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.