It isn’t complicated: People need a place to live
If you arrived in Sonoma County between 1970 and 1990, you were among the lucky ones. You landed a job that paid enough to buy a home for your family, and you bought that home because it wasn’t difficult to find a place to live.
One day, you looked up and the house that cost $50,000 was now worth $800,000, and you thought, how smart am I?
If you think a 30-year-old in Sonoma County today finds the same opportunities, you need to get out more. Housing costs more — a lot more — because there’s not enough to go around.
You may have been surprised — but you shouldn’t have been — by the news last week that almost half of the Bay Area’s young people are thinking about leaving because it costs so much to live here.
If you’re a baby boomer on your way to retirement, there’s no reason for you to care about this, unless you will some day require the help of a nurse or a plumber, a bus driver or an engineer, a doctor or a store clerk. Why not a community composed only of retired people? What could go wrong?
Over the past three or four years, there’s been plenty of conversation and study concerning a critical shortage of housing in Sonoma County.
The Board of Supervisors last week declared its intention to promote the construction of more than 3,000 new homes over the next five years. “We do have to be strong and stand up and say it is time that we build sufficient housing for everybody, because we won’t have schoolteachers, we won’t have health care workers, we won’t have people to take care of seniors if we don’t do something about it,” board chair Shirlee Zane told her colleagues.
Everyone knows this is true, but all this talk hasn’t moved the needle very far. For most, new housing is like spinach. Yes, it’s good for us, but we don’t have to like it, and, please, if it’s necessary, put it somewhere other than my neighborhood.
Last October, I talked about what it’s like to be young in Sonoma County with Jack Tibbetts, who would be elected in November to the Santa Rosa City Council at age 26.
“As a young person,” he told me, “it’s sad for me to watch all my friends move to better job opportunities and more affordable places. I also worry about what this squeeze will do to the city and its workforce.”
As young people go away to college — never to return — Sonoma County finds itself approaching a demographic tipping point. The number of people over 55 has increased by almost 40 percent since 2005, while the number of people under 55 — the primary source of workers — has increased by less than 1 percent.
This is what happens when the vacancy rate in the rental market is the functional equivalent of zero and the median price of a home is pushing past $600,000.
We have known about this crisis for a while. In 2015, the state Legislative Analyst’s Office warned that a housing shortage threatens to strangle the economies of California’s coastal counties.
Among the consequences: long commutes (meaning more air pollution, traffic congestion and energy consumption), more overcrowded and substandard housing, more households without enough money left over to pay for food, health care and other essentials, more homeless families, more people searching for an affordable place to live.
In the name of environmental protection, Sonoma County erected a variety of barriers to new home construction, and the county is better for its determination to halt sprawl development.
But our determination to protect the environment shouldn’t be allowed to become an aversion to any form of new housing. When Sonoma County becomes what amounts to a retirement community for baby boomers, we will find ourselves wondering how this happened. Why can’t employers hire and retain qualified workers? Why aren’t new companies moving here? Why are we becoming a community of haves and have-nots?
In a community proud of its progressive ideals, it shouldn’t be OK that families can’t find a decent and affordable place to live. (In some cities, rent control may offer limited relief, but anyone who is relying on rent control to solve the housing crisis is fated to disappointment.)
Without a broad consensus on the need to build more houses and apartment buildings, this drift toward a less vital and healthy community will continue.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.