Sonoma County population continues to decline after 2017 fires

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James Gerien, a 77-year-old New Yorker born and raised in Queens, moved to Santa Rosa with his wife and young son 26 years ago. He hoped to stay forever. But after his Fountaingrove home burned in the Tubbs fire, he eventually moved to Naples, Florida, where starting over wouldn’t be so difficult.

Mara Palmer, originally from Concord, came to Sonoma County 19 years ago with her then-husband and new baby. They rented a house on a vineyard, the perfect start to a long love affair with the area. It would end in Coffey Park, where flames destroyed her rental home. Palmer moved to Ukiah, where home prices were less of drain on her family’s income.

“The rents were just skyrocketing,” Palmer, 49 said of the housing market after the 2017 firestorm. “There was just no way. We didn’t have insurance, and there was no help paying for living expenses other than a small amount from FEMA.”

The decision these families made to leave Sonoma County was not easy. In fact, for many it was heartbreaking, forcing them to leave behind friendships, family and years of memories forged before the wildfires erupted in the middle of the night 15 months ago.

The families’ departures are reflected in new state data that indicates Sonoma County lost 2,207 people — more than any other county in the state — during the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018.

The figures suggest that an unexpectedly large and growing number of residents are leaving the county after the 2017 wildfires, which destroyed more than 5,300 homes countywide, including 5 percent of the stock in Santa Rosa, California’s largest city north of the Golden Gate.

A shortage of affordable housing before the fires became even worse as rents and home prices jumped in the ensuing months, forcing many to reconsider one of the most fundamental decisions in their lives: Where should they live and build a future for themselves?

Increasingly, the answer is not Sonoma County.

If the estimates are confirmed in future studies, it would mark the end of more than a half- century of uninterrupted population gains in the county, which has doubled in size since the mid 1970s to 501,427 people last summer.

The state population figures are derived from annual estimates that take into account births, deaths, immigration and migration. Though less precise than U.S. Census figures collected once a decade, they are widely viewed as a barometer of a region’s vitality.

Many of those who have left Sonoma County or are planning to pull up stakes say they are being pushed out. Some cannot afford to rebuild what they had. Others would have to dig deep into their savings to rebuild something smaller. Still others say they are being driven away by rising rents that put anything bigger than a studio or one-bedroom apartment out of their reach.

And there are those for whom Wine Country has lost is luster — those who barely escaped flames and are constantly reminded of their experience by the unavoidable fire-scarred landmarks around them.

The exact number of people who are leaving Sonoma County because of the fire won’t be known for years and there continues to be no official tally.

But the new population estimates, released in December by the state Department of Finance, suggest the exodus of residents is growing.

The state agency estimated the county lost 3,397 people to domestic migration, a net figure derived from the number of people who moved in and out of the county during the 12-month period ending July 1, 2018. Their departures were partly offset by the arrival of immigrants: the county gained 1,052 people from other countries, on net, a number that reflects the impact of inward and outward flows of foreigners.

After factoring in deaths and births, the county’s population fell by 2,207 people, the state estimated.

The decline has intensified since May, when the state estimated the county’s population had dropped by 1,281 people during the 12-month period ending Jan. 1, 2018, little more than two months after the fires.

The new estimates cover an additional six months of population changes in the wake of the fires.

The Press Democrat asked readers who had moved away in the disaster’s wake or were planning to leave to share their stories. More than 20 people responded, many of them citing the rising cost of living in Sonoma County.

‘It’s tough to start over’

For Gerien, the 77-year-old New Yorker, deciding whether to stay or leave was a question of what time he had left to embark on a yearslong rebuild.

“To do the entire house from scratch, because there was nothing left there, was too much,” he said. “We figured it would take us five to seven years to rebuild it. When you’re 77, you don’t have five to seven years to sit around and wait to see the porch is going in right.”

When the Tubbs fire destroyed his home on Fairway Knoll Lane in Fountaingrove, it also wiped out Gerien’s home-based business selling police supplies such as uniforms, boots and insignia. He moved to Florida, in January 2018, and has been back twice to visit family and check on his property, which he’s holding onto. “Some builders are trying to get them at a steal, but I’m waiting,” he said.

Gerien said he and his wife tried to find a replacement home to buy and also looked at rental homes. He recalls visiting Santa Rosa’s Oakmont retirement community after the wildfires and seeing 15 other fire survivors looking for a place.

“The insurance settlements were not going to cover the cost of the rebuild,” he said. “If we were 50, we’d do it. But we’re not 50. …You only restart so many times,” he said, adding that the hardest thing about moving away was leaving their many friends and the familiarity of a community they loved.

“It’s tough to start over,” he said. “New Yorkers are tough, but that was a tough one.”

Hopes to return one day

Palmer said she and her family had been living in a rental home on Dogwood Drive for about 7½ years before the Tubbs fire destroyed much of west Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. Afterwards, she and her husband tried to find a place big enough for their kids, something similar to their three-bedroom, two-bath house.

They ended up in a two-bedroom apartment in Cotati that wasn’t big enough, and they remained there until last March, still looking for something to buy or rent. They looked in Sacramento and Amador counties. They looked closer to home in Lake County so they might be able to keep their jobs. She worked in payroll at Redwood Credit Union and he worked at Catelli’s Restaurant in Geyserville.

Early last year, they found a home to buy in Ukiah, closed the purchase in February and moved in at the end of March. Palmer said she commuted for a while with her two girls, Zoey, 9, and Emery, 7, until they finished out the semester last spring at Schaefer Elementary School.

After that, Palmer left her job at Redwood Credit Union and got a job doing payroll at a winery in Hopland. She’s still getting adjusted to Ukiah’s small-town vibe.

“Our hope is to be able to move back into Sonoma County at some point,” she said, lamenting that the fire not only burned her home, it separated her family.

Her son Jacob, 17, stayed in Sebastopol, living with her ex-husband, to finish his senior year at Analy High School. “He’s staying with his dad full time,” she said. “I see him every other month as opposed to every day. … It’s still rough. It’s a different kind of rough now. I’m no longer in shock but I’m planting these new roots. That’s hard and scary and exciting. It’s a whole different realm of emotions.”

More housing sought

David Rabbitt, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said the ongoing population decline raises alarms about the overall health of the community, and the ability for many to continue living and working here. Rabbitt noted that current trends could be a tremendous blow to the county’s working and middle class, and particularly younger workers who cannot afford present home prices.

“I believe we should not become Marin North,” he said. “I like our county for its economic diversity — people of all income levels. I don’t want our county to have to import service workers from Lake or Mendocino County.”

A report issued last week found Sonoma County is the seventh least-affordable market in the United States for a three-bedroom rental. While rents are even higher in other parts of the Bay Area, lower wages in Sonoma County mean that local families must spend a larger share of their paychecks on housing, according to the report by Attom Data Solutions, a national property database.

On average, local residents spend 66 percent of their weekly wages on rent, compared to 38 percent for the 755 counties across the country analyzed by Attom.

It’s not enough to simply say more housing is needed, said Rabbitt, an architect. Local government officials should, among other things, take a sober look at costly requirements placed on home builders and pursue innovative housing projects that are more affordable by design, including attached townhouses, flats, multi-unit complexes and smaller units with smaller yards. Finally, he said there must be protections that preserve affordable housing.

David Guhin, Santa Rosa’s director of planning and economic development, noted the city’s deep housing shortage before the fire and said city officials were working on policies to increase the number of units, especially in the downtown area.

The policies include fee reductions for downtown housing, streamlining development approvals and looking at downtown property owned by the city, such as parking lots, where housing could be built, Guhin said. After the fires, the city adopted urgency measures that, among other things, reduced fees and made it easier to add a second unit to lots in fire-damaged areas.

To date, he said, 42 additional housing units have been added to the city’s rebuilt stock. Those policies — which encourage so-called accessory dwelling units or ADUs, including “granny units” — were later extended to other parts of the city, he said.

“We’re up to more than 80 ADUs (approved) in the past year. Normally, we’ve been tracking six to 10 a year under old policies and fees,” Guhin said.

Citywide, 3,061 homes were lost in the fires. Last month, 900 homes were being rebuilt, with 89 completed and permits pending or issued for another 471.

Rebuilding too expensive

Guhin said there is no official data quantifying the number of local residents who have left the city or county because of the fires.

Robert Eyler, Sonoma State University economics professor, stressed that the state finance department’s estimates are not an actual count. It could take years and a U.S. Census count to accurately calculate the impact of the fire on the local population, Eyler said.

Some who lost homes in the fires were retired or nearing retirement age. For some, their children had grown up and moved out.

Brian Davis, chief criminal investigator for the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, has lived 40 years in Sonoma County. He spent all of it in public service, starting with the Santa Rosa Police Department in 1979. Davis lost his home on Vermillion Way, in a subdivision near Coffey Park.

He and his wife had paid off their home a year and a half before the Tubbs fire. His insurance coverage was “reasonable,” but it would not have covered the cost to rebuild. “Even a smaller house on the lot would have been cost prohibitive.”

That was the first reason they’ve decided to move away. The second is they want to be closer to their children, who are now adults and have moved out of the area.

“The third reason is fear. If we rebuilt, what’s to stop this from happening again?” said Davis. He’s not convinced that city and county emergency officials have put in place the necessary steps to keep people safe should another disaster strike.

Back in 2000, when an Oct. 22 wind-driven fire threatened the Fountaingrove area, Davis, then a police sergeant, received a commendation from the Santa Rosa Fire Department for his leadership and quick response to the incident. He holds rank-and-file police and firefighters in high regard, but doesn’t trust local government managers.

“I just don’t trust the government to protect us,” said Davis, adding that he and his wife are hoping to move to a retirement community or smaller, more affordable home in the Central Valley.

“It’s tough,” he said. “I have a lot of my good friends in the public service. It’s going to be hard to leave my friends (and) the beauty of Sonoma County that everybody enjoys. But what’s going to stop the next fire, whether its PG&E-caused or otherwise?”

‘I can’t close my eyes’

David and Sandra Cavanaugh, both originally from the San Fernando Valley, moved to Santa Rosa 26 years ago and are still here, though not for long. The Cavanaughs, whose home on Mark West Springs Road was incinerated in the 2017 wildfires, were “grossly underinsured.”

The Cavanaughs said they could not afford to rebuild their house and granny unit. The cost of rebuilding the main house would have been $577,000 and the granny unit would have come to $210,000, much more than the $287,000 insurance payout they got for the structures and $163,000 for lost contents.

The couple have decided to install manufactured homes on a permanent foundation at a much lower cost. The main house and foundation will cost $215,000 and the granny unit and its foundation will cost $115,000, he said.

If all goes well, by summer they’ll have sold it and moved to Southern California to be near their two sons and four grandchildren. Amid all the wonderful memories the couple share from Mark West Springs Road are deeply haunting memories they simply can’t shake.

“I can’t close my eyes and go to sleep up there,” David Cavanaugh said. “We’ve decided to go back south and be close to our kids.”

Sonoma County, he said, has become too painful a place to stay. Back in June his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer and Cavanaugh is still grappling with the emotional and psychological trauma of escaping the fire.

“That’s why we can’t do it,” he said. “We just can’t. It’s too much. We’re too old.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

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