Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy, this notion of Sonoma Valley as either Heaven or Hell, but Americans, after all, gravitate towards dichotomies: winners and losers, good and evil, villains and heroes, beauty and ugliness.
Here in Sonoma Valley, however, the dichotomy is real, as clearly documented by the recently released “Hidden in Plain Sight” study by the Sonoma Valley Fund and updated information from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Those at the top of the income scale are able to fully enjoy our lavish “wine country” lifestyle, and for them it’s Heaven; homeowner real estate values are soaring, destination tourism is pumping millions into the commercial sector, and pricey area restaurants are full. For those in heaven, a pricey Kobe beef burger is a reasonable and attractive lunch offering.
For those at the bottom of the wage scale, conversely, life in Sonoma Valley feels like Hell. Rents are unaffordable, the vacancy rate is 1%, and evictions for the purpose of upscaling are constant; healthcare is severely limited; service sector jobs pay far below a living wage; the undocumented live in fear of deportation and the homeless hide themselves at night under bushes or bridges. Were it not for “Brown Baggers”, FISH, and Catholic Charities, far too many people would go hungry.
Poverty has increased in Sonoma Valley, and is still increasing, up 70% since 2011. 25% of two-children families in the Valley now live at or below the poverty line, this despite an unemployment rate that’s about as low as it can get. Meanwhile, new wealth has moved into our area, stimulating multiple proposals for new hotels, mansion-sized hillside homes, exclusive clubs and event centers. We find the disparity alarming, and are afraid it’s only going to get worse.
As “Hidden in Plain Sight” reveals, philanthropy partially bridges the gap, but it’s a tenuous lifeline. We have a large and in many cases robust nonprofit sector in the Valley, but the enormous growth of poverty that occurred while nonprofits enjoyed record contributions begs a question. The challenge seems to be larger than the nonprofits were designed to address. For example, our modest homeless shelter, The Haven, goes begging for money each year while other non-profits cater to wealthy donors at fancy “auctions.” In this way, our cultural and economic dichotomy replicates itself among donors and non-profit recipients.
Nonprofits will need to forge greater collaboration to maximize their results and begin to keep pace with the growing need. But more importantly we need a new philanthropic effort guided by a meta-vision, an overarching mission that addresses the Hell in which a growing number of Valley residents live.
And government needs to assert its role in lessening our Heaven or Hell dichotomy. Through policy, planning and public/private partnerships, government is in a uniquely powerful position to assist those in Hell who need help and those in Heaven who want to offer it. Formation of a non-profit affordable housing trust fund, for example, would provide both the means and money to begin to address our lack of affordable housing; we’ve been advocating this idea for years but up to now with no success.
Ultimately, we believe that Sonoma Valley cannot be Heaven as long as, for some, it’s Hell.