Red tape douses Burn­ers’ ef­fort to build hous­ing

Painted ship­ping con­tain­ers at Oa­sis Vil­lage in Santa Rosa have been aban­doned af­ter the city re­fused to ap­prove the tem­po­rary hous­ing in­stalled by Burn­ing Man vol­un­teers. They will be re­turned to Ne­vada.

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Ja­son Fagone

The idea was to build a lit­tle vil­lage and give it away as a gift. It hit Lee Mer­schon on Oct. 10, two days af­ter the North Bay fires be­gan to spread.

Mer­schon runs an event­plan­ning com­pany in Los An­ge­les. Sit­ting at home there, watch­ing re­ports about the fires on TV, he didn’t un­der­stand how bad they were. Then he started get­ting phone calls from friends in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia who camp with him at Burn­ing Man, the an­nual coun­ter­cul­ture gath­er­ing in the Ne­vada desert.

“Lee, this is it,” said Jeff Evans, whose home in Napa County was nearly de­stroyed in a fire years ear­lier. “This is what the con­tain­ers are for.”

The con­tain­ers. Ev­ery Au­gust at Burn­ing Man, 70,000 peo­ple con­vene on a sun-blasted patch of Ne­vada desert and build a tem­po­rary city. Mer­schon’s piece of Burn­ing Man is Camp Epic, a camp­site he founded in 2012. While many Burn­ers eat and sleep in RVs, the 150 in­hab­i­tants of Camp

Epic live in six heav­ily mod­i­fied metal ship­ping con­tain­ers. Each is ba­si­cally a small house: a rec­tan­gu­lar prism 40 feet long, like a giant Tetris block, built by a Ne­vada com­pany called Quick Space that man­u­fac­tures stor­age trail­ers and mo­bile of­fices.

The con­tain­ers hold up bet­ter than RVs in the harsh glare and wind of Burn­ing Man, Mer­schon says. They have elec­tri­cal sys­tems, ven­ti­la­tion, beds, shelves, mini-fridges. They don’t have win­dows, on pur­pose. “At Burn­ing Man, you can have 50 mph winds in a sand­storm that looks like ‘Mad Max,’ ” he says. But in­side a con­tainer, “It seems like ev­ery­thing is nor­mal.”

That’s why, even be­fore the wild­fires, he’d won­dered whether the con­tain­ers could be called into ser­vice in a dis­as­ter zone, pro­vid­ing a ba­sic place to live af­ter a hur­ri­cane or earth­quake.

Then the Oc­to­ber wild­fires struck, and thou­sands of homes went up in flames. This is what the con­tain­ers are for.

The plan formed quickly in Mer­schon’s mind: Peo­ple need hous­ing. We have these con­tain­ers. They’re sit­ting in stor­age in Reno. Let’s send them to peo­ple who need hous­ing. Let’s send them to the city of Santa Rosa, the cen­ter of dev­as­ta­tion.

It felt like a sen­si­ble, re­spon­si­ble thing to do. The con­tain­ers were metal. They couldn’t catch fire like wooden struc­tures. And Quick Space had built them to com­ply with Ne­vada’s res­i­den­tial hous­ing code. What could be sim­pler?

“At least, that’s what we thought,” Mer­schon says.

Over the next four months, though, he and dozens of vol­un­teers got a crash course in why it can be so hard to erect hous­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. Santa Rosa of­fi­cials say that the group had un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions. The vol­un­teers say they were ob­structed by de­lays and red tape.

“We kind of went down a rab­bit hole,” says Car­men Mauk, one of the group’s lead­ers. They couldn’t sim­ply give their gift, they dis­cov­ered; they had to wait, and wait, and then al­ter it at great cost, and then wait some more.

The Burn­ers moved fast. The same day he spoke to Jeff Evans in Napa, Mer­schon called an­other camper, Jen Mar­tini, who lived in Santa Rosa. Her mother had lost her house, al­most all of her be­long­ings and the fam­ily cat in the Tubbs Fire. Mar­tini said she’d go to Reno and pre­pare the cubes for trans­port.

Mer­schon also con­tacted Mauk, who would be­come the heart and soul of the project. Mauk, 47, is a for­mer res­i­dent of Santa Rosa. The Tubbs Fire had turned the house she used to rent into rub­ble and ash.

Mauk has more than a decade of ex­pe­ri­ence in dis­as­ter re­lief. She got started in 2005 af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina, when she trav­eled to the Gulf Coast of Mis­sis­sippi with about 100 other Burner vol­un­teers. They beat fed­eral re­lief work­ers there, and be­gan do­ing de­bris re­moval, tear­ing down dam­aged houses. They thought of the work as a gift; at Burn­ing Man, a cash­less so­ci­ety, the en­tire econ­omy runs on gifts.

Mauk then founded a non­profit, Burn­ers With­out Bor­ders. Its vol­un­teers went to Peru af­ter an earth­quake and built school class­rooms and com­post­ing toi­lets. They went to Haiti af­ter its 2010 earth­quake. They went to New Jersey af­ter Hur­ri­cane Sandy in 2012.

Now, Mauk was go­ing back to Santa Rosa.

She knew that peo­ple had been strug­gling to find hous­ing there even be­fore the fires — only 1 per­cent of the city’s rental stock was va­cant — and when she heard that al­most 9,000 homes and other build­ings had been de­stroyed, she won­dered about the fate of work­ing-class peo­ple who keep its econ­omy hum­ming: teach­ers, vine­yard la­bor­ers, con­struc­tion work­ers. How could the re­gion re­cover if its work­ers couldn’t find shel­ter?

Mauk and other Burn­ers con­tacted af­ford­able hous­ing groups. All said that the sit­u­a­tion was des­per­ate. They had lists of clients beg­ging for any kind of hous­ing.

“There were no hous­ing op­tions be­fore,” says Lorena Sotelo, who as­sists Sonoma County farm work­ers at Cal­i­for­nia Hu­man De­vel­op­ment, a large non­profit. “Now it’s even worse.”

The Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency had yet to ar­rive. Its first tem­po­rary trail­ers wouldn’t be hab­it­able un­til Nov. 13, and many in need of shel­ter would avoid them any­way, fear­ing de­por­ta­tion, say Sotelo and oth­ers who work with un­doc­u­mented clients. (FEMA has re­ported low de­mand; as of Jan­uary, only 189 of 3,200 peo­ple el­i­gi­ble to live in the trail­ers had asked to do so.)

Across the re­gion, in park­ing lots and along the beaches, peo­ple were sleep­ing in cars, in the cold, with no bath­rooms, no se­cu­rity. At the Free Store in Healds­burg, a kind of emer­gency sup­ply de­pot for shell­shocked fam­i­lies, Ariel Kel­ley met a fam­ily with two young sons sleep­ing in the back of their truck. When she heard about the ship­ping-con­tainer project, Kel­ley was ex­cited. Dubbed Oa­sis Vil­lage, it seemed like the fastest way pos­si­ble to get at least some peo­ple into beds.

The project’s goal was a mod­est one: pro­vide 76 beds for 76 peo­ple for up to nine months. If it worked, it would help 76 peo­ple stay in the area who might oth­er­wise have to leave.

Mauk and the Burn­ers put out a call for funds and vol­un­teers; 250 peo­ple of­fered man­ual la­bor, and $30,000 in do­na­tions flowed in. A busi­ness­man who owned a cannabis green­house in an in­dus­trial part of Santa Rosa of­fered a piece of land. The six ship­ping con­tain­ers ar­rived on Oct. 26, along with a 53-foot trailer that Mer­schon and his campers had also adapted into a liv­ing space. The struc­tures were ar­ranged in a rec­tan­gle around a 100-by-50-foot court­yard.

On Oct. 31, the Burn­ers ap­plied for a tem­po­rary use per­mit from the city of Santa Rosa. While wait­ing to hear back, a ro­tat­ing crew of vol­un­teers spruced up Oa­sis Vil­lage. They put new bed­ding on the twin and queen beds in­side the con­tain­ers, and added heaters.

They also set up one of the con­tain­ers as a kitchen, with donated cook­ware, and brought in sep­a­rate trail­ers with show­ers and bath­rooms. To make the site feel more wel­com­ing, they cov­ered the dirt court­yard with com­pacted gravel and ar­ti­fi­cial turf, and erected a semiper­ma­nent, heated tent above it, to serve as a com­mu­nal area.

It wasn’t lux­ury liv­ing. Still, non­profit agen­cies had clients who wanted to move in. The Free Store’s Kel­ley also heads Co­ra­zon Healds­burg, a non­profit that works to find fam­i­lies af­ford­able hous­ing. Fif­teen fam­i­lies told her they were in­ter­ested; it beat sleep­ing in their cars.

From the Burn­ers’ point of view, Oa­sis Vil­lage was now ready. They weren’t just propos­ing to build hous­ing; they had built it. Seventy-six tem­po­rary units, com­plete and avail­able. All it needed was the city’s bless­ing, and peo­ple could be­gin mov­ing in.

“We here — any lo­cal ju­ris­dic­tion — has one set of rules,” says Jesse Oswald, per­mit in­take man­ager for the Santa Rosa Plan­ning and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment. “Cal­i­for­nia Build­ing Code, Ti­tle 24. This is how we build things.”

Oswald had no ob­jec­tions to the con­cept of Oa­sis Vil­lage, he says. He thought it was a creative so­lu­tion, “a cool project.” But it was his job to make sure Oa­sis Vil­lage met the state build­ing code be­fore he signed any per­mits. He and his staff had to abide by the code, which is there to en­sure the health and safety of res­i­dents. And it doesn’t dis­tin­guish be­tween emer­gency tem­po­rary hous­ing and any other type. Oa­sis Vil­lage, a clus­ter of ship­ping con­tain­ers, would have to go through the same per­mit process as a new sin­gle-fam­ily home in Santa Rosa’s Cof­fey Park neigh­bor­hood, which was de­stroyed dur­ing the fires.

The Burn­ers didn’t re­al­ize this un­til they started talk­ing to city plan­ners. Ac­cord­ing to all in­volved, these were friendly

“When you’re faced with this kind of a dis­as­ter, you hope that peo­ple are able to think out­side the box. ... You just need to have will­ing par­tic­i­pants who rec­og­nize the ur­gency.”

Ariel Kel­ley, Free Store and Co­ra­zon Healds­burg

con­ver­sa­tions. But the Burn­ers soon found them frus­trat­ing. The plan­ners ap­peared over­whelmed; it of­ten took weeks to get an­swers to ques­tions. When the an­swers came, they weren’t what the Burn­ers wanted to hear.

To ob­tain per­mits, the Burn­ers would need to show that the con­tain­ers met Cal­i­for­nia res­i­den­tial code — a daunt­ing chal­lenge. The retrofitt­ted con­tain­ers had been built to Ne­vada res­i­den­tial code by a com­pany that wasn’t on Cal­i­for­nia’s list of ap­proved providers. From Santa Rosa’s per­spec­tive, the con­tain­ers were black boxes, full of po­ten­tial li­a­bil­ity. Was the wiring safe? Was there un­healthy Chi­nese dry­wall on the in­side? (There wasn’t.)

“I have no way of know­ing how it was even as­sem­bled,” says Oswald. “If I sign on the dot­ted line, I have to say I’m re­ally com­fort­able with 70 peo­ple liv­ing in these things.”

Mer­schon saw things dif­fer­ently: “Ev­ery­body was cov­er­ing their butts be­cause they didn’t want to get sued later.”

It dawned on the Burn­ers that the city wouldn’t sign off un­less ex­pen­sive al­ter­ations were made. The site, they were told, needed ac­cess for dis­abled peo­ple. An ADA-com­pli­ant shower would cost at least $4,000. “Of course we’re go­ing to have ADA com­pli­ance,” Mauk said, “but not on the first frickin’ day we open. … Hello, there’s an emer­gency hous­ing sit­u­a­tion here!”

Then there was the is­sue of win­dows. The con­tain­ers didn’t have any. To meet the code, win­dows would have to be cut into the con­tain­ers’ doors.

“It’s $250 a door,” Mauk says. “There’s 15 doors. Ev­ery­thing be­comes very ex­pen­sive very quickly.”

One day, chat­ting with one of the plan­ners, Mauk started to get “a lit­tle riled up” over the win­dows. Why de­lay the project for the sake of win­dows, she asked, when peo­ple were out there sleep­ing in their cars?

Ac­cord­ing to Mauk, the re­ply came: “Well, cars have win­dows.”

“He saw the ridicu­lous­ness in it, too,” Mauk says, look­ing back. “He was try­ing to help me un­der­stand.” Yes, cars have win­dows, and they’re built to a stan­dard, and that’s why they’re al­lowed to come into Cal­i­for­nia.

By that point, Mer­schon was done. Done with the city, done with the whole project. When friends asked about it, he changed the sub­ject. He won­dered, darkly, if Santa Rosa was putting up road­blocks to Oa­sis Vil­lage be­cause it didn’t care if poor peo­ple left the city.

Mauk felt dif­fer­ently. She thought the plan­ners wanted the project to hap­pen, but didn’t have the power. “We were met warmly from the be­gin­ning,” she says. “It’s just that their hands are re­ally tied, hav­ing to fol­low state laws.”

She sent a let­ter to Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin New­som, ask­ing the state to make an emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion “that will al­low for ex­pe­dited tem­po­rary hous­ing.” She re­ceived no re­sponse from ei­ther of­fice.

“The sys­tem is not work­ing,” Mauk says. “No­body is lis­ten­ing.”

Oth­ers were also frus­trated. Adrian Chorley, the af­ford­able hous­ing di­rec­tor at Cal­i­for­nia Hu­man De­vel­op­ment, vis­ited Oa­sis Vil­lage in De­cem­ber. He was im­pressed, he says. “And the thing is that Car­men has done this be­fore. She has ac­tu­ally set up a project in Haiti — with none of the prob­lems we had here.”

He thought Oa­sis Vil­lage looked like an RV park. Maybe not a place for fam­i­lies with young chil­dren, but a “per­fectly ac­cept­able” place for sin­gle adults, per­haps, or for the con­struc­tion work­ers pour­ing into Santa Rosa to re­build peo­ple’s homes but with no place to live them­selves.

He couldn’t be­lieve that the city wouldn’t sign off on the needed per­mits. “I quite lit­er­ally stood there and said, ‘What, are you kidding? They’ve pro­vided hous­ing.’ ”

As Jan­uary be­gan, the Burn­ers were out of money, and en­thu­si­asm. They had spent $30,000 to merely trans­port the con­tain­ers from Reno and pre­pare the site. Ac­tu­ally run­ning the project would re­quire an­other $80,000. They ap­plied for a grant from a fire re­lief fund ad­min­is­tered by the Red­wood Credit Union, but the grant was turned down. The credit union said the prob­lem was the project’s lack of per­mits. Mauk says that in con­ver­sa­tions with Red­wood, per­mits were never dis­cussed.

The Burn­ers guessed that if they tried to find other fund­ing, they might be able to house peo­ple by March, at best. The con­tain­ers had to go back to Ne­vada by Au­gust. Too much time had been lost.

So, on a warm and sunny Sat­ur­day in early Fe­bru­ary, Oa­sis Vil­lage came down. Mauk and a dozen vol­un­teers stripped the beds, gath­ered up the kitchen­ware, and donated the sheets and pots and pans to char­ity.

In the months since the fires, the hous­ing cri­sis in Sonoma County has wors­ened. One of the largest con­trac­tors plan­ning to re­build homes in Cof­fey Park, DeNova, an­nounced in Jan­uary that it was pulling out, say­ing it was un­able to find enough work­ers. Of­fi­cials say that 30,000 hous­ing units must be built in the next five years to meet de­mand.

Chorley says that’s un­re­al­is­tic. “We’ll be lucky, quite hon­estly, if we can build 2,000 to 3,000 units in the next five years.”

Kel­ley says it’s “in­cred­i­bly dis­ap­point­ing” that the Burn­ers never got to house peo­ple, and thinks gov­ern­ment should have been more flex­i­ble. “When you’re faced with this kind of a dis­as­ter, you hope that peo­ple are able to think out­side the box,” she says. “Health and safety have to be para­mount, but at the same time, there are creative so­lu­tions to ev­ery prob­lem. You just need to have will­ing par­tic­i­pants who rec­og­nize the ur­gency.”

Non­profit groups say they are hear­ing from some clients that they can’t make it here. They’re leav­ing the re­gion. “They’re go­ing to Texas, Ari­zona, Las Ve­gas,” Sotelo says. “I can’t do any­thing. You know how you feel when you know the need is there and you can’t do any­thing? I don’t know what to say any­more.”

The Burn­ers have left, too. They’ll never do an­other project in Cal­i­for­nia, they say.

“We showed up,” Mer­schon says. “We built a town. It was ready in two weeks. We said, here you go. And they wouldn’t take it. We give them a gift — how could they not take it?

“But I’m re­minded,” he says, “that the real world doesn’t work that way.”

Car­los Avila Gon­za­lez / The Chron­i­cle

The painted ship­ping con­tain­ers in­stalled by the Burn­ers at Oa­sis Vil­lage were de­signed to pro­vide emer­gency liv­ing quar­ters for 76 peo­ple dis­placed by the Wine Coun­try fires.

Pho­tos by Car­los Avila Gon­za­lez / The Chron­i­cle

Oa­sis Vil­lage, in an in­dus­trial area of Santa Rosa, never housed any­one be­cause the ship­ping con­tain­ers could not meet city rules based on state build­ing codes.

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