Editorial: We should all be worried about the 1.5% who leave North Bay after fires

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Brad Bollinger is the publisher of the North Bay Business Journal.

We should all be worried about the 1½ percent.

That is the number of employees one prominent North Bay company lost after the October fires. Among them were highly trained, hard to find technicians, one of them on a track to senior leadership. We’ve all heard stories like this, of friends and acquaintances that have moved to Los Angeles, Florida or Tennessee.

These employees, retired professionals and business owners — and their families, community connections and talent — are probably gone forever, a damaging loss of human and economic capital.

We cannot lose any more. Period.

That is among the major reasons why multigeneration business leaders like Henry Hansel and Michael Mondavi and affordable housing advocate Larry Florin are committing themselves to helping our communities come back stronger and safer today and in the years ahead. This effort through the nonprofit Rebuild North Bay Foundation — including the three of them traveling in a delegation to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional leaders, the White House and federal agencies — is not an option. It is a must, because, if something is not done today, years from now our fire-ravaged communities could look much different — and not in a good way.

That is, without adequate and affordable housing and infrastructure well beyond rebuilding from the fires, businesses, jobs and people could very well leave. A loss of 1½ percent could become an exodus.

“If we don’t come together as business people to work with government … we could find ourselves in real hurt,” said Hansel, president of the Hansel Auto Group representing 10 vehicle franchises in Sonoma County and a longtime philanthropist. “If we don’t show hope that we have a plan … we could start losing our brain trust.”

By brain trust, Hansel and Mondavi, founder and “coach” of Napa-based Folio Fine Wine Partners, are referring to the rich mix of trades people, public safety personnel, teachers, nurses, entrepreneurs, professionals and agriculture workers that currently live and work in our communities.

“This is a wonderful area for raising families,” said Mondavi, the third generation of his family born and raised in Napa. “It is a beautiful and safe environment.”

The fires — and a critical housing shortage that has been building for more than a decade — have suddenly and starkly brought all of this into doubt. We find ourselves at an inflection point where the high cost and lack of housing — combined with a scarce labor supply — are putting increasing strain on employers, workers and the entire community.

Employers say they increasingly are hearing from employees who are struggling to find affordable housing — any housing, for that matter. If this problem is not addressed and soon, growing companies in some of the region’s most promising industries — technology, specialty food, to name just two — will have no choice but to look elsewhere.

“If there was a housing crisis before the fires, it is now an emergency,” said Florin, president and CEO of Burbank Housing, Sonoma County’s largest developer of affordable housing. Sonoma County had an “historic deficit” of 20,000 units before the fires, he said. Burbank Housing alone has 15,000 people on its waiting list.

“These are people who are working … the backbone of the workforce, nurses, teachers and EMTs,” he said.

Brad Bollinger is the publisher of the North Bay Business Journal.

This emergency, Florin said, also is an “historic opportunity” to do something about housing. For instance, part of more than $4 billion in federal disaster recovery funds sought for this region could go toward financing affordable housing.

But nothing is a given. Funds are not just going to automatically flow into the five-county region for housing, green building and new safety infrastructure. If the North Bay is to get its fair share of federal aid, it will require the business community, along with government leaders, to keep our needs at the top agenda in Washington and to make sure the right processes are in place.

Hansel, Mondavi and Florin and the Rebuild North Bay Foundation are committed to making sure that happens. On their visit to Washington, D.C., early this year they met face to face with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and other members of the House of Representatives, leaders from FEMA including Alex Amparo, the assistant administrator of the agency’s recovery directorate, and, importantly, an extensive meeting with Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Just one example of what was brought back from the meetings was the admonition that cities and counties impacted by the fires should hire professional accountants to track how federal dollars are spent in recovery efforts. Often, they said, agencies try to save a few dollars on accounting experts and end up having to pay back funds not accounted for properly.

These meetings at the federal and state levels — with more to come — will pay dividends as the recovery accelerates, and accelerate it must to get people back into their homes starting this year.

But it won’t be enough just to get us back to pre-Oct. 9. It’s worth repeating that we have built residential units at the 5,000-plus-per-year pace before in Napa and Sonoma counties combined, in 1988 and 1989, to be precise. We can do it again to get those burned out back into homes. But to meet the region’s housing needs for the next five years will require many thousands more — perhaps 30,000 units as has been suggested.

Every city and every county will need to be part of the solution. For instance, two promising but now faltering transit-oriented developments in Santa Rosa and Petaluma need to get back on track. In a good sign, the Santa Rosa City Council earlier this month broke an impasse to support a 237-unit housing development in Fountaingrove.

The immediate response to the fires was remarkable in its generosity and effectiveness. Now come the medium- and long-term needs.

That’s what Rebuild North Bay is gearing up to do.

“Our goal — three years from now — is to be the organization that the electeds rely on,” said Darius Anderson, who founded the organization and is the managing member of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Business Journal, Press Democrat, Argus-Courier, Sonoma Index-Tribune and Sonoma Magazine.

It will require business coming together with government, labor and community leaders for us to have a chance of getting and keeping the attention of federal, state and local officials on rebuilding better and safer and ensuring our long-term economy remains sound. This is an effort on the scale of the 1906 earthquake recovery. Maybe even larger. And its success — or failure — will impact this special place for decades to come.

Failure is not an option.

“We,” said Hansel, “will come out of this whole-plus.”

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