Golis: Acknowledging the reality of two Sonoma Counties

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One story came right after the other last week:

“Sonoma County among the fastest growing luxury markets.”

“Low-income renters face difficult search for housing in Sonoma County after October wildfires.”

One tells the story of million-dollar homes, and the other tells of the decline of affordable housing.

With Sonoma County emerging as a world-class food and wine destination, the disparities are becoming more difficult to ignore.

As homeless encampments become a fact of life, these inequities undermine the well-being of every community — even those communities that think it’s not their problem.

These disparities also threaten our prosperity. When working-class housing is in short supply, workers will decide to go elsewhere, leaving employers to do the same.

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times shared the findings of a statewide economic analysis: ”In order to maintain a robust economy, California will need to ensure that residents across all income and employment levels are able to afford a basic cost of living in the state.”

The study found that wealthy people are staying in California, and lower-income people are leaving.

Last Thursday’s page-one story from Healdsburg told of the City Council’s plans to ban additional hotels in the downtown and impose new affordable housing requirements.

As an international tourist destination, its combination of shops, wineries, restaurants and nearby landscapes make Healdsburg tough to beat.

But when does it become too much? In the story by Staff Writer Kevin Fixler, there was applause for Councilwoman Leah Gold when she said, “This small town charm is a very delicate thing. So why in our right minds are we talking about approving any hotels at all? … It’s time to be responsible and take a pause.”

Healdsburg has another problem, too. The people who work there cannot afford to live there. Three years ago, a study showed that fewer than half of city government’s employees and fewer than half of the school district’s employees lived in town. Only 20 percent of the hospital’s employees lived there.

The survey came as the city was devoting two years and 30 community meetings to developing a housing plan that would later be overwhelmingly rejected by Healdsburg voters.

And so we come to the crux of the problem: People love the good life in Wine Country. They just don’t want to be bothered by housing for the people who make it all possible.

The Sonoma County Economic Development Board last week published its annual snapshot of economic indicators.

While there is much to like about living here, the report reminds us again: “Housing prices remain high in Sonoma County, making it difficult for low- and middle-income earners to move to our communities and take the many available jobs. Furthermore, the October wildfires destroyed over 5,000 homes and businesses, accentuating the crisis and bringing a new sense of urgency to the community.”

More than one quarter of Sonoma County households spend more than half their income on housing, the report says.

A shortage of housing and workers is likely to be exacerbated by another factor — a growing senior population that is aging in place. The report notes that the ratio of working-age residents to residents over 65 years old — the “elderly dependency ratio” — continues to decline.

There’s plenty of good news here — job growth, the county’s popularity as a tourist destination, the growing number of people with health care coverage (a product of the Affordable Care Act), the best air quality in the North Bay.

Still, we know — and we’ve known for a while — there is more work to do. Evidence unsuccessful housing initiatives in Healdsburg and elsewhere, good intentions won’t be enough. Community leaders will need to step up, or inertia will deliver more of the same.

When some people live in multi-million-dollar homes and others are living under bridges or in homeless encampments or in apartments occupied by multiple families, common sense and conscience tell us there will be consequences if we don’t move the needle, especially in providing more housing for working people.

Unfortunately, we also know how this goes unless people decide to break with the past. There is theory, and then there is practice. Everyone is for more housing, as long as it’s somewhere else.

From the Economic Development Board report, we can observe a place with a large and aging population of baby boomers — which explains why health care has become the fastest growing segment of the economy.

So, here’s a question for the aging baby boomers out there: How do you think health care providers are going to hire the next generation of doctors, nurses and other health care workers if there is no place for them to live?

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

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