Sonoma County lost 3,300 people after 2017 wildfires

Sonoma County lost about 3,300 residents in the year that followed the 2017 wildfires, according to new Census Bureau estimates that suggest the exodus of people leaving the region is far larger than previously envisioned.

The population decline is even more dramatic than estimates released in December by the state Department of Finance, which showed a decline of 2,207 residents - more than any other county in the state - after factoring in deaths and births.

“It’s not surprising to me to see the numbers declining,” said Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm. “We lost 3,100 homes in Santa Rosa, but how many people lived in each of those homes?”

Schwedhelm said he’s particularly concerned about the impact of the fires on working families and low- to moderate-income residents.

In Coffey Park, which lost nearly 1,500 homes, 40% of the residents were renters and could be priced out of the neighborhood once it is rebuilt, he said.

Schwedhelm said the census data continues to illustrate the need to address the ongoing housing crisis, which was exacerbated by the fires. He said Santa Rosa officials have increased efforts to “incentivize” housing development in the downtown area, near jobs and transportation.

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, also said he wasn’t surprised by the population decline, given the magnitude of the disaster.

“Anecdotally, you hear of people moving on and moving out,” he said.

Rabbitt said the wildfires were indiscriminate, affecting all socioeconomic segments of the population. But he said he expected the county’s lower-income residents are likely to be more impacted.

“I would assume it would impact those on the lower socioeconomic side, those who are severely rent-burdened and don’t see a future in housing in this county,” he said. “It’s an issue we need to deal with more strongly.”

Late last year, the state Department of Finance estimated the county lost 3,397 people to domestic migration, a net figure derived from the number of people who moved in and out of the county during the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018.

Their departures were partly offset by the arrival of immigrants: Sonoma County gained 1,052 people from other countries. After factoring in deaths and births, the county’s population fell by 2,207 people, the state estimated.

The Census Bureau data, released last week, indicates the county’s population declined by 3,300 people in the same period, leaving the county with a total of 499,942 residents.

The Census Bureau and state Department of Finance use different but related techniques to estimate population dynamics, said Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University.

Both arrived at the same conclusion: a drop in population that he called “alarming.”

“Either story is one of migration away from Sonoma County and a harbinger of how places like Butte County may be seeing its population change for 2018,” Eyler said, referring to the Camp fire last November. That fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, nearly leveled the city of Paradise.

Earlier this year, The Press Democrat asked readers who had moved away in the disaster’s wake or were planning to leave to share their stories.

Many who responded cited the rising cost of living in Sonoma County.

Rabbitt said county and city officials are take steps to speed up housing construction, simplify the permitting process and encourage greater flexibility in the type of housing being constructed. But people clearly are leaving the area, he said.

The loss of residents because they can no longer afford to live in Sonoma County will be a blow to the local community, Rabbitt said. Maintaining a diverse population is crucial, he said.

“That to me means you’re a vibrant community,” he said.

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