Category Archives: Housing

Whistleblower alleges Solano domestic violence victims were refused shelter to make room for a nonprofit executive

Solano nonprofit executive lived in domestic violence safe house rented from city of Fairfield

A SafeQuest advocate said she encountered a lawyer for the organization outside a shuttered safe house in 2021. | Illustration by Tyler Lyn Sorrow.

SafeQuest Solano, the main provider of domestic violence services in Solano County, allowed an executive to live in a shelter rented from the city of Fairfield for $1 a year.

Vallejo Sun, by Scott Morris, June 28, 2023

Cassandra Chanhsy, an advocate who worked for the nonprofit SafeQuest Solano, was doing yardwork outside a Fairfield safe house for victims of domestic violence and rape in early 2021, when she was surprised to see a man walk out. Not only was it unusual to see a man at the safe house, she thought it was empty, as it had been shut down for months. Chanhsy recognized the man as Richard Bruce Paschal Jr., SafeQuest’s business officer, who typically went by his middle name.

“And I’m like, ‘What are you doing here?’” Chanhsy recalled.

“I live here,” he told her.

SafeQuest — which has provided services for victims of domestic violence in Solano County for nearly 40 years — rents the house from the city of Fairfield for $1 per year, according to the city’s contract with the organization. But Chanhsy said she hadn’t worked in the shelter since late 2019, when the organization closed it. Her manager told her and the residents that the shelter was closing because of a plumbing issue, Chanhsy recalled in an interview.

When the Fairfield house closed, Chanhsy and the roughly 10 people who were staying there went to a different safe house in Vallejo. But she occasionally returned to Fairfield as a volunteer when the grass was overgrown or leaves needed raking.

It’s unclear how long Paschal lived at the Fairfield safe house, but three other former SafeQuest employees said they were aware that Paschal lived there. One former employee who requested to remain anonymous said that SafeQuest executive director Mary Anne Branch told her that Paschal was living in the house as part of his compensation. In a brief phone interview, Paschal declined to say whether he ever lived in the house.

An anonymous complaint that was emailed to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services in May 2022 that the Sun obtained states that he lived there from sometime in the summer of 2020 until March 2021. “No victims were taken in instead,” it states.

Meanwhile, Chanhsy and another victim advocate said the Vallejo shelter was largely empty. One advocate who worked there for a month before she resigned provided documentation that SafeQuest turned away 10 women in that time, saying there was no room when plenty of beds were available.

When operational, the Fairfield house had a capacity of 12 people per night, according to records submitted to the city of Fairfield. An advocate who worked in the Vallejo house said that its capacity was similar. But employees like Chanhsy said those beds sat empty while they worked alone in Vallejo with nothing to do. The organization received hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal and state grant funding, yet a log of late payments obtained by the Sun shows that many employees weren’t paid on time. The records show that the organization at times owed thousands of dollars in back pay and penalties.

The lack of services draws into question a bedrock service for Solano County that governments throughout the county rely on to protect victims of violent crime. SafeQuest has operational agreements to provide advocacy for victims of sexual assault and other services with nearly every police agency in Solano County, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office and Solano County Superior Court.

Millions in funding, few services

Former employees, including Chanhsy, said that the shelters in Fairfield and Vallejo were mostly empty for two years starting in late 2019. Records the organization submitted to the city of Fairfield showed that the safe house there was used very little in 2020 and 2021, even as the city had effectively donated it to the organization for that purpose.

But SafeQuest’s services were particularly necessary in those years as the COVID-19 pandemic drove an increase in domestic violence incidents around the world. A 2021 United Nations report found there was a global “shadow pandemic” of violence against women following stay-at-home-orders. A study by the American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported a spike in domestic violence-related calls to police immediately following lockdown measures in the United States.

According to SafeQuest, there was a 9% increase in instances of domestic violence in Solano County during the first two months of the pandemic. “Meanwhile, shelters, childcare centers, and rape crisis centers are overwhelmed and understaffed,” a 2020 grant application by SafeQuest stated.

The kinds of services SafeQuest is supposed to offer — in particular, emergency housing for people escaping domestic violence and transition services — can also help to prevent homelessness as the region struggles with a crippling shortage of affordable housing.

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Ashton Lyle: Benicia can balance Big Oil (and our budget)

[Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: This is a complicated subject for a lot of Benicia residents. If you scroll past Ashton’s editorial, you can see alternative opinions. Reach out to us at benindy@beniciaindependent.com if you would like to add your opinion to our growing body of commentary on the topic.]

Opinion: To check Valero’s influence and beat a budget meltdown, Benicia leaders must walk a fine line

Although this is a tremendous oversimplification, Benicia’s fight for its future can feel like a choice between the frying-pan and the fire. | Canva image by N. Christian.

By Ashton Lyle, June 7, 2023

Portrait of Ashton Lyle
Ashton Lyle, BenIndy contributor.

Benicia will not always be a sleepy town on the edge of the Bay. Like Walnut Creek, Vallejo, and other neighboring cities before us, change is on the horizon. Today, I’m considering what would make the town more livable for its current and future residents.

First among the forces impeding a successful future is the city’s long-term budget crisis, as evidenced by a recent debate in the Benicia Herald. The city council approved its last two budgets with a substantial deficit, an obviously unsustainable situation over the long term. Bret Prebula, the Assistant City Manager, believes that the budget can be balanced. However, if the town wants to maintain the standard of services Benicia residents have come to expect, “new tax revenue is a must.” 

Equally concerning to me is the role that Texas-based Valero Energy Corporation continues to play in our politics. Over the past 55 years, the Valero-owned Benicia refinery has been the dominant economic force in the city. Founded in 1968 by Humble Oil before passing to Exxon and Valero, it has grown to become the town’s largest employer. Its revenue is essential to the city’s finances, as property taxes paid by the refinery have allowed Benicia to develop its services that in turn, attract new residents. In 2014, Valero was responsible for 40% of Benicia’s revenue, and while that number has dived to less than 20% today, the economic weight of Valero has inspired support for pro-refinery politicians in city and mayoral elections. In 2022 Valero funded PAC spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars on the city council race and printed misleading mailers while its Benicia refinery’s toxic emissions exceeded legal limits for more than 20 years, raising questions about whether vital information was being withheld from residents and regulators. All with relative impunity, a recent $1.2 million fine for recent toxic flares aside (an amount which represented a mere 0.01% of Valero’s profits in 2022.)

Meanwhile, the budget is in need of serious balancing. If Benicia is to throw off the weight of oil town politics, development in either residential or commercial sectors is needed if we wish to maintain our beloved services (such as an independent police force, library, and parks) over the long term. One only has to look at the ongoing rehabilitation of Vallejo’s city finances in the past decade to see the potential of a growing residential tax base. Additionally, if we want to finally free Benicia from reliance on a corporate giant, the town needs a larger slice of the growth from the Bay Area’s professional economy to increase property tax revenue and reduce the city’s dependence on income from Valero. In the age of remote work, accessible housing is essential to competing with local towns and bring knowledge workers to Benicia. If we want to ensure that Benicia’s future is not bound by corporate interests, the long-term answer is embracing new neighbors.

Equitable growth of the town’s housing stock is equally necessary to welcome more of Benicia’s workers to join our community full-time. The employees working in the city’s restaurants, shops, and industrial park have earned the option to settle down in the town they work in, but serious work is needed to ensure this possibility. Even after a recent decline in housing prices, Benicia’s median home is priced at $746,000. This means that, under aggressive calculations, a new resident looking to purchase a home would require no less than $175,000 in annual income. How will the workers who make Benicia and its downtown so special afford to live and work here if we do not build more homes?

These problems, undue industrial influence, a budget crunch, and a lack of affordable housing have a simple, but not easy answer. The housing crisis which extends far beyond Benicia’s borders necessitates new construction in our city. Considering where new housing can be built at scale in Benicia leaves residents with limited options. Due to the restrictions of the democratically decided Urban Growth Boundary, which prevents construction north of Lake Herman Road, there is simply not much remaining developable land within city limits. Unfortunately, the area which provides the greatest opportunity for essential housing will lead the city into a complicated alliance. 

Seeno Developers own a large portion of Benicia’s undeveloped land and is now partnering with the city in a “Community-Led Visioning Process” process which aims to develop a Specific Plan for their land, in effect rezoning the currently undeveloped property from industrial to mixed commercial and residential use. As detailed by former Mayor Elizabeth Patterson this process is a reduced version of the coalition of community and experts who wrote Benicia’s last Master Plan. However, it is worth noting that this is only the first step in a multi-year process that will require approval by the expert-led Planning Commission and publicly elected City Council, with multiple opportunities for public comment which began in November of 2022 and will continue until approval, likely several years from now. This “Community-Led Visioning Process” is the beginning of a public and extremely rigorous process.

The seriousness of the approval process is especially important to note because Seeno is considered by many community members to be a bad actor, both in Benicia and the broader Bay Area. In addition to their record of alleged environmental destruction, associations with organized crime, mortgage fraud, and murder threats, they also have a reputation for taking advantage of communities and local governments. In an ideal world, the city would choose to work with a different developer, and any association with the company necessitates an awareness of the risks they pose.

Unfortunately, Seeno has owned the land that is the subject of the North Study Area for over 35 years, and they do not appear interested in selling. The mortgage is likely paid off meaning Seeno is investing very few resources to maintain ownership, and it’s plausible that the value of the land has grown considerably since its purchase. It’s also worth considering the potential for Seeno to invoke California’s builder’s remedy if the city chooses not to engage in good-faith discussion, as Benicia’s housing element is not yet approved by the Department of Housing and Community Development. Even if the goal is to remove Seeno from our city, creating a Specific Plan for the land is the most likely path to success, as attaching a Specific Plan to a property can raise its value to potential buyers, especially if it changes the property from industrial to mixed-use. This increase in valuation could drive Seeno to sell portions if not the entirety of the property to other developers, which has occurred in other Bay Area developments.

These conditions place Benicia residents in a particularly difficult position, in effect forcing a choice between desperately needed housing constructed with an undesirable partner, or the continued risk to Benicia’s services and future budget, not to mention the unmitigated economic and political influence of Valero. Given the revelations of recent years, it is clear that Valero has proven to be one of the worst actors in Benicia community life. Proactively implementing a mixed-used Specific Plan for the North Study Area will create the best opportunity for a sustainable and equitable Benicia. By working to develop the North Study Area in a controlled, sustainable manner, we can increase our tax base, make our housing market more accessible to new families, and reduce corporate influence over Benicia’s politics.

This process should be watched carefully by community members and media outlets to ensure City Council and Planning Commission members are held accountable for the results, especially because Seeno is known to be a difficult partner. Equally important is that Seeno needs to be made responsible for covering the cost of expanding the city’s essential services to the area, as they will be rewarded with millions in additional profit due to the zoning change. Benicia residents must take advantage of their ability to participate in the planning process via public comment at community, planning commission, and city council meetings. Any development is an investment in the future of our town, and the process of writing a Specific Plan deserves extensive thought, public debate, and democratic accountability to effectively plan for the growth of Benicia in the next decade. 

Statewide forces, from the affordability crises to the housing element requirement mean that change is coming to Benicia and to some of its undeveloped land. Failing to act proactively puts the city in danger of Valero’s continued influence, fiscal crisis, or a reduction in city services. Let’s make sure our council members come into any Seeno partnership with eyes open, while also allowing for viable growth that will bring new families to Benicia.

Author’s Note: In the spirit of full transparency, I am related to the recently appointed Planning Commissioner for the City of Benicia. That said, the opinions expressed in this piece are fully my own, they were not unduly influenced by our relationship, and should not be taken to represent his or anyone else’s opinion.


RECENTLY ON THE BENINDY:
CONCORD/CONTRA COSTA BACKGROUND:
BENICIA BACKGROUND:
CITIZEN BACKGROUND:

CITY OF BENICIA
City of Benicia North Study Area (Seeno property)

For current information from the City of Benicia, check out their North Study Area web page, https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/northstudyarea:

BENICIA ALERT 4/20/23 – Seeno / North Area Study Community Open House

City of Benicia Consultants guiding us to accept housing plan in Seeno property

Seeno owned property (Google Earth, 2008) with inset of Benicia’s “North Study Area” (2022) – click to enlarge

By Larnie Fox, April 20, 2020

Good Morning all ~

Bodil and I went to the North Study Area (Seeno) “Community Open House” last night at Northgate Church. There is a Zoom equivalent tonight that you may want to attend:

Online Community Open House
April 20, 2022 at 7:00 p.m.
Zoom Link
Passcode: 322062

I have to say it was less of an “open house” and more of a consultant-led workshop ~ the consultant leading us towards agreeing to build housing up there.

The elephant in the room was Seeno’s dismal record of not fulfilling promises and constant litigation. The Benindy has an excellent archive HERE.

To make anything happen there, we will have to amend the General Plan. Personally, I like the plan the way it is: the area is currently zoned for light industrial use with a little bit of commercial use on the Eastern end.

What I don’t want to see up there is more automobile-centric suburban sprawl ~ but it feels like that is where we are headed.

Onward?
=+=
Larnie


CITIZEN BACKGROUND:

CITY OF BENICIA
City of Benicia North Study Area (Seeno property)

For current information from the City of Benicia, check out their North Study Area web page, https://www.ci.benicia.ca.us/northstudyarea:

Open Letter to the Benicia City Council: ‘It didn’t have to be this way’

[Editor – Excellent analysis and critique of Council’s ‘Housing Element’ decision on January 24.  For additional background, see earlier stories on BenIndy below– R.S.]

Historic Benicia Arsenal Advocates address City Council on Housing Element decision

January 30, 2023

Benicia City Council Benicia City Hall
250 East L Street
Benicia, CA 94510
RE: 2023-2031 Housing Element – January 31 Agenda Item 10.A

Dear Mayor Young and Council Members:

At the January 24 meeting, despite testimony from many community members advocating for a better alternative, the City Council approved a Housing Element that threatens Benicia’s precious historic resources, puts future residents directly in the path of environmental hazards, and fails to further fair housing goals. [Agenda, Minutes, Video]

(Click image to see the 1999 General Plan)

It didn’t have to be this way. Throughout the 12-month Housing Element update process, concerned community members raised these issues and pointed to better alternatives. And unlike many cities, Benicia had a large number of viable and desirable housing sites to choose from. The Council rejected many suitable sites, often at the request of a handful of neighbors, and yet chose not to consider the larger issues of historic preservation, fair housing, and environmental hazards that civic-minded community members have raised throughout the process. The comments from these community members represented longstanding City policies and values enshrined in the Benicia General Plan.

Click image to view the Housing Element Draft EIR (532-pages, slow download)

At the January 24 Council meeting, a near-capacity crowd asked the Council to approve the Environmentally Superior Alternative as identified in the Housing Element Environmental Impact Report (EIR). As stated on page 6-23 of the EIR, the Environmentally Superior Alternative would meet all the project’s objectives. This alternative would have reduced impacts on historic resources in the Arsenal and downtown and helped address hazards and fair housing concerns while still meeting the City’s housing needs and State of California requirements.

The rationale for the Council’s decision was apparently that, based on advice from the City’s consultants and staff, the Environmentally Superior Alternative might not actually be feasible. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that alternatives evaluated in EIRs be feasible. If the Environmentally Superior Alternative was not feasible, the Housing Element EIR is inadequate and should not have been certified.

The staff and consultants also claimed that the Council really had no choice but to approve the Housing Element as currently drafted, due to the looming January 31 deadline for Housing Element adoption, the cost of making changes, and the fact that they had not evaluated the Environmentally Superior Alternative for fair housing compliance. If that were the case, it would appear that the City designed the process and schedule to prevent meaningful consideration of EIR alternatives, violating the public’s trust as well as the requirements and intent of CEQA.
Let’s be clear: The Council had a choice. At the January 24 meeting and throughout the process, the Council had better options but chose not to act on them out of expediency or fear of State repercussions. The Council had an opportunity to present a vision for the future of Benicia and failed to meet the challenge.

Sincerely,

Benicia Arsenal Park Task Force,
Benicia Arsenal Defense, and
1000 Friends Protecting Historic Benicia

cc. City Clerk, Community Development Director,  Benicia Herald, Benicia Independent, Vallejo Times-Herald, Vallejo Sun



See earlier on BenIndy: