Editorial: Diversity a zero-sum game in Sonoma

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Let’s play a little game we like to call Guess What’s Zero Percent.

Ready contestants? Here are the choices:

The APR for the first six months of that credit card that should never have been issued to me when I was 20.

The percentage of fat in that watery blue-hued liquid the supermarket calls “skim milk.”

The chance of logically proving Descartes’ theory of metaphysical necessity, ergo the existence of God.

The percentage of African-American residents living in Sonoma.

All of the above

If you guessed that last one – ding ding! – you’re a winner. However, for those ever hopeful that Sonoma’s inclusionary nature would be even the slightest bit reflected in its residency statistics, it’s a bit of a blow.

That Sonoma’s 21st century demographic is largely one of Northern European descent should surprise no one – it’s been that way for a century.

But to learn that Sonoma is whiter than a Prius full of Icelandic chiropractors carpooling to a Dave Mathews concert is a different matter altogether.

And it should also raise questions about who Sonoma is, what it considers itself to be – and as what sort of city it envisions itself to be in the future.

The latest demographic figures for Sonoma were released Feb. 1 by the Association of Bay Area Governments, which compiled its rankings of the most and least diverse Bay Area cities based on the 2017 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. A few local highlights:

The City of Sonoma is 81 percent white – second in the county to Sebastopol, which is 83 percent white.

Sonoma’s Latino population is 14 percent, the second lowest Latino population next to Sebastopol, which is at 10 percent.

The black and Asian populations in Sonoma so low they barely register in the survey.

Surely, it’s disappointing news to the diversity disposed in town that Sonoma is white enough to sustain a TBS “Friends” marathon virtually indefinitely. But, what’s worse, is that the slow diversification inroads the city had made in recent years – largely through more Latino residents – seem to have stalled, and may be reversing.

In comparison to a U.S. Census Bureau report from 2010, Sonoma is about 2 percent whiter now than it was nine years ago when numbers were at 79.2 percent. Diversely, the Latino population is slightly down by 1.3 percent from when it stood at 15.3 percent in 2010. But to get a fuller story, one has to go back another 10 years to the 2000 census.

At that time, 89.2 percent of Sonoma was white, while 6.8 percent was Latino. Which means that in the decade from 2000 to 2010, Sonoma’s diversity was improving significantly, at least as far as Hispanics: There was a 10 percent drop in the overwhelming white population, while we saw an 8.5 percent rise in Latinos. What this meant at the time was that the Hispanic community that has for decades played a vital and productive role in the Sonoma Valley’s social and economic livelihood was finally assimilating into the city fabric.

Of course, four years of harsh economic recession and the drop in housing prices played a significant role in the leveling out of these demographics in that time span.

But following a heated boil of the great American melting pot from 2000 to 2010, the diversification of Sonoma cooled to a low simmer. As the economy rebounded, so did Sonoma’s tendency toward gentrification – and rising housing prices swept even modest income earners beyond the city limits, making way for a more affluent and homogeneous influx of home buyers and other landed gentry. (The fact that Hispanics comprise 28 percent of the overall Valley population – twice that of the city, and up 13 percent since 2010 – is testament that diversity is at least trending beyond the city limits.)

The lack of new housing in the area has only exacerbated the rising costs of real estate and rents, snowballing Sonoma into its current so-called “housing crisis,” an apt description, especially for those priced out of their hometown, or their city of employment, or the place to which they’d hoped to retire.

And here we are in 2019, and the median home price in Sonoma is $737,500, according to Zillow.com, while the median household income is $76,964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 survey. Do the math, modest-income home buyers looking to the 95476 area code. Earlier this week, the Sonoma City Council began exploring the possibility of accelerating an increase of the minimum wage to $15 by 2020, a full three years before the state mandates it reach that mark. (It’s currently at $12.)

Sonoma Mayor Amy Harrington, a supporter of the “15 by 20,” as it’s been dubbed by proponents, framed it at the meeting as a “leg in the affordable housing bundle” – meaning that any serious mitigating of the housing crisis won’t come from a single solution, but rather multiple measures to narrow the income inequality gap.

Among those other measures may be using tourism tax revenue to subsidize development costs through a city housing fund -- which the council plans to consider in March -- and further relax permit requirements for homeowners who’d like to build in-law units on their property.

Few would argue that the housing-crisis war can’t be won without fighting on two fronts: higher wages for low earners and a meaningful increase in housing stock.

And there’s no guarantee even that is enough to solve local housing inequality. It’s a battle that has raged for decades, even centuries.

“If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1854 book “Walden. “(Then) it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly.”

And the cost of a thing, continued Walden, isn’t merely monetary – it is “what I will call life,” he wrote.

In other words, the housing crisis should be confronted as if lives depended upon it. Because in many ways they do.

And zero percent of us could argue with that.

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