New family traditions

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The number of unmarried couples living together, both straight and gay, increased during the past decade in Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, becoming a larger share of all households and dropping the number of "traditional" households below 50 percent for the first time.

The actual number of married-couple households in Sonoma County rose slightly — by 827 households. But the percentage dropped from 50.3percent in 2000 to 47.1percent of the county's 185,825 households in 2010.

The figures, released late Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau, follow national trends that reflect more of the population living together without marriage and an increase in same-gender couples. Those couples, even when legally married, are not counted as married couples in the U.S. Census.

The numbers show a growing presence of same-gender couple households in every Bay Area county, including Sonoma County and extending to Lake and Mendocino counties, moving beyond traditional locations such as Guerneville in west Sonoma County.

In Sonoma County, the number of same-sex couple households increased 21.4 percent, from 2,125 households in 2000 to 2,579 in 2010.

In the area encompassing the city of Sonoma, the number of same-sex couple households increased by 46 percent, from 172 in 2000 to 251 households. At the same time, the number of unmarried heterosexual couple households increased by 25 percent, from 785 to 979, while the number of married couple households decreased by 1 percent.

Heterosexual married couples now comprise 47 percent of households in that area.

"We thought we were the only gay couple here," said 57-year-old Brian Brockway, who with his partner Michael Piacentini, moved into their "weekend home" in Sonoma a little more than a year ago.

They bought their hilltop home about seven years ago and lived in San Francisco. Brockway, a cameraman for the TV comedy series "Two and a Half Men," commutes between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. His hiatus from the set occurs in the summer months, when it's coldest in San Francisco, he said.

Like many people who live in the Bay Area, North Bay sunshine was an obvious draw. He said that a few years ago he attended a party in Sonoma Valley and was "shocked" to find a thriving gay community. He's actually writing a screenplay about it, he said.

"There's an enormous gay community here. Every day we started meeting more and more people here," Brockway said.

Brockway and Piacentini were counted in the 2010 Census as a "same sex" unmarried couple, even though they told the census taker last year that they were in fact legally married.

Mendocino County's same-sex households increased from 284 to 390 and Lake County went from 196 to 304 same-sex households in the past 10 years.

The cultural shift toward living together began in earnest following the 1960s and has shown steady increases since then. The acceptance of same-gender couples and alternative lifestyles also contributes to a smaller percentage of traditional households.

Jackie Martens, a Sonoma County family law attorney, said divorce continues to be a frequent avenue taken and housing and economic difficulties have taken their toll.

"When the financial partnership fails, so does the emotional one," Martens said.

She said that she has seen "a lot" of divorce in the past decade, though "people still seem to believe in the institution of marriage — they're still willing to give it a try."

But she said that people are also "much more willing to say, &‘Well, it didn't work out and that's OK.'"

Sonoma County Clerk Janice Atkinson said it would be difficult to determine reasons for the trend by simply examining divorce records and marriage licenses issued in the past 10 years.

Many of the people who get married in Sonoma County do not live here, so each marriage license would have to be scrutinized to figure out where the couple is from, Atkinson said.

"We think that the romance business is alive and well in Sonoma County," said Atkinson, who herself got married in March. "This is kind of a wedding destination. You don't have to live here to get married here."

In Sonoma County, the share of unmarried heterosexual couples rose from 5.8 percent of the county's 172,403 households in 2000 to 7.1 percent of the 185,825 households last year. In actual numbers, there were 10,063 unmarried heterosexual couples in 2000 and 13,227 last year.

In Lake County, there were 1,508 unmarried couple households in 2000 and 2,376 in 2010.

In Mendocino County, there were 2,281 of these couples in 2000 and 2,898 last year.

The census data also includes neighborhood-level information on owner- and renter-occupied housing, as well as demographic data on families with kids.

Among the highlights:

In Petaluma, the census tract in northeast Petaluma, bounded by Petaluma Hill Road, Old Redwood Highway, Old Adobe Road, Corona Road and East Washington Street has the highest percentage of married-couple households with children under 18, at 37 percent, just as it did 10 years ago.

In Santa Rosa, a Bennett Valley area bounded by Bennett Valley Road, Summerfield Road, Newanga Avenue and Spring Creek Trail, retained its status as the area with the highest percentage of owner-occupied households at 93.2 percent.

The area with the largest percentage of households headed by a single female with at least one child under 18 was in northwest Santa Rosa. At 11.4 percent, the tract bounded by Highway 12, Santa Rosa Creek, Highway 101 and Brittain Lane, ranked No. 5.

The American dream of homeownership took the biggest countywide hit in an area in Rincon Valley. The tract, which includes homes bounded by Oak Park Way, Middle Rincon and Calistoga roads and dips just south of Highway 12, has a population of 4,178 people. Home ownership fell from 60.9 percent of households to 46.5 percent, a 14.4 percent drop and the biggest in the county.

In Fountaingrove, considered a bastion of home ownership, the number of owner-occupied households dropped from 88.9 percent to 75.9 percent, the second-largest percent decline in the county.

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