Friday, June 17, 2005

Gold Coast

I recently spent a fine spring day with my sister Joan slip-sliding along the back roads of the Santa Ynez Valley. We were doing the movie “Sideways” tour, gawking at the miles and miles of vines covering what used to be oak-studded, empty cow land.

After stopping to admire the new crop of miniature horses at the Quicksilver Ranch, we drifted into Los Olivos for lunch at Panino, the delightful outdoor eatery in the center of town. I grabbed a copy of the Valley Journal, the local free paper, munched contentedly on a curried chicken salad sandwich served to me by a very pleasant young restaurant worker, and started reading a guest opinion piece by Mr. Sherline, a 76-year-old CPA/Business Manager, entitled, “Can We Afford Affordable Housing?”

According to Mr. Sherline, “In Santa Barbara, the definition of ‘affordable’ includes buyers with annual incomes around $100,000 and in one instance, for so-called ‘workforce’ housing, the threshold was pegged at just below $130,000. How does that help low-income residents earning under $50,000 a year ($24.00 an hour)? How many people earn only around half that amount (say, $12.50 an hour), such as gardeners, hotel and restaurant workers, maids or laborers?”

Fifty-thousand dollars a year is “low-income?” And hotel maids get $12.50 an hour? Only in Santa Barbara, I thought, only in the vast, indifferent wealth of the Santa Ynez Valley could fifty-thousand dollars be considered poverty wages.

The next morning, Joan and I went into SLO Town for breakfast and ran into a friend of mine. She’s a professional, single mom, working full time at Cal Poly and was in serious trouble; the “affordable housing” units reserved for “low-income” residents were being overrun by students whose drunken binges and rowdy lifestyle were driving out the last few work-force adults in the place. Unlike the students, who should have been living on campus in housing provided by the University, this full-time, working-mom and specialized professional had no place to go because she couldn’t afford to live anywhere else, except in reserved “low-income” housing.

A few weeks before, another friend had to shut down her multi-million-dollar-a-year high-tech business, thereby putting 40 highly trainedpeople out of their jobs. She could no long recruit and retain the kind of highly skilled, graduate-degreed people needed to keep the company running because they couldn’t afford to buy a house anywhere in SLO County.

And then I picked up the Tribune to read a story about the number of people expected to be driven out of their homes by the cost of the Hideous Los Osos Sewer Project. In that story, Ellen Stern Harris, one of the authors of the state Coastal Act, notes: “The rich have inherited the coast, which was not my intent.” True enough, but it is also true that the repeated refusal by our elected CSD Board as well as various other un-elected regulatory agencies to take seriously the punishingly unaffordable costs of the sewer project absolutely guarantees the economic cleansing of Los Osos.

So, there it was. The Santa Ynez Valley was not special at all. It simply had more money and horses, perhaps, but it was facing the same crisis as SLO County: Who would clean the barns and serve the curried chicken salad sandwiches?

Well, by way of a solution, our Gold Coast communities can start building walled and gated slave quarters (Don’t want any of those $12.50-an-hour maids and restaurant workers running around after 10 p.m., now do we?) Or, we can review Orange County’s development history and conclude that this “pristine” county is doomed and just get on with building wall-to-wall houses and apartments.

Or, we can do nothing and let the double-edged sword of market forces give us a future without young families, or grocery clerks, or teachers, or hairdressers, or plumbers, or police officers or restaurant workers.

Instead, we’ll end up with communities filled with feeble, rich old people rattling around in their Multi-Million-Dollar Mega Trophy Mansions before tottering out in their walkers every morning to stand by the side of the road to hold up hand-painted cardboard signs that say: “Desperate! Will Pay Any Amount To Somebody Anybody Who Will Mow My Lawn God Bless!”

But by then, it will be too late. There will be nobody around to read the signs and come do the work needed to keep a community vital and alive.

They will have all moved to Fresno. --Ann Calhoun, Los Osos, 5/11/05

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