Golis: Eight months on, the difficult job of rebuilding begins

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It was always going to take time. After more than 5,200 homes were destroyed in the October fires, the recovery was always going to be measured in years, and it was always going to test our staying power.

On a summer day, it still hurts the heart to explore neighborhoods whose names have become too familiar — Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, Larkfield, Wikiup, Mark West Springs Road.

Something terrible happened here, as we can see by the vacant spaces, the skeletons of dead trees and hillsides dappled in eerie patterns of gray and green.

There are encouraging signs. County officials on Thursday presented the first certificate of completion for a rebuilt home in north Santa Rosa. It’s for sale for $865,000.

Staff Writer Robert Digitale reported that 641 building permits have been issued by city and county officials, and there are applications on file for 385 more.

Other lots — about 480 of them — have sprouted for-sale signs. The rest — more than 3,500 lots — remain empty, presumably waiting for something. It might be an insurance settlement, a new design plan, a contractor or a permit.

Or it might be a decision about the future. Many of these empty lots bear witness to agonizing choices. Do we rebuild, or do we sell? Do we stay, or do we go? From friends, we know each household is confronted by a unique set of considerations — the money, the uncertainty, the lingering shadows of that horrible night. These decisions pose big questions about how people want to live the next stages of their lives.

While we celebrate the first signs of recovery, the news also brought reminders that there is more work to do:

— Last week we learned the median home price in Sonoma County reached a record high, $692,000, and rents continue to climb. When there is a scarcity of housing, the law of supply and demand will make its presence known.

— Staff Writer Bill Swindell reported on a shortage of young professionals — no surprise when housing remains both expensive and hard to find. As large numbers of baby boomers head into retirement, said Ben Stone, head of the county Economic Development Board, “we need to be intentional about our workforce. We can’t take for granted we have a new crop of kids coming along.”

— Plans for a countywide bond measure in support of housing were abandoned in the face of opposition from influential business and farm groups. (A Santa Rosa-only bond and a new sales tax in the unincorporated area remain under consideration.)

— A UCLA study found the cost of housing has become a significant factor in the growing rate of homelessness in California. The findings seemed to undercut the popular notion that links homelessness primarily to substance abuse, mental illness or lifestyle choices.

— We’re beginning to see pushback against new housing developments. Whether any single proposal is a good idea, it remains that if new houses and apartments are not built somewhere, our standard of living will be at risk. From store clerks to doctors to vineyard workers, there will be shortages of people who do the work. Employers will be obliged to move on. Tax revenues will decline, and so, too, will public services.

Two weeks after the fires, several hundred people were scheduled to attend an annual awards dinner, which I assumed the sponsors would cancel. People were hurting, and it didn’t seem the right time.

I could not have been more wrong. On that night, people were happy to be there, happy to be reminded that we’re all still here.

We’re all still here. We go forward, mindful that we will need to look out for each other, now and later.

In an interview in the New York Times last week, Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, talked about how his company viewed its community obligations — in this case, its obligations to San Francisco.

“This idea that somebody put in our heads — that companies are somehow these kind of individualized units that are separate from society, that don’t have to pay attention to the communities they’re in — this is incorrect,” said Benioff.

He added, “A company like ours can’t be successful in an unsuccessful economy or an unsuccessful environment or where the school system doesn’t work. We have to take responsibility for all of those things.”

There is a message here for business, for agriculture, for anyone inclined to write this crisis off as government’s problem.

Note to all: Builders build houses. Government seldom builds houses. (Sometimes, it only gets in the way.)

Two weeks ago, I wrote about journalists James and Deborah Fallows who said one of the markers of a successful community is the presence of strong public-private partnerships.

So here’s your opportunity, Sonoma County. Businesses, agriculture, health care providers, professional groups, all of us — we all have a stake in the construction of new housing and the rebirth of these neighborhoods. Now wouldn’t be a bad time to pick up the pace.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat.Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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