I love California deeply — and here’s why I’m one of the thousands who had to leave
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.
I was making $30 an hour for writing work when we left the area, living stingily, eating in most nights and going out only occasionally. But with all of my expenses, in the almost three years we were in that apartment, I was able to save just under $1,000.
And mine is the story of privilege in the Bay Area. I’m a white woman raised in a mid- to upper-middle-class family, with a BA degree from one of the top universities in the country. My black and Latino neighbors whose homes surrounded mine were up against odds that far surpassed my own.
It could be argued that I was part of the gentrification problem that plagues the region, as well as many others. I didn’t come to the neighborhood to infringe on anyone already living there. I moved to the apartment because it was the first one within our budget that accepted us, after a long and competitive Craigslist hunt. My partner and I did our best to support the local businesses and get to know our neighbors, many of whom were families of color who’d been living in Temescal for decades before we arrived. We always went to the local market down the street and we got into long conversations with the owners of the Brick Pig’s House, an old Oakland roots BBQ spot a couple doors down. My friends and I played pickup basketball games with the teenagers blasting an enviable selection of old school hip-hop at the park across the street. Gentrification—and doing as little of it as possible—was something I held in mind with serious respect. Even so, I was a white person who came to this once sketchy part of town because I could afford to. Despite my best intentions, I was what you would call a circumstantial gentrifier.
Largely because of gentrification, racial tensions are high in Oakland and San Francisco. More than once strangers yelled at me for walking around in my neighborhood, because I am visibly not someone who was raised there. I can’t really blame people for yelling—I’m pretty mad, too. I hate that people are being pushed out of their homes in favor of more privileged transplants. To a lesser degree, the exact same thing has happened to me.
The true culprit behind displacement and gentrification is a complex ricochet effect that arguably began with the tech boom, as large Silicon Valley companies like Google, Facebook and Apple were drawn to this desirable and nearby area. As their money has flooded the city, landlords and business owners have hiked up prices and ultimately life in San Francisco has become too expensive for many artists, laborers and others who don’t receive salaries comparable to those of tech workers. Many of those San Franciscans have moved to Oakland, which remains less expensive (if only slightly). That migration includes many tech startup workers who can’t afford to buy or rent in San Francisco and have heard Oakland is more affordable. As Oakland has been inundated with this mass influx of people from across the bay, landlords and businesses over here have in turn hiked up their prices, forcing longtime locals further into the outskirts.
Another important piece of the problem are the unethical practices of these tech giants. The most obvious example is the tech companies’ corporate shuttles that allow non-locals to be driven into the city from Silicon Valley aboard luxury buses, which have earned the nickname Google buses. Mass protests have gathered to stop the buses, and in response, the city of San Francisco recently forbade those private buses from using public bus stops. But the mass displacement of San Francisco’s people and the white-washing gentrification of its streets have not reversed (Truthout has an in-depth snapshot of the situation).
Another thing to note is the greed of some landlords. As rents have skyrocketed in the last three to five years, mortgages have remained relatively stable, and some landlords have been charging more just because they can. Because of this trend, and similar situations in New York, Los Angeles and many other metropolitan areas, it is officially the worst time in American history to be a renter. A report by the online real estate website Zillow showed in August how rents have never taken up this much of the American paycheck.
My partner and I hit our stress limit late last year, and because we are so privileged, we actually had the option to leave. We looked into moving back to our hometown, which neighbors San Luis Obispo, but to our surprise the rent and cost of living rivaled Oakland’s. Plus, the area is largely rural, far from any major city and there was little work for media people like us.
After hearing whispers of a promised land up north where one could afford an entire house for the price of our stuffy Oakland apartment, we packed everything into a UHaul, and moved in with our parents for the month of December to save money for a trip to the Pacific Northwest.
Our decision was part of a frustrating catch 22. By moving to Portland, where we ultimately settled, we are contributing to that city’s own price inflation. A new report by ABODO.com, shows that the rates of rent increases in Portland are now the highest in the country. Rents went up on average 14 percent between February and March, and the report states that rent on a one-bedroom apartment jumped from $1,143 to $1,303, which was the highest percent of the top 10 cities with rent increases. While the rent increases and other cost-of-living hikes do not yet rival those in California, they’re ascending fast.
Whenever I tell fellow Californians I moved to Portland, they respond with, “But isn’t it so rainy there?” Yes, it is rainy here. And it is cold. And it is no California. It rained just about every day until about two weeks into April. But after living in a drought state for the last several years, this lush, green place is refreshing. I like many things about living here. I don’t like everything. There is a serious lack of cultural diversity, and Portland is one of the whitest cities I’ve ever seen. There are huge homeless encampments here, and its own (growing) gentrification problems have forced low-income communities (including many people of color) futher and further out of the city. But many of the people who are here don’t seem as miserable as in the Bay— and I’m guessing that has a lot to do with being able to afford their lives.
There’s a calm air sweeping through this cold place—one the Bay Area exhaled years ago. People in the Bay Area just aren’t very happy. My partner liked to point out the perma-frowns plastered on San Francisco faces. You’d expect those faces in New York City, maybe, which is known for being hyper-competitive. But San Francisco was long revered as a cultural epicenter of artists, free love, experimentation, political activism, and celebration of diversity. Now San Francisco is like a skeleton of what it once was. It is the garish picture of a once-magical city that has largely lost its soul, as all but the techies have been pushed out or forced to scrape by.
It scares me to think that as more and more people are driven from California, they will do as I did and come here. People in the Pacific Northwest are frustrated, reasonably, with Californian transplants. But it’s not a new trend; at least not according to a man in his 60s I met while we were sitting naked in a (very Portland) community hot tub. He moved to Oregon from California in his 20s, and he’s been here for 45 years. He said he and his friends, most of them fellow transplants, have always joked about the “great Californian migration” that just keeps coming.
But these days it’s happening at a more rapid pace, and prices are already starting to hike. The Big Tech monster is already casting its shadow over Seattle and its artists, as rent prices continue their climb. While tech isn’t as big in Portland, rents have been climbing more than in most U.S. cities, and they’re getting steep enough so that everyone I meet here mentions the trend.
But in Portland, my partner and I share a spacious house in the trees that is more than triple the size of the Oakland apartment and costs less. It’s freezing here, and I shiver a lot. It’s hard to get motivated to leave my bed some mornings because the skies are so gray. But it’s new, which makes it exciting, and it has its own— if damper— flavor of beauty.
I’m grateful I had the option to move when things got too tough for me in California, but most people aren’t so lucky. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know it begins with raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, so that people who don’t make extravagant tech salaries can at least have a shot at making a living. And because of the plight of my generation, the millennials, I wish that would start with the election of a Democratic Socialist senator from Vermont who promises to help us rise up and rein in corporate greed. It’s time to tax the wealthy proportionately in order to afford basic social programs like healthcare, Social Security and education. That’s why one of the first things I did upon landing here was register as a Democrat in Oregon. I’m still going to cast my vote for Bernie Sanders on May 17 because I am among the displaced, and so many other people have it so much worse.
[**The song “California Dreamin'” is originally by the Mamas and the Papas, not the Beach Boys. But the Beach Boys version is the one I had in my head.]
April M. Short writes and edits for AlterNet. She previously worked as AlterNet’s drugs and health editor.