Sonoma County population declines sharply since 2017 wildfires
Elizabeth and Jake Wilberg moved to Sonoma County in spring 2017 knowing it was going to be an expensive place to live. But he had landed a promising job as assistant controller with Guayaki Yerba Mate in Sebastopol. They loved the North Bay and the people they met here.
Elizabeth, 36, and Jake, 37, and their 2-year-old daughter moved into a home they bought on Orleans Street, just west of Santa Rosa's Coffey Park neighborhood. They would have another girl two months later.
It was six months before the North Bay wildfires, and the county's escalating cost of living was about to go even higher. Though the Tubbs fire that October stopped just east of their neighborhood, the young family soon realized a better future could be found elsewhere.
“We would have loved to have made it work, but we started thinking about the future and the kids,” Elizabeth Wilberg said.
After only two years in Sonoma County, the Wilberg family moved to Eugene, Oregon. It's not cheap there, either, she said, but they could afford a larger four-bedroom home for their growing family. Suddenly, they had more disposable income to spend on such things as travel and dining out - something they didn't do here as often as they would have liked.
Every year, between 20,000 and 25,000 come to the county to live, while a similar number relocate to another part of California or another state. Historically, more people have moved here than have left. And, in fact, there was more than a half-century of steady population gains in Sonoma County, which doubled in residents since the mid-1970s to reach a peak of about 503,000 in 2017 just ahead of the wildfires.
More people leaving than arriving
But new population figures suggest that trend has moved the opposite direction, with significantly more people leaving the county than coming. It's a trend that started before the fires two years ago and has since ramped up. The reasons include: lack of affordable houses and steep apartment rental prices; the rising cost of living; the perennial threats of fires and PG&E's intentional power shut-offs; the homelessness crisis; and more crime.
In the past two years, the county's population has declined by an estimated 4,700 people, according to the state Department of Finance, which conducts population estimates using federal income tax information and state public health, education and motor vehicles data. And that figure only tells part of the story. Since the historic North Bay fires two years ago, there were almost 800 more births than deaths and so net foreign migration here grew by 2,155. The county's net domestic migration tells us more about the number of people who choose to come, though, than those who decide to leave.
Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said the population decline is further evidence of the county's “hourglass economy,” in which middle-income residents are “getting squeezed.” Residents across the Bay Area and in many parts of the state are experiencing similar economic pressures, he said.
During the two-year period between July 2017 and July 2019, the county's net domestic migration declined by an estimated 7,648 people, according to the state figures.
Fleeing the wildfires
The exodus was more dramatic during the period that included the North Bay wildfires, when the county's net domestic migration declined by 4,124 residents from July 2017 to July 2018. From July 2018 to July 2019, the county's net migration fell by 3,524 people.
The state's local population figures provide an indicator what U.S. Census workers will uncover once the official 2020 count begins in the spring.
Meanwhile, to find out what is causing Sonoma County residents to leave in greater numbers than those relocating here, The Press Democrat asked people through an online inquiry who had moved away or were planning to leave to share their stories. More than 40 people responded, many of them citing housing costs and rising rents, the threat of wildfire, the destabilizing effect of PG&E power cuts.
Some said the county had become too expensive to raise a family or to retire. Others said they were living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save money. The median price of a single-family home in Sonoma County was $635,000 last month, which is a reduction from the record median price of $700,000 during the summer of 2018.
Some who left said they miss the county and its myriad amenities. But they also said the high cost of living hindered them from fully experiencing and appreciating all the county had to offer.
Their stories of departure are in some ways the tip of the iceberg, an indication that for everyone who leaves many more who remain are enduring financial struggles.