”Everything in the Bay Area is political, but housing most of all.”
— Enrico Moretti, professor of economics, University of California
Local officials last week were saying all the right things about the need for more housing. After 5,300 Sonoma County homes were destroyed by fire last month, what else is there to say? The Census Bureau tells us that the average household size in Sonoma County is 2.6 people — which means almost 14,000 additional people became homeless during the week of Oct. 9. Everyone knows someone and, often, many someones.
Still, we know that local officials have talked before about the need for additional housing without having much to show for their good intentions. Even before the fires, vacancy rates approached the functional equivalent of zero, and rents and home prices were going through the roof.
As Santa Rosa City Manager Sean McGlynn told a town hall meeting last week, “There wasn’t enough housing in the first place.”
Now rents and home prices are exploding again because some people are taking unfair advantage and because, over time, that’s how it works with the law of supply and demand.
For young people looking for economic opportunity, Sonoma County has become a less welcoming place than it was even a month ago.
So here we are. What was a housing crisis is now something far worse.
For a long time, local government has struggled to overcome the paralysis that characterized efforts to balance environmental concerns with the need for housing.
The truth is, most residents have remained ambivalent about new construction for a long time. When Editorial Director Paul Gullixson asked Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 about the high cost of housing, Brown replied: “The problem is, you people don’t want housing up there.”
In an op-ed in the New York Times, last week — “Fires aren’t the only threat to the California dream” — UC economics professor Enrico Moretti said the housing shortage “is exacerbated by well-meaning but misguided housing policies championed by urban liberals.”
“The problem is largely self-inflicted,” he wrote. “The region has some of the country’s slowest, most political and cumbersome housing approval processes and most stringent land-use restrictions.”
He added, “Ironically, given residents typically progressive political leanings, this (resistance to new housing) has regressive consequences, because it helps rich insiders at the expense of everyone else.”
As special-interest and neighborhood groups have shown on many occasions, there is always an argument to be made against new housing, no matter where it is proposed.
And who’s to say they’re wrong? Housing, by definition, causes change, risk and disruption. We have seen the economic and environmental costs associated with the wrong kinds of development. Going back to the beginning, the natural environment would be better for it if none of us lived here.
But there is this problem: If people have no place to live, they will leave.
Some will be OK with a declining population, even if they keep it to themselves.
Others, however, will worry about a town in which there are too few doctors and teachers, store clerks and farmworkers — a town in which aging homeowners wonder why so many businesses and institutions are closing their doors, or moving to a county where the people who work there can find a place to live.
Baby boomers soon to be in need of health care may want to know: More than 200 working doctors in Sonoma County saw their homes destroyed by fire last month. In a county already facing a shortage of health-care professionals, this was more bad news. Doctors don’t attend medical school so their families can spend the rest of their lives in portables and boarding houses.
At a joint meeting of the Santa Rosa City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week, I thought about how hard these officials are working to do what’s right for the people they represent.
They looked tired but determined. In the aftermath of the worst natural disaster in California history, they are confronted by meetings day after day and the rush of new and complex issues. It would only be human nature to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the tasks before them.
I also saw how they were being tugged in many directions by the complexity of the issues and by the folks who arrive with different agendas — the folks you see at every public meeting, the folks who oppose this or that, the folks who want to refocus the conversation to issues unrelated to the fire damage.
We are left with two big questions: Are we capable of balancing our respect for the beauty of this place with the needs of the thousands of men, women and children who are newly homeless? And are we capable of making progress before time runs out?
In the past, moving in an expeditious fashion was not what local government did best. Mired in layers of bureaucracy and comfortable in a world of consultants, committees and mind-numbing studies, everything seemed to take a long time.
Can these seven City Council members and five county supervisors change the culture and overcome the inertia that has defined the politics of housing in Sonoma County? Should Sonoma County remain the same or get smaller?
In the coming months and years, we will find out.
What we know for sure is that the worst natural disaster in California history requires more than politics as usual.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.