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Commentary: Getting the best deal at SDC

Martin Bennett and Sonya Karabel

Dec 22, 2022

Published by the Sonoma Index-Tribune, December 22, 2022. Written by NBLC delegates and advocates of UNITE HERE Local 2, Marty Bennett and Sonya Karabel.

Published by the Sonoma Index-Tribune, December 22, 2022. Article link here.

The Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) Specific Plan is coming before the Board of Supervisors for a final vote on Dec. 16. The supervisors must act to ensure that this once-in-a-generation redevelopment project benefits the people of the Sonoma Valley.

The Sonoma Valley’s economy has multiple, deeply inter-related problems: extreme inequality, with many businesses that cater to ultra-wealthy tourists while exploiting their largely immigrant workforce; displacement of low-income residents due to skyrocketing rents and housing prices; increased wildfire risk due to global warming; and mounting pressure to develop historically protected open space.

The redevelopment of SDC must not be more of the same unsustainable real estate investment many in the Valley fear it will be. Instead, it is an opportunity for a different kind of development that works to solve, not exacerbate, the issues that the Valley faces, particularly the growing class divide in our community.

SDC once was the Valley’s largest employer, with nearly 1,400 employees in 2014, and hence a dynamic engine of equitable economic growth. Most of the jobs at SDC were good union jobs with excellent pay and benefits. Most SDC workers lived in the North Bay and could afford to purchase a home; most could send their kids to college, and they now enjoy a decent public pension. But once SDC shuttered, a “missing middle” was evident in the labor market since no other Valley industry generated so many good middle-class jobs.

The 2021 Portrait of Sonoma County report reveals drastically different human developmental index scores between more heavily Latinx, working-class segments of the Sonoma Valley in Boyes Hot Springs and Agua Caliente and whiter, wealthier areas nearby. Many of the jobs in the Valley, especially in retail, agriculture, restaurants, construction, hospitality and tourism, pay close to minimum wage ($15.50 an hour starting in January 2023), which makes it a struggle to survive in such an expensive area.

Do we need more proof that low wages and skyrocketing rents are squeezing Valley workers?

The most recent U.S. Census data indicates that between 1980 and 2020, inflation-adjusted wages marginally increased for the bottom 60% of workers in the county by just 8%. For the bottom 20%, during that same period, wages dropped by nearly 3%, while wages for the top 10% increased by more than 35%. Between 2000 and 2020, gross annual rents climbed 28%, but renter incomes grew by just 10% a year.

Moreover, the California Employment Development Department estimates that between 2016-26 more than two-thirds of the jobs created in the county will pay less than a livable wage of $31 an hour, as calculated by M.I.T. researchers (for two parents each working full-time to support two children).

Employers at SDC must create good living wage jobs, and the project must maximize workforce and affordable housing to address the inequality crisis. A legally binding community benefits agreement (CBA) is possible between the developer chosen by the state and a broad community coalition representing all stakeholders.

Bay Area community groups have negotiated with developers and won community benefits on a wide variety of projects over the last few decades, especially projects on public land or with public subsidies that require approval by local government. Our union, UNITE HERE, has been involved in negotiating for community benefits in Santa Rosa, Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Concord and more. These benefits can vary from affordable housing to open space preservation, providing a grocery store in a food desert, and living wages for workers to free childcare. Our union is not advocating for a hotel but if there is one, community benefits can ensure these are good service sector jobs.

Recently, the county planning commission took a bold step towards community benefits at SDC. They unanimously recommended amending the SDC Specific Plan to require that any developer at SDC must “meaningfully and in good faith engage with the local community” in order to “consider community benefits as part of a development agreement,” including living wage and worker protections, local and targeted hiring, workforce housing, funding for job training, economic and educational opportunities for people with developmental and/or physical disabilities, small business support, and local outreach for affordable housing. This requirement lays a strong foundation for community benefits negotiations once the state selects a developer.

Now the responsibility falls to the Board of Supervisors to pass a visionary Specific Plan for SDC. On Dec. 16, the supervisors should adopt the planning commission’s recommendation to include community benefits, and, as the project takes shape, they should stand with the community to push for the best deal possible with the developer, one that includes affordable housing, living wage jobs, job training, support for disabled people, environmental stewardship, and more. SDC could open a new chapter of development in Sonoma County, becoming a model for truly sustainable development. The board must act now to set us on that path.

Martin Bennett is an Instructor Emeritus of History at Santa Rosa Junior College and a consultant for UNITE HERE Local 2. Sonya Karabel is a researcher with UNITE HERE Local 2.

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