According to Forbes magazine, Sonoma County is the 10th least affordable place to live in the nation. Someone earning an average wage here, says Forbes, would have to spend 82 percent of their income to live in a median-priced house, which, as of December, had hit a record $669,500. Of course, if you live in Napa County you’re paying 86.9 percent of your income on housing; in San Francisco you’re paying 94.6 percent and in Marin—wait for it—you’ll need 118.1 percent of the average wage. And all of that was before the wildfires of October.
In September, according to the real estate site Zillow, Sonoma County’s median monthly rent was $2,366, and steadily rising. In the weeks immediately after the fires, rents in Santa Rosa could be seen rising by as much as 35 percent before that city imposed a cap on increases. But median rents for the county at large aren’t representative for the Sonoma Valley, where the cost of all housing is usually substantially higher. And even before the firestorm of October, only about 2 percent of the county’s housing stock was available. In the Valley, a $2,400 rent or mortgage would be considered a bargain.
The fires also added a sudden and unexpected need for emergency housing, in a market already struggling unsuccessfully to fill the need for whatever passes these days as affordable housing. City and county authorities are now confronted with the challenge of finding affordable, workforce housing while scrambling to find even scarcer temporary housing for people who lost their homes in the fires.
Solutions are many and varied, and so far most of them aren’t quick. One stopgap solution that has been effective for some is the Home Sharing model offered by organizations like SHARE Sonoma County, which matches people with affordable housing in what are, frequently, other people’s occupied homes. SHARE Sonoma County Executive Director Amy Appleton says the initial post-fire response was heartwarming. “Due to people’s generosity,” she writes on the group’s website, “in just three weeks, we now have more than 1,100 homes in inventory that we can use to provide housing for those affected by the fire. These are people who have not succumbed to price gouging to take advantage of the shortage of homes. They are the true heroes, by recognizing the need and responding with a sense of community. Now our objective is to act quickly to put people in those homes.”
The program was launched in Petaluma in 2014, funded with a grant from the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael, and operated out of the Petaluma People’s Services Center. The original strategy was to place people needing housing into homes owned by seniors over 60 who would otherwise be unable to afford the houses they live in.
Through the SHARE Sonoma County matching process, parties are vetted, with SHARE Sonoma County providing support, thus alleviating the most common reason for shared housing not to work—fear of allowing strangers into one’s home. The evidenced-based program also is supported by municipalities throughout the county and is one of the preferred models for solving the short-term housing shortage affordably.
After the fires, an offshoot called SHAREfire was established, using the same approach to find immediate and secure accommodations for those displaced by the fire. (For an interview, call 707.772.7262, or email email@example.com.)
Closer to home, a similar service on a more modest scale has been set up by Glen Ellen resident Ed Davis. Originally called “Keep Them in Sonoma Valley—Homes for Fire Victims,” Davis has changed the name to include a bit more of a political bite with the title, “Let’s Pause New VRBOs & Keep Fire Victims in Our Neighborhoods,” although the original Facebook address remains the same.
Davis’s efforts, with help from a cadre of Glen Ellen friends, known as the Glen Ellen Posse, have been highly successful, helping, he claims, at least 50 families who lost their homes. The website is full of posts from those who need housing and those having housing to rent.
Davis has announced on his site support for extending an interim moratorium on short-term rentals to a full year, arguing that, “Our next challenge is to insure that when those (fire-damaged) neighborhoods get rebuilt, they will still have room for actual families. In early February the Board of Supervisors will decide whether or not to extend the VRBOs (short-term rentals, Airbnb, HomeAway, etc.) moratorium to a full year. Whether or not you personally agree with the concept of VRBOs in our neighborhoods, hopefully we can ALL agree that losing more homes to them right now, when we just lost 6,000 to the fires, is not a good idea.” The site’s address is facebook.com/groups/316887642111688. Davis himself can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, city and county jurisdictions have worked to allow more lenient rules relating to the placement of trailers, RVs and tiny houses—like Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, formerly headquartered in Sonoma, but which now has relocated to Colorado and is reportedly burdened with massive debt.
As appealing as is house sharing and community collaboration in matching renters with rental properties, there is clearly a vastly larger and more complex housing problem in Sonoma County, in the Bay Area, in California and in many parts of the nation and the world. There simply is not enough affordable housing. Period.
But that is a problem only because, some experts argue, we have let housing drift on market tides, rather than mooring it to modern technology, enlightened social planning and some clever, old-fashioned entrepreneurial capitalism.
Which leads us to the housing structures pictured on these pages and a company with the somewhat clumsy name of Intermodal Structures with a product called the IMS.TRU (Intermodal Structures Transitional Residential Unit).
The IMS.TRU could become (despite its name) a very convenient and affordable answer to both Sonoma County’s short-term, fire-related emergency housing crisis and its long-term, market-driven crisis of inadequate workforce housing, a term—in case it’s not familiar to you—that generally refers to housing for people with incomes insufficient to pay for housing close to where they work.
So let’s break this down as it applies to Sonoma County.
Intermodal Structures is a company that manufactures and delivers single- and multistory steel frame buildings for use as classrooms, office buildings and, more recently, homes. The steel shells for its structures are manufactured in China and shipped to a final-assembly facility at Mare Island, on the outskirts of Vallejo. The finished units are transported as modules, each 8 feet by 40 feet, stackable, with finished interiors, that can be assembled on-site with a 250-ton crane in less than three hours.
John Diserens, a transplanted Aussie now putting down roots in Glen Ellen, is Intermodal’s CEO and says he has been in final discussions with Sonoma County officials who tell him, he says, “This is just fabulous, just what we need.” A current round of talks with PRMD “permitting people” is underway.
Diserens says the modular homes are compliant with county ordinances for both emergency housing and permanent homes and do not require concrete foundations—just a level gravel pad. They are earthquake proof, fireproof and designed to withstand 160 mile-per-hour winds. “We have buildings in Haiti and Chile,” he says, “all because of quakes and hurricanes.”
They come complete with heating and cooling systems, kitchen appliances, floor and wall covering, lighting, plumbing and all hook-up hardware. There is even a covered veranda available, and all homes have standardized landscaping with modular trees, shrubs and irrigation systems.
“When residents arrive,” Diserens says, “it’s ready for them to walk in and have a cup of coffee.”
Sounds like a dream come true for many, but how does it pencil out financially?
Typically, says Diserens, “the square-foot cost is $230. So a 1,000 square foot home would come in at $230,000.”
But that’s just the beginning of an ingenious equation Diserens says will address two parallel housing needs.
First, the modular homes will be delivered to cleared construction sites where fire victims intend to rebuild their homes. The Intermodal units will be leased for two or three years until the resident’s new home is finished. The lease revenue lets Intermodal get its cost basis down enough to facilitate a secondary use for the home vacated by the temporary resident.
When the resident moves from the modular home back into a new replacement home, the crane comes back and picks up the modular units, which are then trucked to any of 71 sites in the county Diserens says are currently available for construction of workforce housing.
“With other modular home suppliers,” he says, “the problem is, what do you do with the home after three years? They don’t want them back. With ours, we just come and get them and take them away.”
And that’s the key to making this plan work. “We’re betting on the affordable housing secondary market.”
So what’s the catch?
Diserens says there isn’t one. He is scheduled to install three modular homes at the beginning of March. One, he says, will be located in the Mark West Springs Road area of Santa Rosa, and two will be delivered to the Trinity Oaks neighborhood in Glen Ellen—both areas devastated by the October wildfires.
“At a normal building site,” he says, “once site prep is finished, we can put the home up in a day, actually, in a few hours.”
Of course, three homes is a drop in the housing bucket, and Diserens knows it. “We could do 10 units in March,” he says, “it’s just a question of getting leases set up.”
And if sufficient interest emerged once the first units are in place, how much volume could Intermodal produce?
“We could have 1,000 units, from order to delivery, in three months,” Diserens insists, an unheard of rate for creating any kind of code-compliant housing.
One reason for that potential is Intermodal’s partnership with Maersk, the Danish shipping and container company, which owns the largest cargo fleet—as well as the largest ship—in the world. Maersk’s biggest boat can carry more than 18,000 containers at a time.
If there is a choke point in Intermodal’s scenario, it is likely to be the bureaucratic roadblocks erected by the insurance industry, and the interjection of “relocation agents” between insurance companies and fire victims.
According to Diserens, “The county doesn’t talk to insurance companies, the insurance companies only talk to relocation agents, who negotiate settlements with residents.”
Only time will tell whether Intermodal truly has a definitive solution to a big slice of the housing crisis equation. But at this point in time, it looks to be the most tangible, credible and promising solution on the housing table.