Call them the luckless 44. With a catch-22.
Of the 160 mobile homes that were packed into the residential park known as Journey’s End, 116 were destroyed when the Tubbs Fire swept into Santa Rosa in October. It razed most of the complex, including the water, electrical and sewage systems — everything except 44 homes left standing after the flames passed through.
But the fact that those 44 little houses got lucky in the fire is no luck at all for now, because the owners of the mobile units are stuck. Their insurance will not pay out for homes that remain standing. And because the park has been red-tagged, they can’t live there.
So not only do they have no permanent home, they have no money for making a fresh start. And these residents are all low-income or retired seniors.
Burbank Housing, the nonprofit group turning the 13.5-acre spread into affordable and market-rate condos, is proposing to convert abandoned horse stables at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds into a propped-up version of Journey’s End for those 44 people until the redevelopment is complete. But that won’t give any quick relief.
The nonprofit will need to negotiate a lease with the fairgrounds board, then get approval from the Santa Rosa City Council. So far, a majority of the council has voiced support, a Burbank official said. Yet not everyone is excited about the prospect.
“While we are grateful for all efforts to provide replacement housing, all these possibilities will take at least a couple years and are still very much just possibilities,” said Theresa Udall, 83, whose home is among those standing at Journey’s End. “My home is in perfect condition. I visit it several times a week, and it breaks my heart that I can’t move back into it.”
Demolition, grading and utility hook-ups would take at least 18 months to complete before the mobile home park could open at the fairgrounds — and some cannot wait that long.
Of the 44 residents who own the standing homes, three have died since the Tubbs Fire destroyed their tight-knit community. Two residents are living in trailers, three moved out of the county, four are in hotels, five are in low-income Burbank Housing and 12 are living with family. Only 15 have found stable rentals.
“There are varying ranges of excitement about it,” said Burbank Housing President Larry Florin. “There are quite honestly some residents that would just like to move. They want to see the full proposal before they commit.”
For seven months, city officials have struggled to figure out what to do with these most vulnerable of fire victims. The seniors don’t own the land their homes sit on and lack autonomy to rebuild like those in the nearby Coffey Park subdivision. They don’t have money to rent homes in nearby areas, like most of those burned out of the upscale Fountaingrove neighborhood.
So they are dependent on a city already overwhelmed by the disaster to find housing for them in a time when it is neither plentiful nor affordable.
“I wish I could tell them we have a solution for them,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey. “At this point, we don’t. We haven’t given up. We are still trying. But nothing is going to be fast enough to satisfy them. There are so many layers of complexity.”
The park cannot support temporary mobile homes, officials from Burbank Housing confirmed last month. The well water is contaminated, and updated plumbing codes don’t permit an above-ground distribution system. Much of the 60-year-old park’s infrastructure, like that system, is outdated.
The longer-term outlook is grim. Residents have been promised priority slots in new housing units after Journey’s End is redeveloped, but that will take years. Monthly rent will also cost more than the $500 a month most were paying for their spot on the pavement to park their mobile homes — which was well below Santa Rosa’s median rent of about $1,600 for a one-bedroom unit.
“We know that this is difficult news and that each of you are anxious to understand what options you have moving forward,” owner Ramsey Shuayto wrote in a letter in early April. “Unfortunately, we do not have those answers yet.”
If Burbank gains approval for a mobile home park on the fairgrounds, it will solve only part of the equation. Just five of the 44 standing homes could be moved to the new site. The rest are too old. State law prohibits them from being towed on roadways because of safety concerns. The Tzu Chi Foundation, a Santa Rosa nonprofit, would help raise money to replace the other 39 homes.
Despite what they see as city and county leaders’ best intentions, many of the residents feel as though they have slipped through the cracks. And some of those leaders agree.
“We have failed our seniors in terms of housing and support,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “I am so frustrated that we cannot help these people. They are in limbo land, and they shouldn’t be living there. It’s a hazard to their health and well-being.”
For 29 years, Dottie Hughes lived at Journey’s End with her husband, Albert. He died from cancer the month that the Tubbs Fire ravaged the park.
Over the past seven months, Hughes, 82, has lived at the Sandman Hotel on the other side of Mendocino Avenue, just across from Journey’s End. A cluster of other former residents lives down the hall. They’ve formed a miniature community.
Hughes does her dishes in the bathtub and cooks dinner in a toaster oven. There’s a laundromat in the building, but she says it’s expensive. FEMA used to pay for the room; now Burbank does. Hughes’ Social Security check brings in less than $1,000 monthly.
“It’s just been a nightmare,” she said. “I’m crying most of the time. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. We aren’t being told anything for sure at all. I’m hearing we could be at the fairgrounds now, and I’m not happy about it. It’s where the horses were kept. I just think the city could do better for us seniors.”
This spring, the seniors protested outside the locked gate at Journey’s End. Some held signs reading “Senior lives matter.” Through the fence, they could see flowerbeds choked by weeds. Trash bags sit on the curb for trucks that haven’t come in months.
Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County, a nonprofit that provides counseling to low-income families, said she understands the frustrations. The process is slow because of all of the unknowns, she said. No one has dealt with a disaster like this before.
“The limbo is created by the fact that there had to be a lot of groundwork done to determine what was happening with the park first,” Rubinoff said. “It’s a challenging position because we were all waiting for information. We had to wait for the park owner to decide. We couldn’t force that decision to occur any sooner.”
Journey’s End is private property, meaning the city could not step in unless the owners agreed. Relocating to the fairgrounds could be a good compromise, Rubinoff said. But not everybody will be happy; that’s rarely the case.
“People are differently situated,” she said. “Some have homes that are movable, some don’t. Some people have nothing standing. There are different options for different folks — that’s what we are trying to sew together.”
Even if the park were to move to the fairgrounds, Theresa Udall probably wouldn’t relocate. For three months, she lived in a Burbank unit in Larkfield-Wikiup, a few miles north of Journey’s End. It was considered affordable but still cost two-thirds of her monthly income. She has also lived in three hotels and at a friend’s home.
Now Udall lives in a granny unit behind her daughter’s Bennett Valley Road rental. The daughter also lost her home in the Bennett Ridge neighborhood. In the morning, Udall wakes up to sunshine in the window and views of the surrounding hillsides. Finally, she feels like she is starting to heal. She helps care for her autistic grandson, who loves dinosaurs and Star Wars. Life is slower and quieter.
“Being a senior, a lot of the people in the park will be dead by the time they have built anything,” she said. “I feel like we are the poor relatives who come last in line with the city. We hear a lot about Fountaingrove and their problems, and Coffey Park and their problems. We have been thrown out like rags.”
But she enjoys her days in the hills, she says. Journey’s End is just a memory now.