Sonoma County’s legacy of segregation

Posted on February 27, 2022 by Sonoma Valley Sun

It is not an accident that Sonoma County remains geographically and racially separated, even in its schools, which remain as segregated as pre-civil rights era southern schools. 

Segregation today is the lasting legacy of federal, state, and local housing policies from the last century — exclusionary zoning, redlining, discriminatory federal housing programs, and more — that directly resulted in persistent and significant segregation and gaps in homeownership and wealth between Black and white communities which continue to this day.

Prominent Black leaders in Sonoma County fought for years to improve access to housing for Black residents, and housing was and still is a key issue for the NAACP. The late Willie Garrett, president of the local chapter of the NAACP during the 1960s, struggled to find a real estate agent in Santa Rosa who would work with him after moving here in the mid-1950s.

“This is the story of our life, from one dilemma to another,” Garrett said in 1966 of housing challenges. Eventually, Garrett and his family found an owner willing to sell them land on Los Alamos Road despite objections from some white residents. The family home they built there was so beloved that Garrett lived there for five decades before he died in 2019.

Garrett was a local civil rights trailblazer who fought hard against racial discrimination to become a homeowner, but statistically his story isn’t as common among Black residents in Sonoma County and across the U.S. The national rate of Black homeownership is 44.1 percent, while the rate of white homeownership is 74.5 percent, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. White households are twice as likely to own homes in Sonoma County compared to Black households, which have a homeownership rate of 33 percent, according to our 2022 State of Housing report.

Additionally, 65 percent of Black renters in Sonoma County are rent burdened — spending more than 30 percent of income on housing — including 19 percent of Black renters who are severely rent burdened and spending more than half of their income on housing.

I encourage you to learn more through our 2020 conversation with Richard Rothstein, a Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and at the Haas Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Rothstein is the author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” which tells the story of how American cities came to be racially divided through de jure segregation — through government policies and law — that promoted discriminatory patterns.

Rothstein was also interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR, where he spoke about how the Federal Housing Administration justified racial discrimination during the 1930s through housing programs that began under the New Deal which subsidized and insured white homeowners and subdivisions while excluding Black communities. Color-coded maps drawn during that era designated which areas were “safe” to insure mortgages.

Also worth a read is Roots, Race, and Place, a history of racial segregation in the By Area published by UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. Areas where Black communities lived were colored red to indicate an area appraisers wouldn’t insure — a practice otherwise known as “redlining,” which was outlawed in 1968 but still impacted wealth and homeownership rates among Black Americans for generations.

As a community we have an obligation to remedy this structural inequity which must be addressed through systemic change, particularly in inclusive housing policy. In the words of current NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson, “Racial inequities show up in all facets of life, and you cannot address inequities if you’re not dealing with housing. Housing is the basis of one’s wealth. It is the number one wealth creator in this country. And if you segregate housing in a way in which it is devalued over time, it will lock people into a cycle of poverty that we should not allow any human being in this country to be locked into.”

Generation Housing strives to bring a strong equity ethic to its work every day, and it’s especially important during Black History Month, that we acknowledge the history behind and present impact of the gross inequities in past housing policy.


— Jen Klose, Executive Director, Generation Housing

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA