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Golis: What happens if workers can’t find a place to live?

As we start to make sense of how the pandemic changed our world, we’re already hearing stories of job openings that go begging.|

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Once upon a time, Ketchum, Idaho was where workers in the nearby Sun Valley resort could find a home. Proximity to the glamour of a world-class attraction made for an easy commute for restaurant, hotel and resort workers, and any worker who wasn’t wealthy.

Times change. These days, the Wall Street Journal reported, the cost of living in Ketchum has left many workers in situations that meet the functional definition of homelessness.

The City Council in that Idaho town last week passed an emergency ordinance allowing people to live in RVs. Tent cities and limits on short-term rentals also have been discussed.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

“If you live in Ketchum, there’s no shortage of work. There’s just a shortage of where you can live,” a worker who is holding down two jobs told the Journal. He lives in an SUV parked in a nearby national forest.

“Like many towns in the West with economies built around tourism,” the Journal reported, “Ketchum is facing a cascading housing crisis caused by a rush of new residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, growing demand for workers during the economic boom that has followed, and a shortage of affordable homes that was years in the making.”

Sound familiar? Sonoma County isn’t like Ketchum, at least not yet. But it’s not too soon for business and community leaders to begin to worry. As we start to make sense of how the pandemic changed our world, we’re already hearing stories of job openings that go begging.

Housing is scarce, and the chasm between the people who make the beds and the people who pay $700 (and more) a night for a hotel room becomes testimony to a society increasingly defined by economic inequality. We live in a place with multimillion-dollar estates and multiple families sharing the same rundown apartment.

In a Close to Home column last week, Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers proposed spending American Rescue Plan monies to help low-income workers. “Studies consistently tell us that inequality is both pervasive and generational,” he wrote, “and that if we want to give children the best chance to succeed, we need to make early, upfront investments in their success.”

Rogers hopes his colleagues will agree to support programs that offer savings accounts for newborns, child care, a pilot project in universal guaranteed income and a jobs program.

Whether the council will agree may be determined when the council receives staff recommendations in September.

After listening to a laundry list of expenditures favored by one or more council members, interim City Manager Jeff Kolin on Tuesday served up the understatement of the week: “I expect the list is longer and more expensive than we have funds to totally address.”

It’s been seven years since a study commissioned by the Community Foundation Sonoma County found dramatic disparities in income, education and life expectancy between Santa Rosa neighborhoods only a few miles apart.

It can’t be OK that we live in a country in which billionaires live in a world of extravagance while many working people are consigned to lives of poverty. Over time, economic inequality will erode the nation’s sense of purpose, feeding the cynicism that leads to political turmoil.

Communities also have very practical reasons for wanting to make sure people don’t live in poverty.

Democrats in Congress tried this year to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, an amount that sounds OK until you do the math.

If you live in Sonoma County and you’re lucky enough to work full-time at $15 an hour, you’re earning $2,600 a month. Meanwhile, the median price of a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Rosa is $2,007 a month. Which leaves you with $593 a month for transportation, health care, food, clothing, everything else.

Try living in Sonoma County on $2,600 a month and see how that works for you.

For a county in which wine and tourism are a big deal, this becomes an invitation to a permanent labor shortage.

Meanwhile, longtime residents are aging in place. “Baby Boomers: Rich with housing and not letting go,” said a headline in the New York Times last week.

Many people would agree that Sonoma County grew too quickly in the 1970s and 1980s. The cost of sprawl can be measured in the ongoing costs of public improvements, traffic jams, air pollution and lost open space.

Some imagine that the rapid growth of the last century never stopped, but population figures tell a different story. In the 1970s, the population of Sonoma County grew by 95,000 people. In the 1980s, it grew by 89,000 people.

In the nine years between 2010 and 2019, the population grew by 11,000 people, and since 2017, the population has declined. (Many, of course, left after 5,300 homes were destroyed in the fires of October 2017.)

You can look it up in the law of supply and demand. Housing scarcity translates into rising home prices and rising rents.

If you own a home, you’re OK with that. You like the equity provided by a home that you bought for $100,000 and is now worth $1 million.

If you’re a renter, it’s different story. You’re more likely to find yourself scrambling to survive.

When Sonoma County community leaders decided that they would discourage sprawl development, they never got around to finding a workable alternative. They talked a lot about infill housing, but progress has been slow.

Now, as with many communities in California, the lack of housing means people are living in substandard housing, or no housing at all.

Meanwhile, local politicians remain reluctant to push against the status quo. And measures designed to make it easier to build affordable housing continue to be stalled in the California Legislature.

The time will come when Californians look around and acknowledge there should be a better way.

Young people already understand. Unlike their elders, they butt their heads against a world in which salaries and wages can’t keep pace with the cost of housing.

Some will leave, and some will never come here in the first place. Whether that matters may depend on whether you can find a doctor or a teacher when you need one, or whether you want your favorite shop, restaurant, hotel or winery to be successful.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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