Sonoma is the 10th least affordable county in the nation for buying a home

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The issue has been around at least two decades, but Sonoma County has once more been tagged as one of the least affordable places in the country to buy a home.

And no one here seems surprised.

The newest ranking, from national housing data firm RealtyTrac, named Sonoma the 10th least affordable county in the nation for home purchases. RealtyTrac this week reported that it would take a whopping 82 percent of the average county resident’s salary to make the monthly payment required for a median-priced home here.

The Bay Area and surrounding counties were well represented near the top of the list. Marin County ranked second, with Santa Cruz, third; San Francisco, fourth; Napa, seventh; San Mateo, 11th; Alameda, 14th; and Santa Clara, 22nd. In all, California held 18 of the top 25 spots, though the number one ranking belonged to Brooklyn, N.Y.

The study looked at 417 counties with a combined population of nearly 210 million.

Highlighting the relationship between wages and housing costs here failed to arouse much surprise.

“This is not new news for families that have been living through this housing crisis for the last five years,” said Daven Cardenas, co-director of the North Bay Organizing Project, a local group that has been pushing for rent control and other tenant protections. “This is truly becoming a playground for the rich.”

Keith Woods, chief executive officer at the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group, said the “rich” moniker missed the mark. Most of the county’s homeowners don’t exactly qualify as wealthy, he said, even if they have seen their home values jump significantly over the decades.

But Woods offered his own ear-catching label to describe what the lack of new home construction is making the Bay Area. “The world’s largest gated community,” he called it, referring to how difficult it is to afford to enter this housing market. “That’s what the area has become.”

He said officials must find creative ways to provide more housing, especially for the millennial generation. Otherwise, “they’re going to go elsewhere, and we’re going to regret it.”

No one can say they didn’t see this coming.

The issue of affordability here has been around for years. Even in 1995, the National Association of Home Builders ranked Sonoma as the fifth least affordable county, based upon the proportion of homes that could be bought by a median-income household. California has long been a more expensive place to live than much of the rest of the country. Woods suggested living here comes with a “sunshine tax.”

It may be small comfort, but California Association of Realtors economist Jordan Levine said the county today appears more affordable than it was during the height of the housing bubble.

In mid-2006, it took 92 percent of county median household income — a different measure than RealtyTrac’s average salary — to make the median house payment, Levine said. Today that number is 51 percent, slightly below the historical average of about 55 percent.

But both the county and the state are feeling the effects of “chronic under-building,” Levine said. Since the housing market tumbled a decade ago, county home construction has fallen to less than a quarter of the historic average.

As the economy improved, strong demand and limited supply caused both home prices and rents to climb.

The county’s median home price in May had risen 64 percent in five years to $580,500. Meanwhile, in the five years ending in March, the average county apartment rent has climbed 45 percent to $1,746. Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eylersaid he expects wages “to catch up a little bit” in response to the rising cost of housing. Even so, he added, “I do not see the affordability issue softening any time soon.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who backs more affordable housing, said the issue “should be the top concern for policy makers.”

Building more such housing units will require local officials to “seize every opportunity,” Zane said. Places in Santa Rosa with strong potential for such projects include the county’s former hospital property on Chanate Road, the old Water Agency land on West College Avenue, and the land held by Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit near Railroad Square.

Policy makers may face opposition from “xenophobic” residents fearful of what such new projects will mean for their neighborhoods, Zane said. Those officials must explain that the projects will house school teachers, firefighters, service workers and “those who wait on us” in stores and restaurants.

“Have some courage and stand up and do the right thing,” Zane pleaded.

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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