far away from my job and I've got kids who are in school in Petaluma, I need to wait for a Petaluma placement.”
That's usually how it works. So it's not uncommon that someone from the area would get a placement. It's just not guaranteed.
What is being done to help current residents find housing?
DK: I just got news actually as we're talking. One of them we helped find an apartment in Sebastopol, which is terrific.
What we've done is we've assigned case workers and housing navigators to each resident who wants to work with us, and almost everyone has. Almost everyone certainly loves Elderberry and doesn't want to leave Elderberry Commons. I respect that very much because it's a lovely place in a lovely town.
So almost everybody has worked with us and work with us means we're going to help try to find housing and try to find affordable housing, or working with you to secure a housing voucher, which are still very hard to get in Sonoma County. They're hard to get everywhere. Once you have the housing voucher, then we’ll help with finding a place and it could be a shared living arrangement. It could be unfortunately in another city because there's a very low vacancy rate in Sebastopol.
What’s the overall timeline?
DK: Last fall the County issued a request for proposal (RFP) to say that we have these two Homekey sites, one of them being Elderberry Commons, and we'd like to transition these to nonprofit ownership because the county's not in the business of owning hotels.
Burbank Housing and West County Community Services partnered on a proposal to respond to that RFP and both of them are great entities that can do this job. So that's supposed to go to the Board of Supervisors in maybe the latter part of April or the first part of May.
Our intention is to end it by the early part of April, which is when we've asked that the folks who are sheltering there in Elderberry Commons move out by early part of April.
Actually, I think our timeline is April 14th, which is a Friday.
Will all the residents be able to move to a new place by then?
DK: We hope so. There are about three or four people that are just refusing to talk with us and that doesn't bode well for our being able to work with them.
People don't want to leave. And I can understand that.
Is the County transferring ownership of the property and building to a non-profit?
DK: That's right. The County would step out of ownership. I don't know all the details because that's another department at the County. I don't believe it's being sold for cash because it wasn't paid for by the County. It was paid for by Homekey (the State program).
Sebastopol Times Timeline:
County began negotiating to buy Sebastopol Inn.
December 15, 2020
City Council met with DHS Director, Barbie Robinson, to set a schedule for the conversion of Sebastopol Inn to what was called “permanent supportive housing” for COVID-vulnerable homeless residents.
Site to be managed by Disaster Emergency Medical Assistance (DEMA).
Funding provided by County through State’s Project Homekey program.
December 16. 2020
Escrow closed on the county purchase of Sebastopol Inn for $6.375M. Total project cost is $10.85M.
December 31, 2020
Residents moved in.
January 21 2021
Project Homekey Sebastopol Inn Community Meeting (video)
July 19, 2021
Gov Newsom holds press conference at Sebastopol Inn.
June 30, 2022
July 7, 2023
Sonoma County Community Development Commission issues an RFP soliciting organizations that can provide for renovation, construction and long-term management or ownership of three sites that were acquired through the Homekey program, including Sebastopol Inn.
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