Jun 26, 2017
by Angela Conte
Sonoma County’s strongest economies are quality agriculture and tourism. It’s a place where new technology is still used as a tool to get more time with family and friends. Our cultural identity is based on diversity and openness to all who come to visit or contribute to our workforce. Our forward-looking economic vision includes industries like outdoor recreation and fitness tourism, creative arts and maker market cultures, and cradle to grave whole-person healthcare. Yet, with all this projected growth we don't have enough affordable housing for our workforce, leading to more homelessness, and making this one of the county’s top socio-economic problems.
When it comes to politics, Sonoma County believes in respecting all perspectives and making sound and fair decisions, but we are not immune to the political divisiveness that has taken over America which comes from fear and anger created by misinformation of special interest groups.
It’s important to hear and understand everyone’s concerns about new development. Especially concerns that make sense, such as: new development may add more cars and traffic on light traffic roads; or bring more families with children into an already strapped school systems; or in some way impede on the ecosystem, but these are issues to be discussed and worked on not used to stop new development.
Unfortunately, affordable housing projects throughout the county have been and continue to be clouded with NIMBYism complaints, (Not in my back yard), causing many projects to stall into oblivion. So, the question becomes, how many residents have real issues to be discussed and work on for better planning and how many are using NIMBY to stop all development in their neighborhood because they don’t want to share in the problem-solving process?
A temporary emergency housing proposal for Guerneville, (a community experiencing the worst homeless crisis in Sonoma County (Reference #1)), was recently forced off the table by a very strong and vocal group of residents that did not want a temporary homeless shelter in their community, especially not one outside of town near the town’s elementary school, which was becoming identified as the best location for it.
Having an all-persons shelter near a school isn’t ideal, but it could have been a great start if it was developed for homeless women and children, while adult men could continue to be sheltered at the in-town Veteran’s Center. Developing both sites was well within the budget but not even considered because the only voices heard by the local leaders was a very loud NIMBY voice that got the shelter development planning shelved completely.
Guerneville has a larger homeless problem than most because the Russian River area has always been a refuge for people with restricted means; it feels more like camping than being homeless; and because diversity and open lifestyles are respected there. However, this is not just a Guerneville problem it’s a county wide problem that requires everyone working together, including the public and its leadership; something many other communities around California and the US have not been able to accomplish.
So, real collaboration and thoughtful ingenuity could put Sonoma County on the national map as one of the few places to break free of the growing political divisiveness contaminating the rest of the nation the way it put rural environmentalism and the term “Green Belt” into the national vernacular in the 1970’s.
Saying you want to know that a new affordable housing project will bring in enough tax revenue for added fire and safety is fine, but saying you don’t want a certain type of person in your neighborhood because they don’t make you feel comfortable is plain and simple discrimination, (whether the complaints are based on race, sex, religion or income level). The most common complaints about homeless shelters and affordable housing is that they bring drugs and crime, and lower property values or draw more homeless people to the area. Yet, none of these complaints are proven in the research.
In 2015 only 42% of Sonoma County homeless had substance abuse problems and it often started after they became homeless.(Reference # 2) Crime statistics do not show higher levels of criminal activity by homeless people but that they will more likely become a victim of crime. (Reference #3) Statistics also show that affordable housing does not lower real estate values and will sometimes improve them. (Reference #4)
And the fallacy that housing homeless people will make more homeless people want to come to Sonoma County doesn’t hold water either: “Of the 3,107-homeless people identified in the county’s 2015 census, 86 percent were residents of Sonoma County before they became homeless.” (Reference #5) So, someone saying they don’t want shelters or affordable housing because of “those people” is actually saying that hard working middle, lower, and no income people can work in Sonoma County but they don’t deserve to live here. Even California is working to control damaging NIMBYism in the state.
For example: A June 1, 2017, statement about a new state bill said, “SB 167 strengthens the Housing Accountability Act to help limit the denial of good housing projects that otherwise meet all local laws,” -Senator Nancy Skinner.http://sd09.senate.ca.gov/news/20170601-laying-foundation-senator-skinner%E2%80%99s-housing-bills-clear-state-senate
If Sonoma County wants to grow economically, then its city and county leaders need to find balanced solutions to its collective social problems by not bowing down to irrational fears and discrimination. Most of all, they need to show by example how to collaborateand live the inclusive lifestyle that has been so valued by those who come to live in Sonoma County.