Sonoma County housing summit highlights impact of high living costs on residents

A report on the impacts of cost burden found the high cost of living in Sonoma County means residents must take drastic cost-cutting measures to make ends meet.|

Nearly half of all Sonoma County households are struggling with the cost of housing, meaning at least 30% of their total income goes to shelter and utility costs, according to a new report from a local advocacy group.

That means less money for transportation, food, medicine, child care and other needs, the report’s authors found, presenting a potentially crippling drag on residents’ path to financial stability and other problems that can undermine health and well-being.

The lowest income earners, local Black and Latino residents and renters were more likely to struggle with housing costs, according to officials with Generation Housing, the advocacy group that produced the new report.

"Cost burden acts as a kind of tax on Sonoma County," said Joshua Shipper, director of special initiatives at Generation Housing, who on Thursday presented findings of the yearlong study on the effect of housing costs on the community.

The report sought to explore the budget constraints, cost-cutting measures and sacrifices cost-burdened individuals and families make to afford to live here and what that means for the health of the local community and economy.

It was compiled using responses from an expansive 2022 housing survey conducted by Generation Housing of about 770 respondents and supplemented with other data analysis.

Some went without health care. Some reported being forced to move multiple times because of rising rents. Young people said they didn’t see a long-term future in Sonoma County.

“This impacts the resiliency of the community,” Generation Housing Executive Director Jen Klose said. The Santa Rosa-based nonprofit, launched in 2020, seeks to promote affordable housing development in the region.

The findings were part of a broader conversation during the first part of Generation Housing’s Housing Solutions Summit that brought together about 150 local government representatives, housing officials, business and civic leaders at Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park.

A second forum geared toward actions local officials can take to accelerate housing production is slated for 1 to 5 p.m. May 4 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts.

The event comes as cities face increased pressure from the state to build more housing, particularly affordable, and as Generation Housing positions itself to become a bigger player in that push regionally.

It featured a discussion with local executives and industry leaders about the impact on their workers and business and a keynote address by Jason Pu, regional administrator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Pu said decades of disinvestment in housing construction has led to today’s housing crisis and it will take collaboration between all levels of government and community buy-in to address.

“We know that this work is not easy and that it takes sustained intention over the long haul,” he said. “I encourage you all to dig deep, to rely on one another for strength and to never stop looking for solutions to this challenge."

He said HUD is prioritizing investments in housing for vulnerable populations like veterans, down payment assistance for lower earners, expanding low-income housing tax credits and taking additional steps to protect current housing stock.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • Nearly 80% of respondents experienced financial stress at least some of the year and about 1/3 of 25- to 44-year-olds reported financial stress year-round.
  • Households struggling to pay for housing almost every month were six times more likely to skip health care than households that were financially stable.
  • About 1 in 3 families with young children said they couldn’t pay for child care and 1 in 4 of all families couldn’t afford preschool.
  • Half of all households that are severely cost burdened, meaning 50% or more of their income goes to housing, struggled to afford food at least once in the past year.
  • Cost burden contributed to housing instability, with households that were severely cost burdened being twice as likely to live in overcrowded conditions and twice as likely to worry about being forced out of their home for being unable to pay rent or mortgage. By comparison, those who were financially stable on average lived 15 years in the same home.

“I think it’s clear the rent is too damn high,” said Óscar Chávez, president and CEO of Community Foundation Sonoma County, the county’s philanthropic hub, who moderated the panel.

He described the data as “sobering.”

The information was punctuated by firsthand accounts about the impact of housing costs.

Former Roseland resident Manuel Perez, 25, said in a video testimonial that about 70% of his earnings as a case worker went to living expenses. That left little discretionary funds to save for a home, return to school or cover an emergency.

“It’s a constant grind to survive,” he said.

The high cost of living forced him and his family to move to Dallas.

Panelists also shared how housing costs have made it difficult to attract and retain workers.

Sonu Chandi, founder and president of Chandi Hospitality Group, recalled a former employee of his local restaurant business who had worked his way up to general manager. But he moved to Atlanta because he couldn’t afford to raise his family in Sonoma County.

He said while he has increased his wages at his restaurants, the short supply of affordable and workforce housing means employees are leaving or commuting from farther away.

“We see these issues every single day,” Chandi said.

B Fernandez, owner of local design firm Studio B Creative, said while the artist community is "such an important part" of the region, artists are often overlooked in housing conversations. Many struggle to practice their craft locally and support themselves, she said.

The report found 1 in 4 middle income earners, meaning a single person earning between $66,550 and $94,750 or families of four making between $95,050 and $135,350, struggled financially.

Households in that income range typically earn too much to qualify for affordable housing subsidies but tend to be priced out of the market because of rising rental prices.

That in turn pushes them into housing that is out of their budget and makes it more difficult to save for a starter home.

Kathy Goodacre, CEO of Career Technical Education Foundation, which helps prepare students and young people for careers in health care, construction, hospitality and other local industries said this statistic was particularly concerning.

Many of the high-wage, high-skill jobs her organization helps students train for fall into this income category, she said.

Eveta Jackson, principal at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy in Marin City and a former educator in Sonoma County, said while many teachers see the profession as a calling, its lower wages and the high cost of living lead to instability.

Many teachers are renters who are unable to afford skyrocketing home prices but earn too much to qualify for assistance. High benefits costs also eat away at their pay, making it harder to cover other essential costs, she said.

“It’s so frustrating,” she said. “I teach your child and then I can barely afford for my child to get day care.”

More than half of households with young children are severely cost burdened and many young families are more likely to live in overcrowded conditions, the report found.

Struggling young families. in turn, found it more difficult to meet other financial demands and the costs of essential goods and basic services. Families increasingly believe they can’t afford to raise their families here, the report found.

Jackson said as a teacher at Hilliard Comstock Middle School she had students who she described as “heroes who kept their household going,” taking care of their siblings and household chores, while their parents worked multiple jobs to support the family.

That meant students sometimes came to school tired, stressed or without completing their homework.

Financial stress and housing instability can cause anxiety among families and it can hinder a child’s long-term education, physical and mental health care and earning potentials, according to experts in the field.

Dr. Vanessa DeSousa, assistant chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center, said the medical provider surveys families to better understand their living situations and how that contributes to adverse childhood experience.

Many families are reporting issues with housing, she said.

Long-term instability and the stress and health toll that can take can put people at risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, DeSousa said.

“These parents that are experiencing that with their children are worried about that for themselves, are worried about that for their child and trying to make it better,” DeSousa said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the methodology used to compile the report as well as the impact housing costs have on residents’ health and child care choices.

You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

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