The Sonoma County Gazette: Community News Magazine
Sonoma County Gazette
| more

Photo Gallery

Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller - February 2016


Savory Sonoma, by Stephanie Hiller - February 2016

Chasing a Buried Factoid: How Many Homeless are Seniors?

“And what will we do when we reach that age?” ponders my friend R. who lives in Oakmont. She means the age of incapacity, or more nicely put, of needing care. She is not yet 70; I am a little over. “Spend our money down, so that we can receive assistance?” 

Boomers have been caught unprepared for retirement, say scads of articles scattered throughout the media. Here is one at “Retirement Crisis a Looming Catastrophe for Boomers.”

It’s not just assisted living that we’re unprepared for. For many Sonoma Valley (and Sonoma County) seniors, it’s independent living we can’t afford. It’s the rents!

Two friends in Santa Rosa at separate properties have seen their rents rise three times in just one year, with one-bedroom apartments clocking in at $1350 and expected to hit $1495 by the end of the year. People living on fixed incomes can’t cope with these increases. People who worked all their lives.

We hear about workers who serve in our wineries, restaurants, and hotels (catering mainly to tourists) who can barely afford to live in our golden valley.

And that’s important. But what about our seniors? Affordable senior housing in Sonoma typically has a five-year waiting list. While waiting, some seniors float from one share rental to another. Some undoubtedly become homeless; but how many is not easy to ascertain. When I paged through the Sonoma County Continuum of Care’s “Action Plan” and the Board of Supervisors’ “Building Homes, A Policy Makers Toolbox for Ending Homelessness,” I couldn’t find a subgroup for elders. The closest I found was a stat for veterans – those over 61 make up 14 percent of the homeless population. 

Michael Gause, coordinator of Continuum of Care, reported that an estimated 6 percent of the County’s 3107 counted homeless are seniors. 

That means that the total homeless population of that age is probably twice that amount. Or more. “It’s the baby boomers,” said Jeanie O’Neill, Elder Advocate at the Family Justice Center, herself 60 years old. “It is a problem, a problem that has not been identified quite specifically as an older adult problem.” 

These people don’t live in homeless encampments, because they’re not safe places for them to be. “They’ll say to me, I’m ok, I’m living in my van.” They won’t be counted among the homeless, if anyone’s counting. 

But Sonoma County is third in the list of locations preferred by retirees, after Florida and Hawaii; and in our town of 11,000, 25 percent are over 65, twice the national average (census 2010). Happily we have some good affordable housing for seniors here, with rents that appear to be controlled. Is that a matter of city policy? 

Planning Director David Goodison explained that there are three types of affordable senior housing. Mobile home parks, he said, are under rent control; two out of the three are for seniors only.

A second type of property was purchased or built with redevelopment funds. Two properties in town are in this category. When the state’s redevelopment program was terminated in 2012, the Sonoma Country Development Commission took them over. Burbank Housing, a nonprofit that manages 400 properties countywide, accounts for the third type of affordable housing with rents determined by a law requiring that annual rent increases be based on adjusted median incomes of adults in the family. It’s not exactly rent control, but it controls how much rents can increase.

Supervisor Susan Gorin has been talking with various community groups about how to provide more affordable housing in the Valley. When concerned resident Will Shonbrun contacted her, she suggested he gather some community members to meet with her. 

“We focused on funding sources,” said environmental lawyer Jerry Bernhaut, one of five who responded. “We are calling it ‘workforce housing.’ We are charged with putting together a list of possible sites. We’re also talking with contractors about barriers to affordable construction.”

Supervisor Gorin urged residents to participate in an initiative by the Board of Supervisors to place limits on vacation rentals, which, said Bernhaut, directly impact the price of housing here. “Outsiders are buying up houses purely for vacation rentals. We have whole blocks of these houses, not only driving prices up but changing our community.” Senior housing was not discussed.

Consulted by phone, Gorin said, “We’re looking forward to Fetter Apartments set to begin construction in 2017 with an additional 40 affordable rental homes for seniors.” The county is collaborating with MidPen Housing on this intergenerational housing project in the Springs.

It’s a step in the right direction.


Contact Stephanie Hiller at


Savory Sonoma by Stephanie Hiller