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Ashleigh Araque, a Santa Rosa Junior College student, says she can barely afford life in Sonoma County.

Rent for her two-bedroom apartment in southwest Santa Rosa is $1,400 a month, and that plus utilities and operation of two cars eats up most of what Ashleigh, her boyfriend and their roommate make.

"It takes all three incomes to keep us in our apartment," she said, "and none of us has disposable income after the essentials are paid."

The three SRJC students can't afford a telephone, she said.

"This is a beautiful county, but it is progressively pricing out the average person," Araque said.

Sonoma County is the second least affordable county in the Bay Area, according to a nationwide study that says the county's typical household spends 55 percent of its income on housing and transportation, the two biggest bites out of a family budget.

Only Marin residents pay more, 56 percent of income, while San Franciscans — who avoid driving cars by riding Muni and BART in droves — pay just 39 percent of their income for housing and transportation, lowest in the nine-county Bay Area.

Within Sonoma County, the least affordable community is Occidental, where housing and transportation consume nearly two-thirds of a typical household's income, according to an H+T Index compiled by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago think tank.

In Temelec, a Sonoma Valley retirement community, households spend only 40 percent of their income on housing and transportation, the lowest rate in the county.

For Santa Rosa residents, the figure is 51 percent.

The think tank considers 45 percent — 30 percent for housing; 15 percent for transportation — as the limit for an affordable neighborhood.

Only 28 percent of the nearly 180,000 neighborhoods nationwide covered by the survey met that standard, the center's report said.

In Mendocino (65 percent of income) and Lake (64 percent), housing and transportation are huge costs.

"Everybody should feel sorry for us up here," said Janet Riggs, a Willits area resident, who figures 75 percent of her income goes to housing and transportation, including $995 a month rent on her 900-square-foot modular home.

"That's probably why I haven't taken a vacation in years," she said.

The impact of housing and transportation costs falls most heavily on low-income households, said Robert Eyler, director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University.

"It's bad if you are a commuting low-wage worker," he said.

The survey confirmed that living costs, especially transportation, are lower in major metropolitan areas like San Francisco and Alameda counties, where mass transit is readily available, and higher in suburban areas like Marin, Sonoma and Solano counties.

In San Francisco, 33 percent of workers commute on public transportation, compared with 2 percent in Sonoma and less than 1 percent in Mendocino and Lake, according to the Census Bureau.

"It's a fact of life," Eyler said. "I don't think there's anything there that's too shocking."

Housing and transportation costs are "like a tax on living in a certain place," he said.

Many people make "a lifestyle choice" to live in Sonoma County, where salaries are generally lower and commute distances longer than in Bay Area urban centers, said Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

"They want to be in a family-friendly area," he said. "In economics, it's all about incentives and tradeoffs."

Sonoma County Board of Supervisor Chairwoman Shirlee Zane said the study was partly misleading because it used housing costs from a Census Bureau survey covering the period 2005 to 2009.

Median home prices plummeted from a peak of $619,000 to a low of $305,000 during that period. "The data is irrelevant," Zane said, asserting that the county's housing is more affordable than the study indicates.

But the high cost of transportation is the result of decades of low-density urban sprawl in Sonoma County, putting residents far from jobs and stores, Zane said.

To bring down those costs, she said, the county needs more public transit options, including buses, bike and pedestrian pathways and the SMART commuter train "so we are not so car-centric."

Cynthia Murray, president of the North Bay Leadership Council, a business group, said the study pointed out the "hidden costs" of suburban sprawl.

People who moved away from cities to find cheaper housing are now paying a penalty, especially with gasoline costs soaring, she said.

"What might have worked at one time isn't working any more," Murray said. The county should now focus on development within the cities to cut transportation costs.

Transportation consumes 24 percent of a typical Sonoma County family's income, the highest in the Bay Area.

That factor makes it harder for county employers to "attract and retain talented employees," Murray said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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