302 Fairfield housing units sit vacant. Why? Air Force won’t turn the water on

The Georgetown housing complex in Fairfield features spacious family-sized apartments, playgrounds and basketball courts. There are grassy knolls for children to roll down, California pepper trees and oaks for shade, and quiet cul-de-sacs next to open fields.

But for all its promise as an idyllic family oasis, the 52-acre property adjacent to Travis Air Force Base in Solano County sits vacant. After 20 years housing hundreds of Air Force families, for the last decade the community’s 302 units have been unoccupied, a victim of the military’s decision to shut off the water and sewer lines that serve the property.

Property owner Hunt Communities says it is committed to spending $36 million, with no public subsidies, to renovate the units for affordable housing. About 15% of the apartments would will be set aside for veterans, Executive Vice President Jim Dobbie said.

But for that to happen the property needs water, and the only reasonably close source is the adjacent air force base. Since the base’s water and sewer system is already connected to the Georgetown property, it would simply be a matter of replacing an outdated pumping system to let he water flow. The next closest water source is a city hookup 2 miles away and would require getting permission to lay pipe across multiple private properties.

“We have been talking to the Air Force and the city for 10 years about getting this housing back online,” Dobbie said. “We have applied twice for building permits, and the city has declined those applications citing, among other things, that there is no water service.”

Housing advocates say the urgency of the project has become more pronounced over the last few years, as the housing crisis that started in San Francisco has spread throughout the Bay Area. Prices in Fairfield have nearly doubled since 2010, with single-family homes jumping from $241,000 to $475,000.

Solano County has a homeless population of roughly 1,000, including about 150 veterans. Since 2014 Fairfield has permitted 140 affordable units, less than 12% of the 1,183 set as a goal by the by state.

J.R. Wilson, who served in the Army and helps vets find jobs and housing, said that hundreds of veterans, many of whom were stationed at Travis Air Force Base, are being squeezed out of the region by rising costs. Reviving the Georgetown apartments could make a dent in that need, especially for homeless veterans.

“I see this housing as a mothballed fleet,” he said. “Aren’t we supposed to deploy mothballed fleets in times of emergency?”

In a statement to The Chronicle the Air Force said it is not in the water business and has no obligation to provide services to a property the military doesn’t own. The Air Force never owned the Georgetown apartments, but oversaw its development and entered into a 20-year lease when it was finished. When that lease was up, it walked away, instead building a new complex just across a narrow ravine from Georgetown.

“Department of Defense does not routinely provide utility services, such as water, sewage or electricity, to private, off-base entities for non-U.S. government affiliated ventures,” Air Force Capt. Amanda Farr said.

In a series of emails to Hunt executives, Col. Victor Beeler, 60th Mission Support Group commander at Travis, suggested the matter is not open to debate.

In May 2019 Beeler wrote to Hunt Communities’ attorney, stating, “Sir, Travis AFB will not provide water to Georgetown housing.” Several months later, he sent another email: “The decision has been made at the HQ AF level that Travis will not provide water to Georgetown. There will be no further discussions on this topic at Travis.”

Farr said the Air Force is following the lead of the city of Fairfield, which has also opposed efforts to resuscitate the housing.

In a letter last month letter to Hunt’s attorney, Fairfield City Manager Stefan Chatwin called the project “highly infeasible” and “not a priority for the city.” He pointed out that the nearest municipal water service is 4,900 feet away and that the closest schools and grocery stores are 5 to 6 miles away. Chatwin did not return calls seeking comment.

“The city is focused on developing infill projects near essential services,” he said in the letter.

While it’s unclear whether the city or the military is driving opposition the project, it’s certain that Travis Air Force Base is a powerful interest in Fairfield.

The base — 6,400 acres with 6,641 active duty members and another 3,018 civilian workers — is the biggest employer in both Fairfield and in Solano County. The base, opened in 1942 to protect against the Imperial Japanese Navy after Pearl Harbor, has an annual economic impact of $1.65 billion, according to an analysis the military completed in 2017.