Golis: In housing emergency, the heavy lifting starts now



“… 38 percent of California’s 18 to 34-year-olds still live with their parents, according to U.S. Census data. That’s roughly 3.6 million people — more than the entire population of Chicago.”

— From a special report on housing from CALmatters.

For a long time, it was inconvenient to talk about the impacts of California’s anti-housing policies. Groups that opposed new home construction tried not to think about a generation of young people who couldn’t afford a place to live, or about the working poor living in cars, alleyways or apartments riddled with mold.

Then came the fires of last October. If Sonoma County was caught up in a housing crisis on Oct. 8, what do we call it after 5 percent of the housing stock burned to the ground on Oct. 9?

Community leaders are now saying all the right things about plans to accelerate the construction of new homes and apartments, but we wait to learn whether their ambitious words translate into places for people to live.

Good intentions notwithstanding, we have heard similar words before.

A week ago, Staff Writer Robert Digitale offered a sobering report on the obstacles in our way (“After fires, a push to fix housing crisis”). Many people who lost their homes may decide not to rebuild, he reported. Building industry officials say the new housing goals being touted by elected officials may not be realistic.

Santa Rosa developer Hugh Futrell seemed to speak for many in his industry. “I fear that there is too much unfocused discussion and not enough concentration on what can be done now and in the near future,” he said, “As a community we’ve done far too much envisioning and not enough building.”

Over the years, Santa Rosa has done more than its share of “envisioning.”

Many interesting ideas are floating around, but which ones will be pursued? And when? And how long will they take to complete?

Even as they struggle with disaster costs, declining tax revenues and complex issues, this emergency obliges government agencies to do something different — which is, to pick up the pace.

The photograph of a solitary house being rebuilt in the Coffey Park neighborhood testifies that there is work to do. Four months ago, 3,000 people lived there.

Yes, there are obstacles — insurance, questions about the availability of construction workers, money to help pay for building new neighborhoods, and more.

But failure to act would be devastating to the local economy and to the quality of life here. When workers can’t find a place to live, they’ll look elsewhere, leaving the work undone and leaving employers to decide there may be better places to do business. The poaching of skilled workers — physicians, nurses, engineers — has already begun. Soon enough, if they can’t find a place to live, they will go to somewhere they can find a place to live.

Every day that passes, someone else decides to move on. There’s a reason James Gore, the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, wrote in an op-ed in Thursday’s paper: “This housing crisis is a disease that makes us weaker and weaker.”

Community and neighborhood groups will be obliged to change their ways. Four months ago, if county officials suggested that Sonoma County needed to build 30,000 homes over the next five years, the political blowback would have been instantaneous and loud.

Now there is mostly silence, but soon enough, people will be obliged to signal their willingness to make sacrifices. Some may even decide there should be an apartment building in their neighborhood.

As we go forward, what will be needed most of all will be a shared sense of purpose — something not easily attainable when people are being asked to sacrifice.

Following the lead of other Bay Area counties, one proposal being discussed would place on the November ballot a bond measure that would be used to leverage additional state and federal funds for workforce housing.

Two of its major proponents, Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and Santa Rosa City Councilman Jack Tibbetts, happen to be among the first of a new generation of community leaders who experienced the housing issue in a way baby boomers wouldn’t recognize.

“It’s our issue right now, and I think this is our defining moment,” Tibbetts told Digitale.

Both Hopkins and Tibbetts have talked about the disappointment of watching friends move away because they couldn’t afford to live here. Hopkins called it “an exodus of young families and a drain of talent.”

For too long, people who bought their homes decades ago were oblivious to hardships they didn’t experience when housing in Sonoma County was affordable. If they arrived here in 1980, they might have paid $100,000 for a house, and its value today could be approaching $1 million.

This isn’t because they were smart investors. It’s because they were just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at