During a forum for Santa Rosa City Council candidates last week, candidate Jack Tibbetts asked a ballroom full of teenagers for a show of hands: How many of you expect to come back to Santa Rosa as adults?
Only four hands went up.
This tepid response could be kids being kids. It wouldn’t be the first time that teenagers proclaimed their desire to escape their hometown, only later to decide it wasn’t such a bad place after all. Councilman and candidate Ernesto Olivares later predicted as much. “You’ll be back,” he told the audience, “This is a wonderful place.”
There is, of course, another explanation that is less reassuring. What if young people are leaving Santa Rosa for housing that costs less or jobs that pay more? What if these young people don’t find their hometown all that welcoming?
“As a young person,” Tibbetts told me later, “it’s sad for me to watch all my friends move to better job opportunities and more affordable places. I also worry about what this squeeze will do to the city and its workforce.”
“It is very hard for young people to settle in Sonoma County,” said council candidate Chris Rogers, “… When we talk about the high cost of housing, that’s a factor for our generation.”
There’s no hard data about the migration patterns of young Santa Rosans, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence about young people moving away. Some are drawn to the amenities of big cities — San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, New York — where jobs pay more. Others are moving to cities where housing is cheaper.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, told me he sees a different narrative — one in which young people attend college, move to the big city and then return home to Sonoma County when it comes time to settle down and start a family.
He introduced me to Tim Ricard, a program manager at the EDB. Ricard and his wife, Amy Ricard, a 1997 Santa Rosa High graduate, moved from Oakland to Santa Rosa in 2011 and with their savings, bought a home.
As real estate prices continue to rise, Ricard said they could still afford a home today, but it might not be the same home they could afford five years ago.
Rogers, the City Council candidate, told me he has friends who would like to buy a home, but they are left to wait for the next downturn in real estate prices before they can afford it.
For young people starting out, it’s pretty simple. They need a place to live and a job.
But housing is scarce and, therefore, expensive. A new report last week confirmed that home sales listings continue to decline. The vacancy rate for rental housing remains just north of zero.
The economy is creating jobs again, but some of them don’t pay as well. Since 2005, the number of manufacturing and constructions jobs has declined, and the number of jobs in tourism and food services has increased.
Meanwhile, the graying of Sonoma County continues. Since 2005, the number of people over 55 has increased by 39.1 percent, while the number of people under 55 has increased by less than one percent. The median age is now 40.