Home > California > Sonoma County in the Twenty-first Century Depression

Sonoma County in the Twenty-first Century Depression

A Sign in a Cafe Window in Santa Rosa, CA

This evening I’ll be on a bus from my home in Sonoma County to San Francisco and from there, the rest of California. But today I want to talk about my home county, which is Sonoma. This beautiful little gem sits between the ocean and a string of mountains. It has a varied landscape, including redwood forests, a fertile central plain and breathtaking coastline. The climate is Mediterranean, but around here we just call it great.

But, for all that, Sonoma County is in the world, and the world is in big trouble. As I began to talk about this project with my acquaintances and with passers-by, a different Sonoma began to emerge. First, in the beginning of the melt-down of 2008, there was the mortgage broker I knew from a business net-working group who was losing her own home. As I began to focus on this subject it became more and more visible to me. In a popular Thai spot I was unintentionally eavesdropping on a table full of high-tech employees from a “downsizing” company. The lucky ones who had kept their jobs “for now” were treating their former colleagues to lunch and commiseration.

Then, some of the bigger storefronts began to go dark. Mervyn’s closed but Macy’s remained. Tourism is down all over as people everywhere down-shift their spending habits. The only group that has not down-shifted is the uber-rich. Lucky for Sonoma County, there are features here that are attractive to that demographic. There is a slice of Sonoma County tourism that is doing very well.  As a playground for the wealthy, Sonoma County offers high end restaurants, always full, wineries, quaint little inns, and beautiful scenery. If you can figure out how to be of service to these people you will stay employed.

As I write the official unemployment rate for Sonoma County is 10.5%, which means that if we include 99ers and self-employed people that have closed their doors it is more like 22%. I went down to the food stamp office at the beginning of last year and saw that the line was peppered with the newly impoverished. You can tell the ex-middle class by their dress and demeanor. The demographic that day appeared to be older and female.

Of the people lucky enough to have a job, some really aren’t so lucky after all. I have several friends that lost a job in the last two years only to get another one many months later with longer hours, less pay, and worse working conditions. But, if you want to keep your house you just suck it up. I met a woman the other day who was working a counter at a downtown store. She pointed to her name –tag and said “my father told me, if your name is on a building you are rich. If your name is on a plaque on your desk you are middle class. And if your name is on your shirt—well, you are poor” It turned out that she and her husband had lost a business that had thrived for twenty years in the crash, and then they had lost their house when the bubble burst. She told me that their house had dropped from $900,000 to $500,000. They were willing and able to restructure the debt, but the bank refused. Later the bank sold the property for $250,000 which is half what they were willing to pay. Now a speculator will snap up the house, and she is working retail for $12 an hour. Her husband remains unemployed.


  1. Nancy
    March 6, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    We will be following your Odyssey AB. Good luck!

  2. March 6, 2011 at 11:51 AM

    The housing crash, and the theft of people’s home, the equity left in it, the original down payment, that is all going back to wall street, who in turn uses a small portion of the theft to fund their favorite presidential candidates.

    That is why Hillary Clinton fell out of favor with wall street, she was not going to be their yes girl, unlike another who presently resides in the white house.

  3. March 6, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    If I were traveling the country and decided to write a book about the plight of homeowners when they fall behind on their mortgages, and eventually lose their homes, I would focus on…

    The inflexibility that has become the “norm” when it comes to helping a homeowner with a long history of being a stand up member of society.

    The financial loss of built up home equity in a home.

    The financial loss of the entire down payment made on a home.

    The unwillingness to convert either built up equity or the down payment into the equivalent of either rental money to keep making payments on the home, or to use a significant part of the built up home equity and down payment as a walk away check for those who cannot make their payments but will walk away if they can be REFUNDED what they had built up.

  4. March 8, 2011 at 12:56 PM

    if that’s what it’s like in la de da Sonoma, I’m screwed out here in rural New Mexico. I’ve been looking for housing every day for a YEAR! I live in a travel trailer in the driveway of a house too dilapidated and abandoned by the landlord to live in. I have no running water or sewage. And “60 Minutes” just ran a piece that says one in five children in the USA is homeless today.

    • Annabel Ascher
      March 8, 2011 at 1:09 PM

      I saw that. So shameful in this rich country. There are so many facets to this. I am talking about it and calling it a depression (not the “great recession”) every chance I get.

      • March 8, 2011 at 2:04 PM

        It may be a combo of both a depression and a recession, aka a repression.

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