Properties in the City of Sonoma and Sonoma Valley are being bought, sold, and accumulated in unprecedented ways. Recent reports of one couple spending 80 million dollars accumulating 22 properties is a current example, and this follows on the heels of another developer’s acquisition and sale of some of the very same properties. This activity – the relentless commodification of land and buildings – reminds us of the famous board game, Monopoly.
The point of Monopoly, of course, is for one player to win by bankrupting all the others. This is accomplished through the accumulation of “properties” that generate “rent” and “mortgages,” all paid with Monopoly money. As properties are acquired, they are “developed” with “houses,” and once one property has enough “houses,” it can be developed with “hotels.” With each “improvement” the cost to other players for landing on a property increases; if you own enough developed properties, the other players cannot keep up with the payments.
Monopoly is called a board game, but our real-life game of Monopoly – “Sonopoly?” – appears to be a game for the bored: wealthy couples and individuals playing with their money. Enormous mansions proposed on Schocken Hill and being built on or near Moon Mountain Road, five-star hotels for the 1%, privately-owned bike paths connecting commercial projects, gentrification of The Springs. Properties all over our community are up for grabs and big-moneyed interests are snapping them up. Generations have been cultivating this valley, and now it’s harvest time.
For those of us who consider this place home, who live here and in many cases plan (or planned) to spend the rest of our lives here, watching the game of Sonopoly is deeply disturbing. It’s unsettling to wake up and discover it’s not residents who’ve bought the house or business next door, but instead a mega-wealthy entity on a mission to build an empire. Just as the gold-mining town of Deadwood, CO became a hot-bed of avarice, so this community is threatened by an entirely new level of greed.
And despite the enormous money being spent, little in the way of community benefit is visible. While in the past, benefactors contributed the likes of the Carnegie Library in the Plaza, the Hospital and the Sebastiani Theatre and other community-minded causes, today’s mega-wealthy, seem interested in self-serving projects that increase their already overflowing coffers. When it comes to financing major community-serving projects, the Sonopoly players are nowhere to be found. The rich and bored no longer seem to enjoy spending their money for love other than love of themselves.
Our area, starved for funding, cannot rely on government largesse; government is hobbled by Propositions 13 and 218, and raising revenues has become a complicated game played by bureaucrats and politicians to capture drops of revenue as it trickles down. As in the days of Carnegie – the gilded age of robber barons – the monopolists are the only ones with money to burn, but they seem to be burning it only to keep themselves warm. They could donate it for affordable housing or to build and maintain a community pool and recreation center, but what, it seems, would be the fun in that?
Now it’s up to local government to get smart and demand financial exactions for granting entitlements. Sonopoly is a game, but it’s government that makes the rules.