Study: Sonoma County getting older, more reliant on commuters

The rising number of senior citizens will outpace growth in working-age residents, increasing Sonoma County's reliance on workers who live in other parts of the Bay Area, according to a new study.|

Sonoma County is heading into a period of powerful change: The rising number of senior citizens will outpace growth in working-age residents, increasing the county's reliance on workers who live in other parts of the Bay Area.

A shortage of affordable housing is compounding the demographic shift, forcing more and more people to commute into the county every day to fill employers' need for workers.

Those projections are addressed in a new, wide-ranging report from county economic development officials. The report, the 2018 Unabridged Sonoma County Indicators, is a virtual almanac of facts about the local economy, housing market, environment and health of residents.

The report is one of many released in 2018 that offer a wealth of socioeconomic data on the county. The compilation of statistics comes in a year where officials have been studying both threats and opportunities for the county and the greater Bay Area.

The officials who oversaw such studies say they illustrate the importance of boosting residential construction, both by replacing the 5,300 homes destroyed in last fall's wildfires and also by building new housing after a decade of historically low production levels.

Without an adequate increase in housing units, the county's economic growth will slow, many lower-income residents could be forced to move away and employers may have an even more difficult time finding workers, including in such critical areas as health care and education, the officials warn.

“Long-term, this could create fiscal and social instability throughout the county, along with numerous other repercussions,” according to Strategic Sonoma, a report released this spring by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, which also produced the new Indicators report.

Already the effects of strong job growth and paltry housing construction are showing up in another statistic: cars on the highways. Between 2007 and 2016, traffic volumes on Highway 101 in Rohnert Park increased nearly 22 percent to 124,000 cars per day, a separate county report recently noted.

The need to import workers has led to significant congestion on Highway 37 as more commuters come to the North Bay from Solano County and other East Bay locales, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. An eastbound trip to Vallejo along Highway 37 that normally takes 20 minutes can extend on a weekday afternoon to as much as 100 minutes, according to a 2016 Caltrans study.

“It's horrible,” Smith said of the highway's traffic. “There's no other way to describe it.”

The new Indicators report, which is available on the economic board's website,, features a variety of measures on the economy. Among them, the county's 2016 gross domestic product was $27.3 billion; 2017 median household income reached $66,783; the average wage grew 5.6 percent last year; and in 2016 the county's taxable sales for the first time exceeded $9 billion.

Along with the economic statistics, the report compiled data on the environment, health and other areas. Nearly 53 percent of the county's 506,000 residents are overweight or obese and almost 11 percent lack health care. Also, 95 percent of the days in 2016 were considered “good” for air quality, and the most-visited county park that year was Doran Beach, with 961,823 visitors.

As part of the report, officials ranked Sonoma on a variety of items with seven “comparable” counties: Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Monterey, Napa, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz.

Among those counties, Sonoma was projected for 2022 to rank first for growth in median household income. By that year the county's median income is expected to increase 13 percent to $75,491.

Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler called household income an important measure of what's happening in the economy. Income growth in Sonoma County lagged that of California in the early years after the last recession, he noted.

In contrast to the outlook for income growth, the county ranked seventh for a projected population growth of just 2.1 percent in the next five years. That compares with an increase of 3.2 percent for the five years ending in 2017.

In a related area, the North Bay has seen “the most dramatic” aging of its residents among comparable counties, with a median age of 41 for Sonoma County, second only to Marin County at 46.5.

As the county ages, the ratio of workers to retired residents continues to shrink. In 2010, there were nearly five working-age residents for every person aged 65 and older. By last year, the ratio was less than 4 to 1 and by 2022 it is expected to be 3 to 1.

“The (baby) boomers aren't leaving but affordable housing for the millennials isn't being built,” said Ben Stone, the economic development board's executive director.

The impacts of fewer working-age residents go beyond the economy, Stone maintained, especially when employers can't fill such key positions as nurses and police officers.

What's at stake, he said, is “the health of the community.”

The Indicators report also highlighted significant growth in the county's hospitality industry, which employs roughly one out of every 10 workers. Visitor spending hit a record $2.1 billion last year, a 9 percent increase from 2016.

And the county's lodging establishments last year collected $43.7 million in bed taxes, a 17 percent increase from 2016. The report noted the transient occupancy tax has more than doubled in a decade and suggested that last year's increase may have been tied partly to the rush to obtain temporary lodging by both first responders and fire survivors.

Overall, officials said the report's compilation of statistics helps readers understand the issues facing what Stone called a “high quality of life county.”

“It paints a good picture of the county, in the sense that it's a desirable place to live and work and play,” said county Supervisor David Rabbitt.

Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma, said the report provides one more point of information as county residents discuss “what our future's going to be.”

A key question will be how much new housing to allow, he said. Without new homes, employers based in the county will ask themselves, “Do you really need to be here or should you be somewhere else where the workers are?”

Of all the ways housing affects business, Eyler, the economics professor, noted another. When home values fall, he said, business owners often look at the declines and decide to cut back on hiring or to delay expansion plans.

“You're using the housing prices as a gauge,” at times a poor one, for economic activity, Eyler said.

Outside of the county, Bay Area officials also are trying to study and plan for the region's future. Rabbitt is president of the Association of Bay Area Governments, which with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has embarked on its Horizon study to consider what factors could alter the region's future by 2050.

Whether considering the prospect of economic bust or rising sea levels, Rabbitt said, part of the study's aim is to understand possible challenges and to ask “are we all going to be ready” to face them.

Randy Rentschler, the transportation commission's director of legislation and public affairs, suggested regions don't remain economic powerhouses forever. He pointed to Detroit, a community whose population now is about what it was in 1910 before the rise of the automotive industry. The city's population peaked in the 1950s at 1.8 million but today is less than 700,000.

A key topic the commission staff wants to explore is the effect on the Bay Area in the coming decades of autonomous vehicles, also known as self-driving cars. Questions include how widely such vehicles will be used and whether they might need their own highway lanes to operate effectively.

“What does it really mean to have these things?” Rentschler asked.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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