Commentary: Sonoma’s first responders need housing

Sonoma Valley Fire District firefighters who commute (68%) drive an average of 63 minutes to reach Sonoma Valley, which would create problems in an emergency.|

We at Sonoma Valley Hospital, Sonoma Valley Community Health Center and Sonoma Valley’s fire and police departments are your emergency responders. We’re here to tell you that the lack of affordable and missing-middle housing in Sonoma Valley is hurting your health and your security.

Through Sonoma Valley Collaborative, we are banding together to promote greater affordability in local housing, because that is the most pressing issue for our ability to serve Sonoma Valley residents.

First responders and healthcare workers are closely tied to Sonoma Valley’s communities because we are charged with your safety—through natural disasters, a global pandemic, emergencies, and the long-term pursuit of health and safety. And yet, fewer and fewer of us can afford to live in Sonoma Valley.

Most of your essential workers are commuting to Sonoma Valley to perform time-sensitive jobs where lives may be at stake. Each year, the percentage of firefighters, police, and health care workers–from lab techs to surgeons–who commute to work from outside Sonoma Valley is increasing. Unfortunately, the people who earn the least drive the farthest.

Right now, close to 50% of Sonoma Valley Community Health Center staff commute from eight other counties besides Sonoma County, and would have difficulty getting to Sonoma Valley during a disaster. At Sonoma Valley Hospital, the proportion of staff living in Sonoma Valley has dropped 20% in the last four years and now sits at 32%.

At the Sonoma Valley Fire District, 68% of firefighters commute, up from 58% just 2.5 years ago. Sonoma Valley Fire District firefighters who commute drive an average of 63 minutes to reach Sonoma Valley. Most firefighters who do live locally can only do so because they live on their family’s properties, and some have been displaced by fires themselves.

We have a hard time hiring and retaining staff in all positions because Sonoma Valley lacks housing that is affordable for the “missing middle”—people who don’t earn enough to buy homes or rent here, but make too much to qualify for subsidized low-income housing.

Our jobs are made harder by housing insecurity, which triggers many of the mental and physical health issues that show up in our work. Commuter traffic slows down our emergency vehicles. We are being displaced from Sonoma Valley, making it more difficult to establish trust with the communities we serve…trust that can save lives.

We want the Sonoma Valley residents we serve to understand that Sonoma Valley needs more dense, affordable, and missing-middle housing, to make your community healthier and safer. You will be safer when Sonoma Valley is more of a “live-here, work-here” community. Be assured that your fire departments are better staffed, equipped and prepared to serve and evacuate denser populations, because of what we have learned and implemented since the 2017 wildfires.

We ask you to join us in asking decision-makers at the city of Sonoma and county of Sonoma to make sure that the Housing Elements, now being updated, actively create new affordable homes for essential workers like us and our staff, protect renters, and preserve existing affordable housing units.

Sonoma Valley Hospital CEO John Hennelly, Sonoma Valley Community Health Center CEO Cheryl Johnson, Fire Chief Steve Akre, Police Chief Brandon Cutting.

Sonoma Valley Collaborative is a forum of community leaders from a wide range of sectors across Sonoma Valley, finding common-ground solutions and taking action to address the community’s biggest challenges. Learn more about their work on housing at

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