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Fire Then Fraud: Grants Help Sonoma County Residents Recover

A new round of Kaiser Permanente grants to help residents of Sonoma County get back on their feet after 3 years of devastating fires brings the total assistance to $18 million. Pictured, Max Siem works on his newly rebuilt home in October.

Three years after the Tubbs Fire vaporized his Santa Rosa, California, home in a 30-foot wall of flame at 2 a.m., Max Siem and his wife were just beginning to feel like things were getting back to normal.

Construction on their new house in the Coffey Park neighborhood, where 1,500 other homes were lost, was coming along, and it looked like Siem, a manager at a local Best Buy, his wife Danielle, and their daughter could finally move out of the borrowed trailer they were living in and get ready for a new life in a new home.

But the contractor they paid in advance failed to pass on some $65,000 to the construction supply store where materials were bought on credit.

A lien was placed on Siem’s new home, and lawyers from the supply store told him if he didn’t pay the $65,000, they would sell his home to satisfy the debt of the contractor.

‘The Kaiser Permanente grants enable us to make victims of these disasters whole again by helping them with income streams and stabilizing their housing.’

That’s when Siem contacted Legal Aid of Sonoma County, an organization supported in part by Kaiser Permanente grants that helped Siem at no cost.

“We didn’t have a lot of money left to hire lawyers, but we had heard really good things about them,” Siem said. “They’re great people. I met with them and they said, ‘We’re going to get you taken care of; you’re not going to lose your home.’ We got released from the lien about 2 months ago, and that was a huge weight off our shoulders.”

Kaiser Permanente recently awarded the organization $500,000 for the next 2 years, and that is on top of a $90,000 grant in 2019.

Those grants are just one part of approximately $18 million Kaiser Permanente has awarded to 40 community-based organizations helping rebuild homes and lives of Sonoma County residents impacted by fires since 2017. Some examples include money for construction of affordable student housing at Santa Rosa Junior College and expanded mental health services at local public schools.

Max Siem in his Coffey Park home in Santa Rosa, 3 years after the Tubbs Fire destroyed most of the homes in the neighborhood.

“Here’s someone who is about to lose his home, a second time, so we intervened and got the lien removed and convinced the supply store to go after the contractor,” said Ronit Rubinoff, executive director of Legal Aid of Sonoma County. “The Kaiser Permanente grants enable us to make victims of these disasters whole again by helping them with income streams and by stabilizing their housing.”

Since 2017, the organization has helped fire victims access some $8 million worth of resources in the way of unemployment insurance, home insurance payouts, Federal Emergency Management Agency benefits, recovery of funds lost to contractor fraud, eviction prevention, temporary housing, and other forms of legal advocacy.

The fire-related assistance from Kaiser Permanente to the area is part of a strategy to support the health of communities in need.

For Siem, who barely escaped the flames in 2017 and then became the victim of an unscrupulous contractor, the support has been a game changer.

“It has definitely let us breathe a lot easier.”

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community health
This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. It is encouraging to know Kaiser supports organizations such as this! There are so many pieces to the puzzle as to what supporting a community looks like. This story provides and excellent example of that.

  2. When I read a story like this, it makes me sad. But, it is not a story; it is true. It is true because we lost our house in the 2017 Tubbs fire. We were very fortunate to find a builder who worked w/us and was very creditable. He was a neighbor down the street! However, we have talked to people who also lost their homes on our street. Unfortunately, they had paid all their money up front to their contractor, so the contractor was in the driver’s seat. The contractor would come in & do work whenever it was convenient to him and not feeling the urgency of pain & money the home owners were going through. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is; if they are pushy, start demanding things from you, and push you to sign their contract, walk away. Talk with other survivors regarding their contractors and meet the contractor, check them out as best you can. Remember, they work for you; you do not work for them. Take care.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      I am so sorry you lost your home. I have 5 relatives that also each lost their homes in the Tubbs Fire. One has rebuilt and another is starting the process. Thank you for your tips on finding a reputable contractor to work with. Wishing you all the best!

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