We should all be worried about the 1½ percent.
That is the number of employees one prominent North Bay company lost after the October fires. Among them were highly trained, hard to find technicians, one of them on a track to senior leadership. We’ve all heard stories like this, of friends and acquaintances who have moved to Los Angeles, Florida or Tennessee.
These employees, retired professionals and business owners — and their families, community connections and talent — are probably gone forever, a damaging loss of human and economic capital.
We cannot lose any more. Period.
That is among the major reasons why multigeneration business leaders like Henry Hansel and Michael Mondavi and affordable housing advocate Larry Florin are committing themselves to helping our communities come back stronger and safer today and in the years ahead. This effort through the nonprofit Rebuild North Bay Foundation — including the three of them traveling in a delegation to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional leaders, the White House and federal agencies — is not an option. It is a must, because, if something is not done today, years from now our fire-ravaged communities could look much different — and not in a good way.
That is, without adequate and affordable housing and infrastructure well beyond rebuilding from the fires, businesses, jobs and people could very well leave. A loss of 1½ percent could become an exodus.
“If we don’t come together as business people to work with government … we could find ourselves in real hurt,” said Hansel, president of the Hansel Auto Group representing 10 vehicle franchises in Sonoma County and a longtime philanthropist. “If we don’t show hope that we have a plan … we could start losing our brain trust.”
By brain trust, Hansel and Mondavi, founder and “coach” of Napa-based Folio Fine Wine Partners, are referring to the rich mix of tradespeople, public safety personnel, teachers, nurses, entrepreneurs, professionals and agriculture workers that currently live and work in our communities.
“This is a wonderful area for raising families,” said Mondavi, the third generation of his family born and raised in Napa. “It is a beautiful and safe environment.”
The fires — and a critical housing shortage that has been building for more than a decade — have suddenly and starkly brought all of this into doubt. We find ourselves at an inflection point where the high cost and lack of housing — combined with a scarce labor supply — are putting increasing strain on employers, workers and the entire community.
Employers say they increasingly are hearing from employees who are struggling to find affordable housing — any housing, for that matter. If this problem is not addressed and soon, growing companies in some of the region’s most promising industries — technology, specialty food, to name just two — will have no choice but to look elsewhere.
“If there was a housing crisis before the fires, it is now an emergency,” said Florin, president and CEO of Burbank Housing, Sonoma County’s largest developer of affordable housing. Sonoma County had an “historic deficit” of 20,000 units before the fires, he said. Burbank Housing alone has 15,000 people on its waiting list.
“These are people who are working … the backbone of the workforce, nurses, teachers and EMTs,” he said.