Sonoma Wildfire: 43% Of US hHuseholds Are Housing & Food Insecure


Marianne Cusato and Habitat for Humanity Sonoma County’s Angie Moeller on the unveiling of the Sonoma Wildfire Cottages on Friday, August 16.  Marianne has outlined some key message prompts below.

Sonoma Wildfire Cottages
skeeze / Pixabay


Why: Housing insecurity is a nationwide epidemic, which is magnified after a natural disaster

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43% of US households are housing and food insecureCalifornia has one of the highest percentages at 49% of households. (Source CNN) This is an issue that touches every American. If not personally, then in their network of family, friends, and co-workers.

Natural disasters magnify this epidemic. Before the fires Sonoma Country stood at a 1% housing vacancy rate, 5% of the housing stock was destroyed in the fires.

New construction is expensive and slow. This is a result of many factors, including, the labor shortage, rising material costs, as well as building regulations and fees, which, while often well intended, make new construction prohibitively extensive.

Lack of skilled and unskilled labor to build housing post disaster. The vast majority of construction labor after a disaster goes to build structures for those who can afford to rebuild. A large portion of families whose homes were destroyed rely on organizations like Habitat for Humanity who struggles to find skilled labor to build homes in these disaster areas.

Traditional construction is outdated. The United States residential construction industry today largely builds homes the same way they have for centuries. Other countries are using modern off-site production and digital tools for collaboration and coordination to greatly increase production, reduce waste and cost, and deliver energy efficient homes in a fraction of the time.

While natural disasters are tragic, the silver lining is that the disaster acts as a catalyst to address the housing crisis by attracting awareness, funding, and political will to simplify the construction process.

In 2017 and 2018 in CA, nearly 28,000 residences (CONFIRM) were destroyed by fires. An estimated 4.4 million home are in high risk “wildland-urban interface” zones. Climate change magnifies the impact of extreme weather putting more homes and communities at risk. Solutions are needed to not only respond to, but prepare for the extreme weather events we know are coming.

(Note: In 2008, California building codes were revised to address fire resiliency. In Paradise, 51% of the 350 homes since 2008 building code as passed survived the 2018 Camp fire, while only 18% of homes build before the code survived. Only 6% of the housing stock in the state has been built since 2008, leaving millions of homes at high risk should they encounter a wildfire. Source: The Sacramento Bee)

The goal of the Sonoma Wildfire Cottages Initiative is threefold: 

  1. Confront the epidemic of housing insecurity through an awareness campaign with a built case study highlighting real and attainable solutions for Sonoma County that can be applied throughout the State of California, as well as nationwide.
  2. Provide attainable housing for families impacted by the 2017 wildfires and a stabilizing “hand up” for a path toward homeownership
  3. Inform the rebuilding process today and help communities, throughout California and nationwide, prepare for future disasters by showcasing innovative housing solutions and preparing an outline of lessons learned

What: Sonoma Wildfire Cottages & Habitat Center offer solutions

Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County partnered with Cypress Community Development Corp. to develop the Sonoma Wildfire Cottages Initiative. This initiative was inspired by Marianne Cusato’s Katrina Cottages, which were in turn was inspired by the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Shacks.

The SWC Initiative challenges existing systems for default construction techniques, model building codes, design patterns, and subsidized housing models to uncover opportunities to streamline the process and increase productivity while improving outcomes.

Our hope is that these results will inform not only the current rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County, but also provide a resource for communities throughout California and nationwide as they preemptively prepare for potential natural disasters.

The learnings from the SWC Initiative have guided the formation of the Habitat Center, a facility that will employ the latest technology and integrated volunteer support, to produce “beyond code,” in panelized homes for installation in Sonoma County and beyond, making Sonoma Wildfire Cottages available for rapid response to future disasters throughout the region.

How: Key Aspects of the Sonoma Wildfire Cottage Initiative

Attainable Housing: Subsidized Rent to Own

  • Habitat for Humanity is famous for their “hand-up” model for homeownership. This program adds a new dimension to Habitat’s already successful path to homeownership by offering subsidized rentals that allow residents to save for homeownership, therefore reducing the level of subsidies needed once they are able to purchase a home.
  • The model allows the temporary housing following a disaster to become a launching point to help families out of systemic poverty and transition into stabilizing homeownership.
  • We have built nine homes, but see these homes helping dozens, perhaps hundreds of families to stabilize and get back on their feet.

Temp to Perm: Public, Private, Non-Profit Solution

  • This program is a bridge between FEMA trailers and permanent housing. Federal funding takes years to arrive at the local level following a disaster declaration. FEMA trailer programs end after 16 to 18 months.
  • The Sonoma Wildfire Cottage Initiative provides a model for future disasters to fill a vital gap in the recovery process. Trailers are an immediate response, cottages are faster to deploy that permanent homes, then finally, once insurance money and FEMA funding are distributed, permanent homes are rebuilt.
  • The cottages, while providing temporary housing for families impacted by the disaster, are not temporary structures, but code approved permanent buildings, sometimes in temporary locations. The funds invested in this solution builds assets that are part of the long-term solution, while meeting a temporary need.
  • This specific aspect of the cottage program is modeled on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake Shacks. They were built in a field, then put on wheels and pulled by horse to individuals’ properties. Some of these shacks still exist today, over 100 years later. This is our inspiration. Not only do we expect the homes to still be standing in 100 years, we hope they inspire others in how and what they build.
  • This temp to perm cycle is essential to the rebuilding process and requires a public, private and non-profit partnership to come together to rebuild. No one silo can meet these acute needs.

Development & Community Design

Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County

Assembled all-star team of professionals and A-List sponsors to execute the program

Role: Project founders; coordinated overall construction with help of a volunteer army; creating concrete solutions for Sonoma County

Cypress Community Development Corp/Marianne Cusato

Tasked with identifying and testing the best disaster recovery & housing insecurity solutions

Role: Project vision; program management; Sonoma Wildfire Cottage design

Opticos Design

Missing Middle Housing

Role: Masterplan of cottage community

Alison Blume

Sustainable and fire resistant landscaping

Role: Landscape consulting: specifying and sourcing landscaping for the project

Building Technologies

At the heart of the Sonoma Wildfire Cottage Initiative is the showcase of prefabricated building systems that streamline the construction process. The homes actually stretch existing building and energy codes, are safe, durable, fire resistant, energy efficient, and dignified.

While all of the homes meet all of the project requirements – energy efficient, fire resistant, durable, attainable price, fast installation, as well as challenging default industry techniques and meeting the increasing demand for accessory dwelling units – each system has a stand out quality that makes them unique in the group.

Following is a description of the design concepts and building technologies. Detailed company descriptions to follow.


Key Message: Fire resistant construction and energy efficiency

West Coast SIPs 

Key Message: Prefab innovation and challenging industry norms of stagnant productivity and labor shortage


Key Message: ADUs & Smaller Homes – changing building and zoning codes and increased market demand

Wolf/Homes for Sonoma 

Key Message: Fast & Affordable, factory crafted, construction

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