By Tim Zahner —
Your morning coffee was fair-trade, single-origin Costa Rican, roasted just-right. You know where your coffee came from – but what about your barista? They most likely commuted from Vallejo, Santa Rosa, or American Canyon. Why?
Because that’s where the housing is.
Sonoma Valley’s hospitality industry – just like our public safety, teachers, healthcare workers, and municipal employees – attracts labor into the Valley every day because there isn’t enough housing for workers. We rely on the tenuous stretches of Highways 12, 37, and 116 to bring us the people who will power the economy in the Valley, where one in six jobs are part of the hospitality industry. The city of Sonoma estimates that almost 60% of its general fund comes from hospitality activities.
We need more housing for the people who power our economy. Our community is less interesting, less resilient, and more fragile when we rely on workers commuting long hours from far away.
Workers that have to drive to pick up their kids or take care of parents are also workers who can’t contribute their talents and abilities to Sonoma Valley. Kids aren’t filling classrooms in Sonoma Valley, parents aren’t joining the local Rotary, coaching Little League, or sorting items at the food bank. Their money isn’t circulating here, other than perhaps to buy gas on the way out of town and a sandwich for lunch.
There is a misconception among some that tourism and hospitality sees housing as a threat to the scenic beauty and small-town charm for which Sonoma Valley is famous. But when you ask the local tourism businesses – which are overwhelmingly smaller businesses with deep roots in the community – the call is for housing that will provide shelter for the entire range of those in the industry, from people new to working to families to retirees. A recent survey by the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau of our hospitality members showed overwhelming support for the addition of housing accessible to workers locally. When asked what the consequences would be if we don’t find more housing, they foresaw businesses failing, closing for periods of time, and the eventual erosion of the hospitality economy.
As one respondent noted, “Our entire tourism industry is at risk if we can’t hire staff. Staff coming from well outside of the area also don’t know the area like locals. This is an issue for customer-facing experiences. Small town charm goes away if staff can’t answer simple questions like ‘where should I have dinner?’ I don’t believe this just impacts tourism: all types of businesses’ employees can’t afford to live here.”
But what about that housing?
“Housing” doesn’t have to mean “detached, single-family ranch houses” that was the norm for suburban housing of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. It can be accessory dwelling units, duplexes, row-houses, corner apartments, and similar, creative solutions that were actually the historic norm in and around Sonoma prior to the suburban tract housing movement. Housing that creates walkable, livable neighborhoods will enhance our towns, improve our well-being, and benefit the economy.
Wouldn’t it be better if the next time you see your favorite barista, they would also be your neighbor, who lives just down the street and walked to work after dropping their kid at school?
Tim Zahner is executive director of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau. He is also on the steering committee with the Sonoma Valley Collaborative, an organization addressing the pressing issues that affect Sonoma Valley through consensus among business, non-profit, government, and community members.