Felix Uribe Jr.

Aaron Jobson, AIA, a principal at Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, usually designs schools. But when wildfires struck Sonoma County in the summer of 2017, he felt compelled to use his skills to help rebuild his community. He called on local experts and collaborators, including designers, architects, and community leaders, ultimately founding an organization to assist those who had lost their housing in the blaze. Today, Homes for Sonoma builds affordable modular housing that, according to its mission statement, “keep[s] Sonoma County diverse and inclusive.”

The fires started on a Sunday. It was such a traumatic thing to have happen in our community. Everyone knew somebody who had lost their home that night—I had a coworker who lost his. Nearly 3,000 homes were destroyed in four hours in Santa Rosa alone. We thought, “Where are these people all going to live?”

Sonoma County is a balance between an agricultural community; a suburb of the Bay Area, in a way; and a resort. Would something like this mean that the community became less affordable? A lot of people who were on the margins and in an extremely unaffordable housing situation anyway—people who didn’t own their homes—they were going to possibly end up being pushed out of them. We had extremely low vacancy and high rental rates already, and we lost something like 5% of the housing in Santa Rosa that night.

We held a planning meeting with a lot of different stakeholders, including Burbank Housing. It has been a big partner of ours all along the way. We moved pretty quickly to, “Could we develop a modular prefab dwelling that could be used as temporary housing, and then eventually repurposed into accessory dwelling units?” That would serve both short- and long-term needs.

The initial idea was to build communities of these small residential units, and then have them serve as temporary housing for displaced individuals for three to five years during the rebuild. When things stabilized, we would relocate and repurpose the units as accessory dwelling units in people’s backyards to help increase the amount of affordable housing in our community, long term. In the end, we were able to build seven homes on two sites, which are still serving fire survivors and will be relocated in the next few years. We were able to raise almost $2 million to fund the projects from a variety of people and organizations that wanted to help.

Before the fires, affordable housing was probably the top issue in our community. What does the future of this community look like? The number one barrier to its growth and success is affordable housing. Businesses can’t grow if it’s too expensive for workers to live here. It’s a real drag on people’s quality of life if they can’t find a place to live.