Goodbye California

Part one of three., I’m writing this out of anger, heartbreak, and the crazy hope that it might make a difference to someone. This is my way of screaming into the void; a written record of an unsustainable reality.

Over the last few years, my wife and I have tried to dance on a metaphoric knife edge. We live in California. Not the hot, agricultural central valley, not the foggy and isolated north coast, but the central coast just below San Francisco.

Goodbye California

Each year our lives here have grown more expensive; rent, fuel, utilities, and groceries. These forces were strong before the economic bomb of the pandemic before fuel settled above $5.75/gallon before inflation became a daily word. I strongly suspect, no-I know-that a great many of our friends, colleagues, and family don’t understand what this reality looks like, in real numbers. Many moved here when house prices were a fraction, have established careers, are retired, or are sheltered from the economic existence around them. If this resonates, this article is for you.

I’m writing this now, I suppose because we’ve decided to leave. Not because it is our first choice-we’d absolutely love to stay here-but because we recognize that this is likely our last chance to leave by choice, and not from a position of desperation. We are so, so lucky to have this option-many don’t.

In Monterey, CA, the cost of living is in the top 5% of the most expensive cities in the world. Housing is 333% of the national average, with a one-bedroom apartment running between $2,065 (HUD) and $2,200 (CL). Landlords typically require 3 times the rent, making the minimum net income to afford a one-bedroom about $6,300 per month, or $75,600 per year.

One of my wife’s part-time (20hr/week) jobs nets her $1,146/mo. The other is an at-will and by-demand position, with an unpaid summer break, and no guarantee of rehire from semester to semester. With her current net averaged over 12 months, it comes to $2,248/mo. She’s lucky, as one job comes with group health insurance, and she is able to squeeze in a few private music students between her other work. But as a fully employed, well-respected professional in her field, and with a master’s degree, she only makes slightly over half what a one-bedroom rental requires, and roughly 1/3rd of the area median income.
Two-Bedroom Housing Wage by Zip Code

My income is considerably more variable, and in the post-covid economic reality rarely goes over $2,000/month. Luckily, I have affordable health insurance, and no commuting or office expenses, saving utilities. But as a married, mid-career couple, together we make $5,144, which may sound great in much of the US, yet still doesn’t qualify us for a simple apartment here. And to be honest, we don’t want an apartment, we want a house, with a yard for my retired service dog, and extra bedrooms for the family we plan. We want the flexibility to move when we want to, or to buy our next home, and we want to grow our savings and investments. Our last two years of scraping by economically have caused us heartache and unbelievable stress, and I’m absolutely amazed our marriage has survived it.

“Not everyone can afford to live in a beach town”-Dick H., real estate developer.

When I engaged with Santa Cruz city politics, I heard the refrain “Not everyone can afford to live in a beach town”. This oft served as a sort of moral excuse by developers as they priced locals out of the business and housing markets, but it misses the social reality of today’s capitalism; most of us build our livelihoods and-even more importantly-our social network, or private safety net, based on our location. Those ties hold tight, even in the face of financial ruin.

“There are two types of people in the world, the people from somewhere and the people from anywhere, or so it goes…” -Ting Zhang, The ‘Somewheres’ vs. the ‘Anywheres’: It’s Not Just a Political Divide

It may be by a stroke of luck our passports and upbringings make us “anywhere” to use the definition coined by David Goodhart (more on this later). But it has been a wrenching decision. The community we have through my wife’s church job has generously supported us through several rough spots over the last 2 and a half years, including a wildfire. (See: Evacuating From a Wildfire ) Leaving our friends and family is really, really difficult. However, no clear-headed person can expect to sustain themselves as a perpetual object of charity, and we certainly don’t wish to.

[…]no clear-headed person can expect to sustain themselves as a perpetual object of charity, and we certainly don’t wish to.

Let me outline the personal, and career impacts of having been priced out of this region. For my wife, her entire career and professional reputation-starting with her bachelor’s and master’s from UCSC, to her current positions as an adjunct professor of music, music director for a mid-sized church, and private music teacher-are built and based in this community. She was well-known as a performer, and as her career transitioned into education and music for spiritual communities, her reputation grew. When we move, she will be starting over, completely unknown.

I am newer to this area, and so slightly less attached professionally. But my education and certifications as a mediator are mostly Californian and are specific to meet Californian requirements. My professional life of 7 years is based here, as is my social network, who refers to most of my clients. Here I have held public office, started a volunteer-based houseless support organization, and taken on positions of leadership in my church and our community.

Any red-blooded capitalist would likely stop me here, and ask why we don’t simply get better jobs, so let’s look at that.

Any red-blooded capitalist would likely stop me here, and ask why we don’t simply get better jobs, so let’s look at that. My wife first competes for her contractually limited teaching units against full-time colleagues, who are given the first option for any teaching hours. Next, she competes against semi-retired colleagues, forced to continue to work. (Some of them are living full-time in RVs, and even then can’t afford to fully retire.) She has applied for, and has not been hired as a full-time faculty member, and has little reason to believe this will change; school enrollment is going down, not up. Other community colleges in the area are in a similar position, and many have stopped hiring full-time faculty altogether.

My work as a mediator is similarly affected; I am in direct competition with large law firms using advertising budgets often twice my income. For court-referred cases, my competitors are mostly retired judges, and the former colleagues of those referring the cases. Mediation has yet to really take hold in the States, so my personal niche-small clients with inter-business conflicts, or families settling estates took a significant economic hit during the pandemic. Many simply don’t have the budget for anything but essentials any longer.

Part of my screaming frustration with this is that I know so many other people are experiencing similar pressure-cooker-like economic realities in our region, and in fact throughout California. I know people working five jobs, with multiple degrees, who are still struggling. I know people with disabilities who have moved to Mexico so they could both keep access to their doctors, and afford to eat. Their families miss them, but they had no other option. I know people living 3 generations to a house and others who make their monthly bills with their dwindling savings. I know retirees who now support their children and grandchildren. And despite our economy having just gone through its single largest contraction-worse than the worst of the Great Depression-so many people are behaving as if everything is fine.

“36% of lower-income adults and 28% of middle-income adults said they had lost a job or taken a pay cut due to the coronavirus outbreak, compared with 22% of upper-income adults.”-Pew Research Center, 2020

The US, and the world, are today staring down another recession, possibly another depression. Our stock market looks consequentially wrecked. Economic disparity in this country, and many others, rose dramatically over the last few years. And I can’t help but wonder when our own Oblivious Class will start to wonder why things just don’t work like they used to. At what point will our industry of conveniences inconvenience them in a way that they notice? Where have all the staff gone?

My wife and I have both looked at, and applied for, work in other parts of the US. While we have a few regions in mind for future exploration, we have happened upon an option that meets both of our career goals, and improves our quality of life in other ways, too. It’s a major move and a big change.

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