Monday, September 12, 2005

Who wouldn't want to work close to home?

Article Launched: 09/11/2005 07:53:17 AM

Working afar is a road often traveled around here

By Steve Huddleston

Who wouldn't want to work close to home? But these days, fewer and fewer folks in central Solano County enjoy that pleasure.

Just how many workers take to the interstate each morning to get to work far from their half-million-dollar "middle class" homes in Vacaville, Dixon and Fairfield is theoretical. There are not good numbers to cite.

Michael Ammann, president of the Solano Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit agency working to get more jobs here rather than over there, said he has seen estimates from 70,000 a day to 120,000 a day. Counting cars that cross the two bridges to the west can give us a rough idea, but not a reliable figure.

Whatever the number, it's too high, way too high.

When people drive out of their hometown for an hour or more just to get to work - and repeat the commute in the evening - much is lost.

The family structure is strained as kids come home to parentless houses in the afternoon and moms and dads have less time to help with extracurricular activities and homework.

The environment suffers from too many vehicles on the road belching too much pollution into our air.

People's budgets are stretched thin by $3-a-gallon gasoline.

Commuters typically shop at lunch or on the way home from work in the cities where they work, depriving local businesses of retail dollars, and the city coffers of sales tax revenue.

The community as a whole is starved for volunteers for youth sports coaches, Cubmasters, Girl Scout leaders, civic club members, relief agency volunteers, school helpers.

There are countless other detrimental effects of creating a bedroom community.

At Vacaville's Economic Vitality Roundtable last week, local business leaders lamented the low number of local folks working locally. There were a few ideas aimed to direct good workers to good local jobs. But the depth and complexity of the rudiments of this dilemma are formidable.

Nonetheless, the main ingredient in the jobs scheme is housing. Yes, there are other factors that contribute to the imbalance of local residents and local jobs. But the cost and availability of housing is the overriding component.

People leave the core Bay Area for a less congested community with better schools, less crime, more open space. They drive until they qualify for the size of home they desire. More folks must drive past Orinda, Walnut Creek, Concord. They find the three-bedroom, two-bath, three-car garage home on a 9,000-square-foot lot here.

To pay the mortgage, they must keep their better-paying job. And they continue to commute.

They are willing to pay more for the home in a safer place like Vacaville, which inflates the overall price of homes. People who work here cannot afford a new home, so they drive until they qualify - in Woodland, Natomas, West Sacramento. (It used to be Dixon, but not anymore.)

Home builders know they can sell as many $600,000 homes as they can build, so they build them. If the city zones an area for smaller homes or high-density duets or condos, the neighbors with $600,000 homes protest for fear their property value will erode.

Why build affordable, smaller homes for the people who do work in Vacaville when you face NIMBYs and a variety of legal risks associated with condo projects, like homeowner associations with a propensity to sue at the first sign of a leaky faucet?

Vacaville, Fairfield and Dixon - and soon Winters - face this predicament. Sorry, but there is no end in sight.

It doesn't mean we stop efforts to lure new industry and higher-paying jobs to town. It doesn't mean we don't do what we can to grow the businesses that are here already, so they can be more successful, pay better and hire more local workers.

It just means we are in this for the long haul.

The author is publisher of The Reporter. E-mail:

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