Sonoma County population declines sharply since 2017 wildfires

19 January 2020

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USA – Elizabeth and Jake Wilberg moved to Sonoma County in spring 2017 knowing it was going to be an expensive place to live. But he had landed a promising job as assistant controller with Guayaki Yerba Mate in Sebastopol. They loved the North Bay and the people they met here.

Elizabeth, 36, and Jake, 37, and their 2-year-old daughter moved into a home they bought on Orleans Street, just west of Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood. They would have another girl two months later.

It was six months before the North Bay wildfires, and the county’s escalating cost of living was about to go even higher. Though the Tubbs fire that October stopped just east of their neighborhood, the young family soon realized a better future could be found elsewhere.

“We would have loved to have made it work, but we started thinking about the future and the kids,” Elizabeth Wilberg said.

After only two years in Sonoma County, the Wilberg family moved to Eugene, Oregon. It’s not cheap there, either, she said, but they could afford a larger four-bedroom home for their growing family. Suddenly, they had more disposable income to spend on such things as travel and dining out — something they didn’t do here as often as they would have liked.

Every year, between 20,000 and 25,000 come to the county to live, while a similar number relocate to another part of California or another state. Historically, more people have moved here than have left. And, in fact, there was more than a half-century of steady population gains in Sonoma County, which doubled in residents since the mid-1970s to reach a peak of about 503,000 in 2017 just ahead of the wildfires.

More people leaving than arriving

But new population figures suggest that trend has moved the opposite direction, with significantly more people leaving the county than coming. It’s a trend that started before the fires two years ago and has since ramped up. The reasons include: lack of affordable houses and steep apartment rental prices; the rising cost of living; the perennial threats of fires and PG&E’s intentional power shut-offs; the homelessness crisis; and more crime.

In the past two years, the county’s population has declined by an estimated 4,700 people, according to the state Department of Finance, which conducts population estimates using federal income tax information and state public health, education and motor vehicles data. And that figure only tells part of the story. Since the historic North Bay fires two years ago, there were almost 800 more births than deaths and so net foreign migration here grew by 2,155. The county’s net domestic migration tells us more about the number of people who choose to come, though, than those who decide to leave.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said the population decline is further evidence of the county’s “hourglass economy,” in which middle-income residents are “getting squeezed.” Residents across the Bay Area and in many parts of the state are experiencing similar economic pressures, he said.

During the two-year period between July 2017 and July 2019, the county’s net domestic migration declined by an estimated 7,648 people, according to the state figures.

Fleeing the wildfires

The exodus was more dramatic during the period that included the North Bay wildfires, when the county’s net domestic migration declined by 4,124 residents from July 2017 to July 2018. From July 2018 to July 2019, the county’s net migration fell by 3,524 people.

The state’s local population figures provide an indicator what U.S. Census workers will uncover once the official 2020 count begins in the spring.

Meanwhile, to find out what is causing Sonoma County residents to leave in greater numbers than those relocating here, The Press Democrat asked people through an online inquiry who had moved away or were planning to leave to share their stories. More than 40 people responded, many of them citing housing costs and rising rents, the threat of wildfire, the destabilizing effect of PG&E power cuts.

Some said the county had become too expensive to raise a family or to retire. Others said they were living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save money. The median price of a single-family home in Sonoma County was $635,000 last month, which is a reduction from the record median price of $700,000 during the summer of 2018.

Some who left said they miss the county and its myriad amenities. But they also said the high cost of living hindered them from fully experiencing and appreciating all the county had to offer.

Their stories of departure are in some ways the tip of the iceberg, an indication that for everyone who leaves many more who remain are enduring financial struggles.

“Our decision to move away was because of the affordability of housing and living costs compared to wages,” Elizabeth Wilberg said.

House prices a deterrent

In early 2018, Michaela Murray and her boyfriend Aaron Hodge started looking for a house to buy in Sonoma County. Murray, who was born and raised here, was teaching at a preschool in Sonoma. Hodge, who grew up in Sacramento, worked for a telecommunications company in Concord.

The two shared a tiny studio apartment on the edge of Sonoma and Glen Ellen when the 2017 fires struck. Nuns fire forced them to flee their home and remain evacuated for two weeks, while the Tubbs fire destroyed the homes of Murray’s mother and father. Murray said the Kincade fire last fall brought back memories of the devastation from the previous infernos.

Murray and Hodge wanted to find a home somewhere between Santa Rosa and Sacramento, where they still had family, hoping they could still stay in Sonoma County. Finally, they found what they were looking for in Solano County.

“The more we looked the more I knew it wouldn’t happen,” Murray said about staying put.

Murray said local homes in their maximum price range of $450,000 were either too small or needed a lot of updating. And If they had a yard, it was small.

In Solano County, however, that price range they could afford yielded “beautiful three- to four-bedroom, three-bathroom, updated kitchens, nice quiet neighborhoods, and large yard homes,” she said.

Although a number of factors that contributed to the couple’s decision to leave, the county’s high cost of living and the recurring threat of fires “made the decision easy.”

“To be honest, we’re not entirely sure we will continue to stay in California at all,” Murray said. “Our next move will likely be out of the state.”

Tougher workforce challenges loom

Though significant, a 7,700 deficit in domestic migration over two years represents only 1.5% of the county’s total estimated population of 498,480, said Ethan Brown, director of business development and innovation with the county Economic Development Board.

“The short-term effects may be minimal,” Brown said. “If the trend continues or worsens, that could certainly change.”

The effects could mean it will become more difficult than it already is for local employers to find qualified workers, which could slow local economic growth. The county’s unemployment rate stands at 2.4%, the lowest mark in more than 30 years, according to state Employment Development Department data.

“On the other side of the coin, the trend could relieve some of the pressure on the housing markets, helping to stabilize housing costs,” Brown said.

Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, said it’s natural for those who’ve experienced repeated trauma of recent fires and subsequent economic fallout to take stock and consider the possibility of greener pastures elsewhere. But he said there are still a lot of people moving to Sonoma County.

Eyler thinks the county has room to grow in terms of population, because most people who left the past two years no longer wanted to deal with the risks of more fires and the resulting personal hardships.

Still, he thinks the county has reached an important milestone: those among the owners of the 5,300 houses countywide destroyed in the 2017 fires who have decided to stay in the community and rebuild are doing so. What’s more, he said there’s a lot of housing construction taking place, which could alleviate some of the pressure on the local real estate market.

He pointed out the state’s local population estimates for the 12-month period ending July 2019 do not fully consider the effects of PG&E’s repeated October power shut-offs, which are likely to occur in future years even when there are no fires. More fires, though, could continue the downward population trend, he said.

“The kicker now is to see what happens with the successive years of fire, smoke and shut-offs,” Eyler said.

Staying and struggling

Donald Lawson, 52, sales manager at Redwood Moving & Storage in Santa Rosa, said the moving business in general has slowed since the fires. But he has seen an increase in the number of people moving out of the county.

Many customers are going north to Oregon and Washington, but also to states like Texas, Tennessee, Kansas and Utah, said Lawson, who lost his rented home in Coffey Park during the Tubbs fire.

Lawson, who grew up in Kansas, said he loves living here and is not quite ready to leave himself. However, he’s become familiar with the forces that are driving his customers to other cities and states.

At the top of the list of reasons his customers are relocating is wildfire, followed by concerns about personal safety and security of their properties because of jumps in petty crimes.

Like many who responded to The Press Democrat’s inquiry, Lawson said retirement in Sonoma County is no longer affordable. He said he’s hoping to find a place to live in Washington, along a river where he can learn to fly fish.

Even some of those who experienced economic success here left in pursuit of better opportunities elsewhere.

Opting for Texas, Florida, Minnesota

Mark Groszek, 41, married with three kids, owned profitable automotive shops in Rohnert Park and Petaluma but decided to move his family to Austin, Texas. In Sonoma County, he felt like he was “spinning wheels, working hard and not quite getting ahead.”

He said after four months in Texas, he was able to buy a house and acquire an old Chevrolet dealership and remodel it. This month he reopened the car dealership.

“It isn’t so much the money as it is leaving something for your kids and leaving them in a better situation,” Groszek said. “I was comfortable, but I didn’t see that as the situation I wanted to see my kids in. I was able to do a little bit better.”

Before Doug Kouma, 45, left Sonoma County last year, he was convinced he would never be able to “get ahead,” save for retirement or buy a house. Kouma, who worked in the local wind power industry, landed a job in Duluth, Minnesota.

Kouma said he looked for a place with “similar natural beauty but a much lower cost of living.” In Duluth, he said he found a community that was progressive, innovative, gritty and pretty at the same time.

“I loved working on an estate winery, and I loved living in the redwoods out along the (Russian) river, Kouma said. “I just couldn’t figure out what my endgame was supposed to be.”

Melissa Hatcher, 49, was a single mom in Windsor working as a legal assistant. She sold her four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home — for which her property tax was $8,800 a year — and bought a house in central Florida, 10 miles from Disney World.

She paid $275,000 cash for her new home and recently paid an annual tax bill of $1,900. The move and newfound financial freedom in the Sunshine State are giving her the chance to launch a new career in the hospitality industry, Hatcher said.

As a legal assistant in Sonoma County, she said there was little upward mobility.

“There was just no way to get ahead, if the only thing I had to look forward to was a 3% cost-of-living increase” in annual earnings, she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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