Santa Rosa and Sonoma County A Year After the Fires

Santa Rosa      United Airlines had sent me several emails advising me to check on my flight to San Francisco.  Haze triggered by fires in California and the West were restricting visibility and delaying flights, therefore United was offering to reschedule.  When I called on Friday morning about the flight it was still on time, but when I arrived on Friday in the early afternoon, as a precaution I checked at the counter even though I already had my boarding pass to make sure flights were still on time.  By that point there was a two-hour hold on flights from Houston, so I drove back to work.

The next morning, I checked with the agents and the flight I would have taken was more than three hours late into SFO, so I had made the right decision to be part of the dawn patrol instead.  We landed in a thick brown haze that covered the hillsides between the airport and the city and didn’t start to break up until I was across the Golden Gate bridge and deep into Marin County and on my way to Santa Rosa to meet with the North Bay Organizing Project during the lunch break in their leadership development workshop.

I had met with Davin Cardenas several months ago about the progress of their rent control campaign before the fires and the efforts he and his colleagues had made in the recovery of Santa Rosa and Sonoma County after the devastating fires almost a year ago in mid-October of 2017.  In these times of environmental horrors for low-and-moderate income communities who are disproportionately hurt by climate change, as ACORN discovered after Katrina, the role of community organizations in responding is critical.  Visiting with the team, I was sorry to hear that the effort to put rent control back on the ballot in the wake of the affordable housing crisis exacerbated by the fire had narrowly fallen short by less than 1000 signatures.   On the other hand, the UndocuFund that they had organized to support the estimated 38,000 undocumented family affected by the fires in Sonoma County, either losing their housing or their jobs and income or both, had dispensed over $6 million in direct aid to these families who were not eligible because their status did not qualify them for FEMA support.

When leaving Sue Shaw, the co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, with Davin, wrote out the directions for me to be able to see the fire’s footprint and recovery in the northern part of Santa Rosa and parts of Sonoma County.  The fire had destroyed 5% of the housing stock in Santa Rosa according to the mayor and 5000 homes almost overall exceeding a billion dollars in damage.  Talking to some of the folks at the church, the recovery sounded a long way from complete, and driving along the fire line, one could see some impact and the signs of construction now beginning, but it seemed a there was a long way to go.  On the winding roads through the county, FEMA trailers were dotted along the hills sides with cleanup and construction still going hand and hand.

 

Cardenas was interviewed by civileats.com last November and summed up the rebuilding challenge succinctly:

“But, overall, we hope that we can rebuild Sonoma County as a place where undocumented people—and working-class people—can not only survive, but thrive and raise healthy families. This is our opportunity to be courageous in the reconstruction of the county.” Still, Cardenas points out that a truly equitable recovery would require that city and county officials and those involved in the reconstruction address the existing affordable housing crisis in the area—where a 1-percent vacancy rate has been seriously exacerbated by the loss of 5 percent of the housing stock to the fires. Before the devastation, some families in Coffey Park—a close-knit neighborhood of working- and middle-class families that burned to the ground—were living two and three to a house to make ends meet.  “I think disaster capitalists are looking at this moment as a chance to enact the policies they’ve been desiring for the last half-decade,” says Cardenas. “Unless we start thinking about affordable housing, and other protections in the rebuilding of our neighborhoods, we run a great risk of Sonoma County becoming a completely white playground for the rich, and losing our working-class population—especially our undocumented population—altogether.”

From what I could see as I drove around, this is a fight still being fought, and we are still a long way from winning.

 

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UndocuFund and the Philippines

Petaluma   Two interesting meetings, one in San Jose and the other in the north bay city of Petaluma in Sonoma County brought the issues of immigrants, both documented and undocumented in California, into stark relief.

I tracked down Davin Cardenas, co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, and lead organizer for their tenant organizing for many years.  We knew Davin well from the Organizers’ Forum dialogue in Bolivia several years ago and keep in touch.  My first concern was to find out how the coalition they had organized was doing in their efforts to rekindle a petition drive around rent control in Santa Rosa.  They had narrowly lost last year at the ballot, but in the aftermath of the disastrous fire that raged through Sonoma County, the shortage of housing and high rents was an even greater issue, so they were in the middle of another signature drive to see if they could put the issue on the ballot again.

We’ll dive deeper into that discussion another time, but one of the interesting things Davin shared, especially given ACORN’s experience in the aftermath of Katrina, was their own efforts to organize support for undocumented workers and their families in the area after the fires.  They organized something they called UndocuFund.  The idea was simple.  There are some 3000 undocumented workers in Santa Rosa and more in the county.  Many of them lost work and housing in the fires, which displaced both rich and poor indiscriminately.  The difference is that FEMA does not support undocumented immigrants, so the UndocuFund was designed to provide similar emergency cash support to fill the gap for these families.  Davin said they hoped to raise a half-million, but they hit a cord and raised over $6 million, gaining a lot of attention.  In the six months or so since the fire they have already given out more than two-thirds of the money and are getting ready to make an additional appeal since some of the same issues persist.  Fires in the Santa Barbara area also triggered establishment of an UndocuFund in that area.  This is a real unique organizing breakthrough!

Less encouraging was a meeting I had earlier in the day with an immigration lawyer based in San Jose who specializes in dealing with issues relating to immigrants from the Philippines.  In his case load the issues were less about documents and more about other issues where predatory practices target immigrants.  His other concern was for families caught in the crossfire of the government in the Philippines and its extra-judicial killings that are little more than masked vigilante activity triggered by concerns over drugs.  At one level my friend was shocked at the amount of support some of these actions had among the Filipino community.  At another level the organizing problem became how to offer support to people and institutions willing to stand up for justice and the rule of law.

The issues are daunting and effective strategies are illusive, but as Davin’s experience indicated, where organizers and organizations are close to the ground, feeling the pain, and moving with their base, they are coming up with creative approaches and responses.

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