It’s mid-March in Portland, Oregon and a chill rain is pelting the roof. I’m bundled up in three layers, a scarf and sweatshirt—indoors. I know that for much of the country this time of year, this is just an everyday afternoon. But not so much in my native home on the central coast of California.
Oh, California. I sit on the couch beside the cat, who is all curled up in a perfect circle. I think how I am a textbook cliche as I daydream about the many ways I love that place, and that Beach Boys song* (you know the one) drifts through my head.
But I’m not new to California dreaming. Even when I studied abroad for a semester in Barbados, a Caribbean island nation that would qualify as a paradise by pretty much anyone’s standards, I surprised myself with a droning ache in the pit of my stomach to be back on that vast strip of land that runs along the Pacific. I’d have visions of those tumbling, golden hills, which grow green this time of year and roll boundless for miles framed by the forested mountains and crashing sea. California is like my beautiful mother, who has given me everything: deep respect for the ocean, in which my dad taught me to surf when I was very young; and ceaseless love of the wild, non-human world, which only blossomed after I studied in the university beneath the majestic Santa Cruz redwoods. California also gave me an appreciation of myriad cultures, from laid-back beach town hippies to the strong work ethic and familial bonds of Mexican immigrant families whose children’s quinceañeras I attended growing up, to the pounding beats and bold palette of the city streets, which are everyone’s canvas at once.
But I’ve left California behind. I simply can’t afford it.
Mine is a story that’s been lived a thousand times, and my tragedy a minor one of the white and relatively privileged. It’s also one that reflects part of an insidious national trend. So, here is the tale of how and why I am one of the contentious hundreds of thousands flocking from California to the Pacific Northwest.
Last year I was a 26-year-old writer and yoga teacher living with a documentary filmmaker. My partner and I shared a tiny cave of a one-bedroom on a busy street in Oakland, Calif. Oakland sits about 10 miles across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco, the most expensive city in the U.S. thanks to the encroachment of Google and other Big Tech companies. We moved to the Bay Area from Santa Cruz after graduation, seeking to expand our professional horizons, and we stayed just shy of four years. Even as our professional lives did eventually take off, we struggled hard the whole time.
Just about everyone I knew who wasn’t working for a giant tech firm was overworked and underpaid, just scraping by to exist in the city. (Except for one person who works for a big pharmaceutical testing company, and another couple several years older who purchased their house more than a decade ago in an area that has become increasingly expensive ever since.) (This AlterNet article outlines the boom of Oakland’s housing market and the impacts of gentrification.)
Oakland, once a reasonable alternative for many people who worked in the bigger city across the bay, has become unreasonable. In December 2015, SF Gate reported that Oakland had the fourth highest rents in the country. And it’s about to get worse as big companies such as Uber set their sights on Oakland’s soul.
I found steady income in Oakland after a rough first year of working seven days a week more than full-time—weekends all day at a small plant nursery, interning full time for a small magazine for $700 a month, and freelancing. Thank goodness for food stamps, or after rent, I wouldn’t have been able to eat. After a couple of years in the Bay I was hired as an editor at AlterNet, which took a lot of the load off and allowed me to pay for my own groceries, as well as get health insurance and share a 2001 Subaru Legacy with 150k miles on it with my partner. But even with steady work, the struggle deepened as time went on.
Between 2012 and 2013 San Francisco was dubbed the most expensive city in the U.S., as more and more tech companies moved to the area and rents kept creeping up. Around 2014, instead of creeping, rents were skyrocketing. Along with rent, rose the price of just about everything else. One day you’d be buying beers on tap at your favorite little pub at the longtime standard of $5 a pop, then a few months later you might glance down at the tab and you’d been ordering pints for $7, $8 or sometimes even $9 each. Same story with gas, clothing and groceries (in particular our most beloved of California commodities, avocados).
Even the price of sunlight went up in a sense, as the fees to park at or take public transportation to outdoor recreational areas (and anywhere else) went up. The cost of living, even very humbly, was insane. People talked about it all the time; no matter what you made or who you were, it was impossible not to notice the difference.
At the end of 2015, my partner and I were paying $1850 a month for a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. Real estate companies attempting to “rebrand” Oakland” have labeled Temescal “up and coming”—which to many Oaklanders these days sounds like code for “white and wealthy.” Our place was dingy, there were no windows in the bedroom, no dishwasher, and only an overpriced laundry unit in the small flea-infested yard we shared with about 25 other tenants. This was considered a steal, and our friends envied us for our incredible find. When we decided to move out of the little unit near the end of last year, our landlord told us he was thinking of renting it out for $3,000 a month.