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Move Back to California? Can’t Afford It

by on June 29, 2016 6:00 AM

One of the pleasures of travel is fantasizing about moving to the place you’re visiting.

The fantasy can take the form of grabbing the flyer when you pass a House for Sale, checking the photos in the window when you pass a real estate office or, if you really obsess, going online to see what’s on the market.

Of course, nothing crushes the fantasy of an alternative life like engaging in any of these idle pursuits while visiting a land of pricey real estate. Case in point: Petaluma, Calif., where I am spending part of my summer.

Petaluma, population 60,000, is about 40 miles north of San Francisco. It’s in Sonoma County, which everyone knows as Wine Country, though the Petaluma (southern) part of the county is better known for poultry and dairy products than for vineyards and wineries.

Up until a few decades ago, it was the kind of town big-city reporters would have described as sleepy if they were sent here to cover a lurid crime. Then came the foodies and the techies and those seeking an affordable alternative to pricey Marin County to the immediate south.

Now the downtown is lovely and lively and the neighborhoods are richly supplied with sweet little California bungalows that cost more than the poshest McMansions in and around State College.

Specifically: The average home price in Petaluma, according to Zillow, is $591,400. In State College, it’s $267,500.

Petaluma has a couple dozen houses on the market currently that are valued at more than $1 million. State College has one.

The cheapest house for sale in Petaluma at the moment is going for $415,000. The cheapest house for sale in State College is listed at $167,000.

Petaluma has some obvious charms. It is, as mentioned, 40 miles from one of America’s great cities. It is about 20 miles from some of the world’s most beautiful beaches. (The other day at Point Reyes National Seashore I saw dolphins leaping, seals surfing and whales slapping their tails on the surface of the water.)

Petaluma is close enough to the coast to be cooled by ocean breezes and far enough from the coast not to be chilled by ocean fog. Its climate, in other words, is ideal.

From all this, one might conclude that it makes perfect sense that Petaluma real estate is vastly more desirable and therefore more valuable than State College real estate.

But here is the problem: Up and down the Bay Area, from the Wine Country towns of Sonoma County to the Silicon Valley towns around San Jose, cops, teachers, firefighters, nurses and other providers of essential services cannot afford to live in or even near the communities they serve.  

As a result, vast numbers of Northern Californians must commute vast distances from where they live to where they work. As a result, Northern Californians, regardless of where they live and work, or how much money they make, must spend ridiculous amounts of time trapped on traffic-choked roads.

It’s enough to make one imagine an alternative political-economic system where governments decree that a certain percentage of properties be set aside for low- and middle-income earners. Yes, such policies go against the American grain. Property rights are near sacred in our culture: A person has the right to buy land and then do with it as he or she sees fit.

In fact, though, governments have long placed restrictions on property rights through zoning ordinances, environmental regulations and “takings” of private land for the public good. Indeed, much of the ranchland extending to the coast north of San Francisco was slated for development until a massive petition drive created enough public pressure to set those lands aside as open space. Point Reyes National Seashore and in the east, Cape Cod National Seashore, are among the results of that effort.

The relationship between land preservation and affordable housing is a tricky one. Obviously, the more land taken out of development, the more valuable the remaining developable land becomes.

On the other hand, if we agree that beautiful natural environments should not be the exclusive domains of rich landowners, it is not too much of a stretch to propose that the cities and towns near those beautiful natural environments should also not be the exclusive domains of rich landowners.

The affordable housing shortage is by no means just a California problem. Though State College is affordable compared to Petaluma, it’s Petaluma compared to other communities in Centre County. (The average home value in Rush Township, around Philipsburg, for example, is about $119,000, according to Zillow.)

A dearth of affordable housing in any community obviously harms those who have to devote a disproportionate chunk of their time and income to commuting. I would argue that the increased traffic and homogeneity resulting from the lack of affordable housing harms us all.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," was published this fall by the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place in the Commentary-Non Daily category of the Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter 2017 Spotlight contest. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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