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SF’s housing woes spread to wine country



Picked up the latest issue of the Sonoma County Gazette at the Starbucks in Fulton, and came across this article, Healdsburg at a Crossroads, that underscores just how acute that tony town’s housing crisis has become.

It recalled an era that was just coming to a close when I first visited, some 35 years ago, when Healdsburg was “a rough farm and lumber town with more bars than churches.” But by the mid-1990s, things started turning fast, as Healdsburg got “a dose of Windsor-like development” and the area around the Town Square began to look like a smaller St. Helena, with posh restaurants and upscale boutiques and galleries. By the 2000s, my former magazine, Wine Enthusiast, was writing stories about this must-visit showplace of Sonoma County wine country. (I know, because I was writing them!)

Nowadays, the cost of housing is such that the town is in a bit of a quandary over what to do about it. As are the citizens of San Francisco and my own home town, Oakland. All over the Bay Area and wine country, the tech boom has ignited a housing frenzy, forcing the poor and middle class out and bringing in a new class of wealthy individuals. The question confronting Healdsburg, as posed in the Gazette article, is whether to “try to ‘manage’ growth” or conduct “an aggressive community building program.” Both of these present difficult choices, and both approaches have solid blocks of citizens for them and against them.

All this would not be happening in Healdsburg were it not for the fact that the town is so ideally located in wine country. It’s at the juxtaposition of Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and Chalk Hill, making it a great place for tourists to stay. And man oh man, are the tourists showing up. That, in turn, is leading to quite a forceful little argument over how much tourism is too much. Just last Sunday, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat ran an op-ed piece whose writer warned Sonoma County officials that Tourism can only be sustainable if planning is carefully managed so that the financial benefits are not permitted to outweigh the negative impacts on the community.” People like the money that tourists bring to their regions, but they don’t like the traffic, litter, crime, increased housing costs and other impacts that can accompany tourism.

Nor is the issue just a California one. As I was writing this post, I got the e-issue of which contained this article on Iowa’s burgeoning wine industry. Where before “mile upon mile of fields of corn and soybeans” dotted the land, increasingly the “Iowa Wine Trail” is marked by vineyards. And with the wineries come—you guessed it—tourists. Iowa, in contrast to California, is only in the earliest stages of developing a wine tourism culture; a few years ago, an Iowa State U. professor cited a study touting the “economic boom” the wine industry is bringing to the Hawkeye State. One wonders, though, how long it will be before the small towns impacted by the new tourism—Decorah, Fredricksburg, Waukon, Marquette—might find that unrestricted tourism is not an undiluted positive.

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    When my wife and I started going to California wine country 30+ years ago, we soon decided that we preferred Sonoma to Napa because of it was more rural and relaxed (although we still visited Napa), and the wineries were more down-to-earth and could be visited w/o paying a tasting fee. By the time we stopped going, 25 years or so ago, Healdsburg (where we often stayed) was still beautiful, but clearly more upscale. It sounds like things have only accelerated there.

  2. We discovered HBG in the mid ’70s and soon made it our go to wine country destination. It’s close enough to Napa that we can still go over the mountain when we need a fix of Napa Cab. After many years of once or twice a year visits, we finally decided it would be a good investment to buy a vacation house in Healdsburg (I wish we could have afforded one in 1978). Even in the few years since we bought, I can attest to the fact that housing prices have gone through the roof. Houses within walking distance of the Plaza are upwards of $500 per square foot.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    San Francisco Bay Area is “A Tale of Two Cities.”

    The “well-educated economic haves” working in technology industries can afford escalating housing costs.

    The “less well-educated economic have nots” working in service industries cannot.

    Those who roast your Starbucks coffee, ring up your purchases at Whole Foods, or drive your Uber or Lyft hailed car can’t live in The City. Those who pick your wine grapes can’t live near their vineyard jobs in Napa and Sonoma.

    They reside outside of those communities, and have long work commutes.

    MIT Professor of Economic Geography and Regional Planning Amy Glasmeier has studied the “living wage” in various major metropolitan areas.

    Here is her overview of the San Francisco Bay Area:

    The “working poor” are spending upwards of 50% of their income on housing.

    That is economically non-sustainable.

  4. Bob Henry says:


    “Building the Living Wage Calculator;
    Amy Glasmeier explores economic variations by region to shed light on income inequality.”

  5. Having lived in a ski town (Aspen) and been involved in the county and city politics and policy creating side of issues with demand, housing, increased traffic, increased housing costs, decreased availability etc., that the wine country is suffering, i see the effects from a perspective of past experience. Planning always seems to suffer from the “too little too late” school and inevitably brings many unintended consequences related to the rising costs of everything including the cost of bureaucratic fee generation to cover housing and service costs that never seem to be able to keep up with demand.

    The call for better planning often leads to short sighted monetary fixes that tend to further alienate the “locals” from the community due to increased requirements on both pocket books and time to facilitate any previously easily accomplished city/county tasks such as permitting.

    There is much to consider here and one would hope that for once people would spend much time investigating successes by local agencies both domestic and foreign in growth management instead of taking the current best taught at college theories which tend to be ivory tower solutions.

  6. Bob Henry says:

    From The Wall Street Journal:

    “Venture Capital’s Answer to High-Priced [San Francisco] Housing: Dorms for Grown Ups”

    Cocktail party factoids:

    How high is the median monthly rent in San Francisco?

    This high: around $4,500. [See exhibit accompanying article.]

    “Rent as a percentage of income, people age 22-34:

    in San Francisco . . . 78%.”

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Napa Valley annually throws wine auction parties whose proceeds underwrite (in part) affordable housing for farm workers.

    Other wine industry initiatives . . .

    From the Napa Valley Register:

    “Vintners Want to Raise Development Fees to Support Affordable Housing”

    — and —

    “Construction to Start on Farmworker Housing in Calistoga”

  8. Bob Henry says:

    [This comment follows one awaiting “moderation.”]

    Napa Valley isn’t alone in experiencing an acute shortage of affordable housing for wine industry employees.

    From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

    “Sonoma County Farmworkers’ Struggles Include Housing, Health”

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