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Housing is the hot topic around here — availability, affordability and, heaven help us, homelessness.

Several hundred citizens, attending a “summit” on housing recently, found much to disagree about and not a lot in the way of solutions.

We are in the second year of an official “housing emergency” with no end in sight, as my colleague Pete Golis noted in a recent column. He also pointed out that a national survey has tagged Sonoma County renters as among the most “cost burdened” in the nation.

If that sounds ominous, it’s because it is.

We have all seen close-up what this looks like under our bridges, in our parks, on our streets.

So our cities’ leaders will debate rent control and county leaders will attempt to solve their differences on this and density issues. But it’s clear that whatever point-of-view prevails — as Nobel laureate Bob Dylan put it — “The times they are a ’changin.’”

Sonoma County has had housing crises before. There were the Dust Bowl years when so many “Okies” and “Arkies” piled their furniture on the tops of their cars and headed west. Those who got as far as Sonoma County found a government farm labor camp in Windsor — veritable heaven of hot showers and washing machines for road-weary families.

During the Depression, jobless, hopeless men rode the rails and walked the highways, seeking work that paid anything at all. Where there were railroad tracks, there were homeless encampments — and sometimes tragedy.

Many of these transients (“knights of the road,” they were called in those more-forgiving times)” took shelter under a trackside warehouse near Sebastopol Road. Filled with prunes awaiting shipment and weakened by the bracings the men had pulled off to fuel their campfires, the building collapsed one wet night in 1939. Eleven people died, buried in a heap of beams and flooring and prune sacks.

Housing became an issue, too, at the very start of World War II when coastal shipbuilding drew thousands of defense workers to the Bay Area. A big government housing complex near Sausalito known as Marin City quickly filled as workers spilled over to Sonoma County, using the government buses to get to and from their jobs.

The war crowded Santa Rosa with the families of some 7,000 “fly boys” passing through the Army Air Corps and Navy bases here.

There were few, if any, apartment houses in town.

Low-cost housing of the day was in small dwellings — some of them from the early 20th century house plans ordered from catalogs. (Often, they were flanked by much more elaborate homes. Early developers sold lots. They didn’t build “cookie cutter” houses.)

There were boarding houses that catered to “respectable” single women and bachelors — rented rooms in the small hotels above downtown businesses, adequate shelter although sometimes too handy to the taverns downstairs.

None of this served the need for wartime housing. Homeowners, anxious to do their patriotic duty, rented spare rooms to military wives. And the demand jump-started the idea of apartments — with owners creating them over garages or second-story units with outdoor stairs.

The next housing crisis came at war’s end when all those people who had crowded the Bay Area as GI wives or for war work simply didn’t go home. The post-war boom, pushed north by the new Golden Gate Bridge, found Santa Rosa and its neighboring towns.

The GI Bill-fueled housing boom is a familiar story; it’s how Montgomery Village grew. Some $8,000 (“No Money Down. Move Right In.” About $50 a month, including taxes and insurance.) bought five rooms and a bath in a line marching out Montgomery Drive and Sonoma Avenue, away from town.

There have been others: the “discovery” of Sonoma County as a retirement idyll in the ‘60s (think Oakmont); the back-to-the-land evacuation of the big cities that grew the population here in the ‘70s, creating year-round housing in summer homes along the River, rolling house trailers into open fields and converting the long, low chicken houses surrounding Petaluma and Cotati to emergency lodging.

Several years ago — 25 to be precise — I wrote a column that asked the question: “What ever happened to the five-room house?”

We can still ask that question. Because nobody builds them these days — and those “tiny houses” that are being proposed aren’t the same thing, not the 1,000-square-foot castle where families raised four kids, added on when they could afford it and stayed to retire.

So what took affordable housing out of the local equation?

There are many reasons. One is the 1990s’ tech boom when Sonoma County led the Bay Area in job growth. Read Don Green’s new memoir “Defining Moments,” about the instant millionaires created in that period. But that also brought us the high-on-the-hill developments — McMansions, if you will.

More rich, fewer middle class and a new standard of “living high on the hog” as my father would say.

Henceforth, homebuyers would demand not just a five-room “starter” home, but a family room, a two-car garage, maybe split-level.

And soon enough, banks wouldn’t make loans on anything less. Because there was no resale value.

And there goes the neighborhood.

Change alters our lifestyle and makes things different. There are always those pesky unintended consequences.

I had a visit last week with Dr. Margaret Purser, who chairs the Anthropology Department at Sonoma State University.

We talked about neighborhoods and change.

Purser’s current project is the creation of a community-generated anthropological “map” of Santa Rosa, tracing such matters as history and ethnicity as well as economic status.

The trick, with all this inevitable change, as she sees it, is for our leaders to be very careful; to protect the sense of identity that neighborhoods, whole towns and counties, have fostered through time.

Purser talks about the “social fabric” of neighborhoods. “The history is in that fabric and every change tears it a little,” she says, “or sometimes a lot. It can take time to mend.”

We know about those rips in the fabric.

Each of our growth periods “tore the fabric” of our towns and our neighborhoods. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes a whole lot.

We are in the throes of another big change in our region. Take a look at San Francisco. The City we knew and loved, Herb Caen’s quirky “Cool, Grey City of Love,” is leaping into the future in pursuit of the Manhattan model, ripping apart old neighborhoods, going high-rise. (Can a Trump Tower West be far behind?)

We like to think we’re smarter here in the hinterlands. But we have not escaped. You may have seen the headline in last Wednesday’s paper about “Food Insecurity.”

That means choosing to pay rent instead of buying groceries. Some choice, huh?

Some might “blame” urban growth boundaries for the rising cost of buildable land. Developers can no longer leapfrog over the expensive town lots to cover cheaper, greener pastures with subdivisions.

But if you want to see what happens without them, take a long, slow rush-hour drive (from hell) on a wayward airport shuttle through Los Angles and environs, as I did last week, and pass through six or seven cities — one loses track — with nothing to separate them but exits and city limits signs.

Here we can drive no more than 20 minutes in a any direction from any town in the county and be in the country. Losing that would be a rip in the fabric that would never, ever mend.

Afterthought: much of this “looking at the past” business of mine is celebrating progress, marveling at how we ever got along without so many things: automobiles, airplanes, the internet, tractors, hay balers, milking machines—and family rooms and two-car garages. We celebrate progress on so many fronts.

Not so with housing. The broad question of shelter. We have so much left to learn.

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