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Sonoma County voters say quality of life has worsened

Part one of a series.

The quality of life in Sonoma County has declined dramatically over the past three years as homelessness, housing costs and crime rattle residents’ peace of mind, respondents to an exclusive Press Democrat poll say.

The survey of 500 registered Sonoma County voters also found that a large number have diminishing faith in their elected officials and a negative opinion of PG&E.

The survey was conducted in July by an independent public opinion research firm, David Binder Research of San Francisco, which conducted a previous poll for The Press Democrat in May 2018.

Using questions developed with The Press Democrat, the firm surveyed registered voters who either voted in November 2020 or registered to vote since then. The sample was then screened to ensure respondents were representative of the county’s demographics.

Pollsters contacted voters July 12-14 via telephone, text and email. Participants were asked to identify the major issues facing the county and share how well or poorly they think local governments and services are performing.

The survey totaled 81 questions and has a 4.4% margin of error.

One of the most dramatic findings of the poll was that 62% of those surveyed said the quality of life in Sonoma County had declined. That compares with 41% in 2018.

Only 6% said they thought it had improved this year compared with 13% three years ago.

(Elissa Torres / The Press Democrat)
(Elissa Torres / The Press Democrat)

Asked for their opinion on the state of the county, 43% said it was heading in the wrong direction, while 30% said it was heading in the right direction. Those responses also show a negative shift from 2018 when 54% said the county was heading in the right direction and 29% said it was heading the wrong way.

Some survey participants who spoke with The Press Democrat about the results said wildfires had particularly affected quality of life, though the subject itself ranked fairly low in the poll’s list of residents’ concerns.

“Today, it’s smoky because of fires elsewhere and the air quality is worse,” said Santa Rosa resident and poll participant Daniel Cottrell, 36, referring to Friday’s hazy skies. “Rents are higher and for people who live on the street it’s certainly not any better.”

Smoke from forest fires in far Northern California settles in over Cloverdale, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Smoke from forest fires in far Northern California settles in over Cloverdale, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Worsening public opinion on homelessness, housing and crime

Of all the issues facing the county, from the economy and cannabis to drought and wildfire, respondents said homelessness was their biggest concern.

Homelessness/street behavior/panhandling had the most consensus, with 47% of the respondents identifying it is a major issue.

Since 2009, the county’s homeless population dropped — from 3,247 to 2,745 in 2020 — the lowest it has been, according to Sonoma County’s 2020 one-day homeless census.

“We’re one of the only Bay Area communities that has seen a decline in the homeless population when we actually look at the data,” said Jennielynn Holmes, chief program officer at Catholic Charities of the Dioceses of Santa Rosa.

The homeless population may be decreasing, but its visibility is rising, according to Holmes.

David Rain Ortiz packs up a shopping cart filled with his friend “Bicycle Dave's” possessions along the Joe Rodota Trail on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
David Rain Ortiz packs up a shopping cart filled with his friend “Bicycle Dave's” possessions along the Joe Rodota Trail on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Petaluma resident and poll participant Tiffany Harbin, 42, said she has been noticing homelessness more.

On a recent trip from downtown Petaluma to her home — a drive that takes about 10 minutes — Harbin said she passed three or four people sleeping on sidewalks and in tents along the road. A homeless encampment has also popped up by her home near the river, she said.

“It’s something I haven’t seen in Petaluma until now,” Harbin said.

Increasing attention to the issue nationally and statewide is contributing to awareness, Holmes said.

The size of Sonoma County’s unsheltered population and large encampments like the one cleared last year from the Joe Rodota trail could also be contributing to increased visibility.

Around 3,000 people experience homelessness a night in Sonoma County, said Holmes. Of those, two-thirds are not using homeless shelters.

Asked whether homelessness had gotten better or worse, 89% of respondents said the issue had worsened, while 3% said it improved. Of those who said the issue is worse, 70% said it was much worse and 19% said it was somewhat worse.

Those who took the survey also agreed housing costs for both renters and homeowners is getting out of control.

On whether the cost of living was better or worse, 81% said it had worsened and 3% said it improved.

How we did the poll:

The Press Democrat hired David Binder, a San Francisco public opinion research firm, to survey Sonoma County voters who either voted in November 2020 or registered to vote since then. The sample was screened to ensure respondents were representative of the county’s demographics.

Using 81 questions crafted in partnership with the Press Democrat, the firm polled 500 voters between July 12-14.

Pollsters contacted respondents via phone, text and email.

The questions started by asking respondents to identify the major issues facing the county and share how well or poorly they think local governments and services are performing. The poll then had them dive deeper into current issues that included cannabis, wildfire, COVID-19 response, local elections, wildfire, drought and homelessness.

The survey builds off of a previous poll conducted for The Press Democrat in May 2018 and has a 4.4% margin of error.

Of those who said the cost of living was worse, 49% said it was much worse and 32% said it was somewhat worse, while 10% said it stayed the same.

Cottrell, the Santa Rosa resident, is paying about $500 more a month for a slightly bigger space than he was three years ago, he said.

The median value of owner-occupied housing in Sonoma County between 2015 and 2019 was $609,600, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In June, it was $825,000. For renters, gross rent between 2015 and 2019 was $1,621. In June, the number — which represents the average rent plus the cost of utilities — was just under $1,800.

Santa Rosa resident and poll participant Monica Moura, 36, works in financial services and her job often touches on social services or helping someone relocate a parent or child.

It has become harder and harder to rent in Sonoma County and it seems to be exacerbating homelessness, Moura said.

“Mostly with the last year or two it’s disturbing and rent is very expensive,” Moura said. “Low-income housing — the wait lists are longer and harder to get on.”

Since the 2017 Tubbs fire, it seems that knowing a landlord has become essential in order to rent,” Moura added.

Construction work continues on the Sycamore development by Signature Homes in Rohnert Park on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
Construction work continues on the Sycamore development by Signature Homes in Rohnert Park on Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

The rising costs of homes and a competitive vacation home market are pricing out first time homebuyers. The pandemic-inspired departure from major cities to surrounding communities like those in Sonoma County is contributing to the hot housing market in which outside buyers often pay cash for properties.

Evaluating the availability of housing, 69% of respondents said it had gotten worse and 7% it improved.

Of those who said the availability of housing was worse, 44% said it was much worse and 25% said it was somewhat worse.

Sonoma County already needs 58,000 additional housing units by 2030 to make it more affordable for workers to live here, according to a recent report from nonprofit Generation Housing.

“A greater amount of affordable housing would give people more housing options. People wouldn’t have to crowd so tightly into existing single family homes and I think it would make for better quality of life.” ― Sonoma resident Michael Talbot

Sonoma resident and poll participant Michael Talbot, 52, commended the city of Sonoma’s efforts to create affordable housing but added he would like to see more.

Talbot, who lives with his wife and mother-in-law, shared that multi-generational living is prevalent in his neighborhood.

“A greater amount of affordable housing would give people more housing options,” Talbot said. “People wouldn’t have to crowd so tightly into existing single family homes and I think it would make for better quality of life.”

In addition to concerns over homelessness and housing costs, concerns over crime also made a dramatic jump.

Survey results show that 65% of respondents said crime in Sonoma County had gotten worse and 5% said it improved. That compares to 2018, when 23% said crime had worsened and 16% said it improved.

The number of crimes reported in Sonoma County fell by 22% between 2010 and 2019, according to state data. Sonoma County law enforcement agencies reported responding to 1,705 crimes per 100,000 in 2019.

Quality of life in local neighborhoods has also taken a hit, the survey shows.

The survey found that 34% of respondents feel the quality of life in their neighborhoods was worse, while 21% said it was better. The results are a reversal compared to 2018 when 16% said neighborhood quality of life was worse and 25% said it had improved.

Outside of wildfire season, Harbin said she thinks quality of life in Sonoma County is good.

“Despite all of the challenges we face in this county with wildfires and everything else, I still love it here, I feel very fortunate to live here,” Harbin said.

Report card: A rebuke of local governing boards

Santa Rosa City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat, 2019)
Santa Rosa City Hall on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.(Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat, 2019)

Local governing boards tasked with addressing county issues did not fare well in the poll.

The number of respondents (remember, they are all registered voters) unhappy with local government nearly doubled since 2018.

This year 43% of respondents said local government was worse and 14% said it was better. In 2018, 23% of those polled said local government had gotten worse while 16% felt it had improved.

Moura, who is unhappy with the handling of business shutdowns during the pandemic, said she thinks local governments are doing the best they can with the information they’re being given.

“I’m doing my best to have compassion,” Moura said. “But also understanding that I don’t think that a lot of people are getting the services they need from the local board.”

From left, clockwise, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Lynda Hopkins, James Gore, Susan Gorin, David Rabbitt and Chris Coursey.
From left, clockwise, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Lynda Hopkins, James Gore, Susan Gorin, David Rabbitt and Chris Coursey.

The Board of Supervisors also saw an unfavorable shift in public opinion.

Respondents with a favorable opinion of the board declined from 49% in 2018 to 35% in 2021. Those with an unfavorable opinion of the board increased from 21% in 2018 to 38%.

Local city councils also rated unfavorably as 34% said they had a favorable opinion of their local city council and 36% said they had an unfavorable opinion.

Respondents felt more favorably about their local government in 2018 when 49% of survey respondents had a favorable opinion of their city council and 18% had an unfavorable opinion.

While survey takers appear unhappy with their local governing boards, individual elected officials fared better with public opinion.

Congressmen Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman were particularly popular with 53% and 41% approval ratings, respectively.

State senators Mike McGuire and Bill Dodd received 48% and 25% respective approval ratings.

Individual supervisors also had more favorability with respondents than they had as a collective board.

Supervisor and board chair Lynda Hopkins received 33% favorability and 19% unfavorability, while 22% of respondents said they had a favorable opinion of Supervisor James Gore and 17% said they had an unfavorable opinion of him.

(Elissa Torres / The Press Democrat)
(Elissa Torres / The Press Democrat)

Supervisor Chris Coursey also did well; 24% said they had a favorable opinion of him and 12% said they had an unfavorable opinion.

Opinion was more evenly split over supervisors Susan Gorin and David Rabbitt. Survey results show 24% of respondents have a favorable opinion of Gorin and 23% have an unfavorable opinion of her, while 22% said they have a favorable opinion of Rabbitt and 20% have an unfavorable opinion.

PG&E personnel work on installing a switch and new digital equipment, called Vipers, along Franklin Avenue in Santa Rosa on Friday, May 22, 2020. The new grid technology is part of an effort to reduce the impact of power outages. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
PG&E personnel work on installing a switch and new digital equipment, called Vipers, along Franklin Avenue in Santa Rosa on Friday, May 22, 2020. The new grid technology is part of an effort to reduce the impact of power outages. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

Respondents reserved their worst assessments for Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The company’s favorability among Sonoma County respondents has plummeted since 2018. Those with a favorable opinion dropped from 51% in 2018 to 23%. Unfavorable opinion rose among respondents from 37% in 2018 to 67%.

PG&E’s equipment has been tied to a series of destructive and deadly fires, including several in the 2017 North Bay firestorm, the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County and the 2019 Kincade fire. The utility recently indicated that its equipment may be linked to the start of the Dixie fire burning in Butte and Plumas counties, now the state’s third-largest wildfire ever.

Higher bills and the likelihood of more planned shut-offs has been another source of frustration for customers.

Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick photographed at the Sheriff’s Office building in Santa Rosa on Jan. 5, 2019. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat, 2019)
Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick photographed at the Sheriff’s Office building in Santa Rosa on Jan. 5, 2019. (Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat, 2019)

It also was a tough survey for the Sonoma County sheriff’s office. Public opinion of it has also shifted negatively.

This year, the number of respondents with a favorable opinion of the office dropped from 70% in 2018 to 48%. Those with an unfavorable opinion of the office jumped from 15% in 2018 to 35%.

Sheriff Mark Essick, elected in 2018, was also unpopular. Survey results show that 38% of respondents have an unfavorable opinion while 30% have a favorable opinion.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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