In wake of Wine Country fires, a burning desire to help goes up in smoke
Updated: Jun 2, 2018
Author: Jason Fagone
Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle
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.
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 event-planning 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.
The painted 53-foot trailer at Oasis Village, a proposed and abandoned emergency housing center for North Bay fire victims in Santa Rosa. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle The painted 53-foot trailer at Oasis Village, a proposed and abandoned emergency housing center for North Bay fire victims in Santa Rosa.
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 shell-shocked 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.
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. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle Photo: 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.
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 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.”
Painted shipping containers at Oasis Village. Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle Painted shipping containers at Oasis Village.
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.”
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