Ronald Davis, 55, left more than a decade of homelessness behind when he moved into The Plateau, Fort Bragg’s new very mixed-use housing project. The 4 acre complex opened Nov. 1 across the street from Adventist Health Mendocino Coast Hospital at 441 South Street in Fort Bragg. It’s no exaggeration to say The Plateau has been about the happiest place in Fort Bragg for the past two weeks. All the residents interviewed were thrilled the developer had finally let them move in. Earlier proposed dates for completion in April and June had passed. Landscaping didn’t get put in, leaving bare ground for the rainy season, but all the buildings were completed and passed all final inspections. Many, but not all, residents have moved into the fully rented complex.
“It’s great. I can’t say how much I appreciate this place,” Davis said.
Juli Rogers, manager of The Plateau, said it nearly brought tears to her eyes to see homeless people like Davis she has known for a decade finally get housing after trying so hard for so long. “This is such a great new beginning for so many people that have been trying and hoping for this kind of opportunity, ” said Rogers, a former employee of The Hospitality Center, Fort Bragg’s program for the homeless.
Rogers said the delight people experienced came partly from surprise.
“It was nicer than they expected. There is a really strong positive effect on the psyche when that happens, when people see a place that is not just clean and new, but very well built and comes with top-notch amenities. It feels like other people really care and have gone above and beyond for them.”
Hundreds of eligible people applied for a spot at the rent-subsidized Plateau, from which 68 people or families were chosen. Davis and other new residents are part of a bold experiment by Arcata’s Danco Group and the City of Fort Bragg to house the homeless, elderly and families all in one neighborhood. The project contains one- and two-bedroom stand-alone units and two-story duplexes for families. Seldom before has this mix of housing been attempted. There are meeting and activity areas for all three groups and even basketball courts.
The opening of The Plateau was a triumph for Mayor Bernie Norvell, who pushed the plan harder than anyone else. All of the council supported it. He said the city has put all its efforts to create something as good as this project will be once it becomes a seamless part of the neighboring community, which consists of numerous senior and other apartment complexes. Norvell said other efforts he has observed where supportive or homeless housing was tried by itself had problems that he doesn’t expect at the integrated model being used at The Plateau.
“In the integrated community, the people can fit together into a neighborhood. I think this can be a model of how to make it work,” he said.
And then there could be more.
“When the community sees what an amazing project this is, we will be able to sell more like it down the road. It really takes the entire community buying into something like this to make it work,” Norvell said.
He said there were bumps along the way, like not having beds and dinner tables in the units when The Plateau opened. Most of the homeless and many of the families did not have beds, tables and supplies of their own. The problem was resolved with some quick ordering and fundraising and volunteer work from the likes of Fort Bragg city employees, including police officers. Norvell said Mary Kate Mckenna, executive director of the Mendocino Coast Healthcare Foundation, had made a huge difference in finding ways to fix the problems. He said Sarah McCormick had played a major role in the success of the whole project.
“Mistakes were made and I’m willing to accept the responsibility for that. I took it on myself to make this successful,” he said.
Things seemed worrisome the first few days, with people needing many things, but the road evened out quicker than expected and residents were patient.
One man moved into the wrong unit (although the correct number) and had to be help move over to where he was supposed to be. He was assisted in moving to his assigned unit by a large group of volunteers.
“These situations were remedied and once fixed, we got together and discussed way to make sure these kind of things don’t happen again.“
Affordable housing in Fort Bragg
While The Plateau cannot house all of Fort Bragg’s homeless population, estimated to be between 100 and 150, it’s a strong and unique start. The section of the project where homeless people now live is called “permanent supportive housing.” Studies across the nation have shown that providing support to people in transition allows them to keep housing they almost certainly would have lost otherwise. The project, with an estimated $27 million building cost, also benefited from a variety of other Gavin Newsom administration programs for affordable housing and combating homelessness. Rents are subsidized. How much does rent cost for the residents? “It varies based on each individual, but it ranges from $452 — $1,048,” said Jonathan Gutierrez, director of marketing for Danco.
The permanent supportive housing section is being handled by Redwood Community Services (RCS) and other agencies now funded to provide services ranging from rides for seniors to their appointments, to others utilizing substance abuse recovery programs; it also helps rebuild basic living skills. There were volunteers and workers on site every day, including a sizable contingent of helpers from the police department. Police Chief Neil Cervenka was there setting up tables on Monday. He was waiting for the delivery of beds on Tuesday. He said sealed bed-in-box latex memory foam beds make delivery and setup easier and more hygienic.
“This place is really good quality,” Cervenka said “This has an obvious effect on people, making them feel at home, that they have something new and nice, after having seconds and hand-me-downs for a long time, they feel a real sense of pride and ownership. The impact of doing things in this way is huge.” Cervanka said the project has already eased the local homeless situation and relieved some pressure on the winter shelter program.
The entire Plateau is surrounded by a fence (other than street access). The supported living area for the formerly homeless is entirely fenced in and isolated from the rest — a fence within fences. Entry to the area is controlled. Several of the formerly homeless people interviewed said they and others want the protection of the fences and liked the constant police monitoring. They want to be safe and they want to recover, which means breaking some cycles with the street. Contracts reveal that the process of how the homeless were chosen was intensively selective, not a competitive lottery. While there were dozens of seniors and families competing for every open spot, it was a much more arduous process filling the supportive housing spots, making sure these were really 100 percent homeless people and evaluating factors like health, vulnerability and potential for success. The Hospitality Center has also had programs to provide housing and living support services for many years.
Not all has gone well at the supported section of The Plateau. There was an arrest that was reportedly followed by an eviction, and some incidents in the first two nights, but police, management and residents reported quiet since. This reporter was invited to visit The Plateau by several seniors and formerly homeless people, but their names are being withheld out of their worries that anything could ruin their good fortune. Many seniors and families were also living rough and were as thrilled to be here as the former street people. Three homeless families were moved into the section for working families, two from Ukiah’s Project Homekey motel renovation program.
Norvell believes the main local obligation is to create housing for local people who have fallen into homelessness so that they can get on their feet and move on to other housing employment and opportunities. However, The Plateau could not chose any Californian and couldn’t ask if they were from Fort Bragg on the application. But almost everybody who won the time stamp lottery and were chosen for the homeless housing ended up being from the Fort Bragg area.
“People from Fort Bragg really stepped up and got in there and applied first,” said Rogers. The entire project is being rented by people whose income was 60 percent or less of the area average.
“That was extremely fortunate, Norvell said. He said the Hospitality Center did a good job of choosing the clients so as to get even more local people into the pipeline of help.
Despite his strong advocacy for The Plateau, Norvell is a strong believer in the Marbut Consulting report, which was produced for the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in 2018, and which advocates each community treating its own homeless and moving those called “transients” along.
“We can’t become a hub for the homeless,” said Norvell. He said the winter shelter will house anyone the first night, but those from out of town get assistance in moving back to where they come from and are more likely to have family support. Other homeless advocates believe in providing services to everyone, regardless.
Senior and family housing
A group of teenage boys shooting baskets with this reporter now live in the family section. They were upbeat about their new homes. They offered stories of working parents and kids constantly moving or living in packed local campgrounds or in substandard packed housing.
Rogers was right about the quality of these small, but by definition, not tiny, homes. This reporter found luxurious high ceilings, top quality appliances, bathroom rails and other extras, with each unit fronting on interesting shared courtyards.
The seniors and families who applied went through a different process to gain entrance. When the period for application opened in March they went online and claimed a spot. They were given a time stamp, literally each a winning lottery ticket for one among the hundreds needing housing. The units went first come, first served. “We have 300 senior applicants for our waitlist, this usually means a unit will be available for them within 1-2 years,” Gutierrez said.
One new senior resident, a longtime member of the progressive community, was wishing with all her heart it can work but wondering about safety for all.
“I am very glad to see the homeless people getting the chance to move into clean and well built housing. It’s a great start,” she said. “I wonder how they feel about being kept inside that fence.” She liked the idea of everybody working together living together and learning from each other. She said seniors often become isolated in seniors only living.
Another senior was a lifelong Fort Bragg woman from a family that has been here for generations. Her family had been putting her up since her husband died years ago.
“As I understand it, the project was originally supposed to be only for seniors but it has changed into something else, something that I’m not sure they thought all the way through,” the senior citizen said. While it’s true the effort started out much smaller, the vision was expanded to what it is now before the property was purchased by the developer.
The property was purchased from the Nelepovitz/Rossi family on November 25, 2020 for just under $2.8 million, county records show. It was once a family farm that rolled down to Noyo River frontage.
Seniors needed to be 62 years in age or older to apply to The Plateau. Workforce/family housing residents, who have now moved into the 1000-1200 square foot duplexes had to have at least four people in the family, although there are exceptions, such as for families with children of the opposite sex (so as not to be made to share a bedroom) or a member of the armed forces currently stationed elsewhere.
The project has a uniquely engineered set of drainage ponds designed to protect city water and sewers. But they need to have plants in the ground. Fort Bragg’s Public Works Director John Smith said the city was concerned about the state of the drainage and runoff but was satisfied Danco had a plan in place after meeting with company representatives.
The project was predicted to be completed in April, June and then Nov. 1, as the pandemic caused delays in everything everywhere. Accepted residents waited and watched, often with little seeming to be happening on-site. Even as the project opened and residents, police and local social workers were busily at work, Danco workers from headquarters in Arcata have been surprisingly scarce.
Two remaining issues are parking and smoking. More than 60 parking places were provided with original plans calling for covering them. The otherwise empty South Street, on the project’s southern boundary is clearly marked with no parking on both sides of the road. Homeless visitors and residents had parked along Kemppe Way, across from the hospital, for the first week, but that is now all marked “no parking.” Lots of people who live in the project smoke, but the project is entirely no smoking as a condition of federal funding.
“It’s tricky,” admitted Rogers.
Joyce White, 73, who lives directly across the street from the project, said she is rooting for everybody over there but has had problems with people crossing the street to smoke in front of her place: “I’m deathly allergic.” She said the people she confronted were polite and left and told her the new place was smoke-free with no place to light up.
White believes the city started with the intent of only making housing for seniors, then added working families which were still compatible with seniors, then the homeless. “All these things together are entirely different than [they would be] apart,” she said.
Indeed, it was the acquisition of a $3 million Homeless Emergency Action Plan (HEAP) grant by the city that helped the entire project work out. Conservatives and progressives on the council have worked together to push for The Plateau.
Studies nationwide have shown that permanent supportive housing results in improved physical and behavioral health outcomes, and reduced use of crisis services such as emergency departments, hospitals, police and jails. Danco will accept HUD Section 8 rental assistance and housing vouchers when considering tenant applications.
Danco and other projects
The Danco group of companies were founded in 1986 in Humboldt County by Dan Johnson. His grandfather, Carl, and dad Don Johnson were beloved auctioneers in the community and also ran a furniture business and dairy farm.
Dan Johnson’s connected companies have built 38 affordable housing projects in California with eight more in construction and about 30 more on the books in various stages, Gutierrez said. Projects range from converting dilapidated hotels into quality green housing for the homeless to bringing back the old lumber company town of Samoa. Danco now owns the famed Samoa Cookhouse. While many other developers threw up their hands at regulation, Danco has been transforming Northern California with green, well built projects and has learned to work with cities and counties on grants and solving chronic problems with homeless and senior housing.
Danco will be starting a new affordable housing project in Ukiah next year known as Acorn Valley Plaza This project will have 71 affordable housing units for families & individuals, said Gutierrez. He said it would be Danco’s second affordable housing project in Ukiah.
In addition to providing diverse elements of the community, families, seniors, the disabled and the homeless with housing, the project is covered with solar panels. The city and Danco continue leading the nation in “net-zero” energy. This started in 2014 when Danco Group finished the nearby Cottages at Cypress, those brightly colored units located about 150 yards away as the raven flies, on the opposite end of the Adventist Health complex. Rogers is also manager of that project. The Cottages at Cypress got noticed in studies on how net zero energy affordable housing can be created. At the time it was built it was one of the largest such projects in the nation.
One of the seniors moving into the Plateau has friends over there and loves those units and how the project was built and maintained.
“My only wish is that these wonderful places to live could have come with those happy and inspiring colors,” she said. The Plateau features different muted colors on each home, no two of which are exactly alike, which also pleased the seniors.
“People who live over there love those colors. There is always somebody to grumble about anything different, which probably was why they went with more plain colors here.”
Solar rooftop panels provide all of the project’s net energy use. Each unit is outfitted with top rated ceiling and wall insulation, Energy Star all-electric appliances, LED lighting, highly efficient heating, air conditioning, and hot water systems. Five electric vehicle charging stations complete the all-electric project. The Plateau was awarded $345,000 in incentives—$5,000 per home—through Sonoma Clean Power.
Bonds in the amount of $16 million were approved by the California State Treasurer for the project in 2020. Using CalPFA’s Affordable Housing Bond Program, a qualified developer can pay lower interest rate than with conventional financing because the interest paid to bondholders is exempt from federal income tax. In addition, the use of tax-exempt bonds also facilitates eligibility for the federal government’s 4% Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program. The bond also forces the owners of The Plateau to keep it affordable for at least 55 years.
This may not be Fort Bragg’s most innovative new housing project, once the Fort Bragg Community Land Trust, established by the council during the pandemic, gets going on its agenda. There is a proposal for the land trust to purchase one of two properties in Fort Bragg and establish housing for the likes of teachers, nurses and other working people, Norvell said. Someone buying a house there would pay only a set amount, with the rest covered by affordable housing money. When they sell the property, the portion paid by the grant would be paid back but they could build equity on the rest.
“Helping the homeless can’t be all we do. We have to recognize that our economy is based on tourism now. We really need housing for people that get up and go to work every day, pay the bills and keep the lights on, Norvell said.
Norvell said the housing project for local working people depends on funding being acquired by Congressman Jared Huffman. It’s unknown the impact a change in party leadership might have on the Huffman effort, now that the Democrats are back in the minority in the House.
“If the funding from the Huffman effort doesn’t come through, we will find another source,” said Norvell.
Just 100 yards away from The Plateau, Redwood Community Services is building a crisis center for the mentally ill, a service Ronald Davis says is badly needed by many people in town, not just the homeless and formerly homeless. No details have been made public about how that center, operated in a building leased from the hospital, will work.