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Gaps in Latino homeownership, quality internet access examined during forum

Latinos lag Sonoma County as a whole in rates of homeownership, and rural, low-income families have a harder time accessing high-speed internet, disparities that have made it more difficult for those families to succeed in Sonoma County amid recent fires, floods and the coronavirus pandemic.

Those topics were at the center of discussion Thursday during the 7th annual State of the Latino Community forum hosted virtually by Los Cien, a Sonoma County Latino leadership organization.

Titled “Re-imagining the Latinx Community Post-Pandemic,” the forum consisted of two panels, the first of which explored systemic barriers in housing affordability and ownership for Latino families in Sonoma County and statewide.

While low housing stock, discriminatory redlining practices and inflated home prices have impacted the entire state for decades, Sonoma Couny Latinos have come face to face with additional hurdles specific to our region in recent years, among them them the 2017 Tubbs fire, the 2018 west county floods and the 2019 Kincade blaze, said Oscar Pardo, a Los Cien member who moderated Thursday’s event.

“We have another set of issues that sit on top of all of this, and that has been the series of catastrophic events that have multiplied these systemic factors exponentially,” Pardo said.

Fewer than 40% of Latinos in Sonoma County owned homes, compared to 60% of the county’s population as a whole, data provided by Los Cien showed. Similarly, the annual median household income for Latinos was $59,000, while the countywide median was about $72,000.

Jennifer LeSar, CEO of LeSar Development Consultants, a firm that focuses on the housing affordability crisis and homelessness, explained her framework for how local communities and governments can make homeownership more accessible for Latinos and other communities of color.

Supporting the building of high-density housing projects, such as condos or townhomes, was one method, said LeSar, who also founded the Global Policy Leadership Academy, which helps leaders address regional crises.

Preventing the displacement of low-income families should be another priority, LeSar said. When homes are torn down, first right to return policies allow families who lived there previously a chance to move in to newly built housing, she said.

Inclusionary zoning allots a portion of units built in new housing projects for low- and medium-income families.

“It’s really important that we recognize the risk of displacement and we put in place policies that prevent it or strengthen tenants’ and community members’ ability to stay,” LeSar said.

Jennifer Hernandez, an attorney at Holland & Knight who has practiced land use and environmental law for more than 30 years, dove into the impacts of the California Environmental Quality Act, legislation she says has been “weaponized” since about 1983 to block housing developments under the guise of protecting the environment.

Lawsuits filed under the statute typically target the building of homes, are cheap to file and block lending for the project until litigation is done, even if the basis of the lawsuit, which can be filed anonymously, has no merit, Hernandez said.

A study her firm conducted that looked at three years’ worth of CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) lawsuit data in the Los Angeles region found 14,000 housing units were challenged under the act, 70% of which were located within a half-mile of regular transportation, she said.

“This is what we say we want, but when you try building housing in these locations, everybody knows — especially in areas that are wealthy — that more people are going to bring more kids to schools, more families to the park, more traffic to the roads and they just don’t like it,” Hernandez said.

The second panel delved into the factors that have contributed to creating a “digital divide” between those who have access to high-speed internet and those who do not.

A Sonoma County Economic Development Board survey of the county’s broadband access found that people who live near main roads and thoroughfares, such as Highway 101 or River Road, were more likely to have access to high-speed internet than people in more rural areas. Away from the county’s populated corridors, infrastructure for internet service is lacking or nonexistent, said Calvin Sandeen, a broadband analyst with the economic board who was a panelist during Thursday’s event.

They also found that in places were the infrastructure is there, such as Santa Rosa’s Roseland community, a lack of access to technology or affordable internet can create gaps in broadband access. Low-income and rural students’ lack of access to reliable internet has come to the forefront as an obstacle as schools have transitioned to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

A strategic plan that accompanied the survey ended with several recommendations, among them a suggestion that Sonoma County and local cities consider developing their own broadband infrastructure program.

“The concept is, ‘If they can’t build it, we can build it ourselves,’ ” Sandeen said.

Omar Carrera, CEO of the Marin County nonprofit Canal Alliance, spoke about his journey to expand broadband access within San Rafael’s Canal community, which began 15 years ago when he started as a technology instructor for the nonprofit.

The job helped him understand that despite living in one of the richest counties in the country, the digital divide still impacted people who couldn’t afford reliable and fast internet, he said.

Fast forward to 2018, he connected with local leaders in various professions and city and county leaders to address the issue head-on. Momentum grew over the next two years, though the onset of the coronavirus pushed the effort to the forefront earlier this year, he said.

“Local government decided to change their role from participant to leader,” Carerra said. “They put together a team of consultants to design a community Wi-Fi network. Suddenly what seemed impossible began to happen.”

City and county leaders quickly problem-solved technology and funding issues to create the network, which now has the capacity to supply internet to 2,000 students and adults across 25 access points fixed onto city street lights and properties. The county’s existing Marin Information and Data Access Systems network manages the network.

Carerra said a permanent solution to the digital divide would need more work.

“Big companies control the internet pipelines and charge us to get access to them.They don’t have any incentive to build affordable internet everywhere,” Carerra said. “Our elected officials know that. I know it’s a big battle and it requires a federal government intervention, but local governments can do something about it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or nashelly.chavez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @nashellytweets.

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