Resilient City Permit Program

Santa Rosa, California

Sean McGlynn, City Manager

In the early hours of October 9, 2017, gale-force winds blew rapidly moving wildfires into Santa Rosa, destroying homes, businesses, and a fire station and transforming existing housing shortages into a devastating crisis for thousands of residents. The fires claimed 22 lives and 5,643 structures, which included 3,043 homes —5 percent the city’s housing.

It would take 22 days to fully contain the fires, but the city needed to respond quickly to initiate recovery and rebuilding, while simultaneously managing emergency response and providing immediate shelter and essential services to fire victims.

The city recognized that it was not equipped to handle the continuation of development projects already underway plus the anticipated influx of permits, reviews, and inspections required for a mass rapid reconstruction. The need was urgent: Insurance benefits to cover rental housing for displaced fire survivors generally last just 24 months.

To address the need, the city designed the Resilient City Permit Program to make rebuilding efficient, streamlined, and cost-effective. Staff spent countless hours in community meetings engaging fire victims to understand what resources they needed. Many homeowners, already under stress, were unfamiliar with construction processes and were intimidated by the thought of going through a rebuild. The city also launched a website with instructions to guide homeowners through the cleanup and rebuilding process.

After the first phase of community engagement, the city developed an aggressive plan to address the identified needs, starting with policies. For example, the Resilient City Zoning District was created to provide fire victims with flexibility in rebuilding. An Urgent Resilient City Ordinance expedited review processes; waived some fees; and removed measures that prevented homeowners from residing on their properties temporarily in RVs, manufactured homes, or other dwellings.

Next was providing specific services. Fifty days after the start of the fires, the city’s Planning and Economic Development (PED) department opened a Resilient City Permit Center (RCPC) to handle the planning, engineering, and building permits. The contracted team, from the firm Bureau Veritas, added 30 dedicated positions and 6,000 monthly staff hours to meet the goal of rebuilding in two years.

Community partnerships were critical to the program’s success. A pressing need for an open, direct channel of communication among staff, elected city and county officials, and their constituents led to the creation of the Build/Rebuild Ad Hoc Committee to coordinate resources. The city also developed close ties with many community organizations, nonprofits, developers, and designers. The American Institute of Architects, for example, established master plans that would be pre-approved and reviewed in reduced timeframes.

These partnerships contributed to Santa Rosa’s success. As of July 13, 2020, the Resilient City Permit Program’s efforts had resulted in 1,287 homes rebuilt, 913 homes under construction, and 165 houses in the pre-construction pipeline, and it was anticipated that more than 1,500 homes would be completed by the end of summer 2020.