Newly Untethered Tech Workers are Moving South in Droves

On a sunny afternoon back in early December, Zoe Banks, a mother of two who works in communications for a Silicon Valley-based tech giant, sent a prescient text to a friend in Boulder Creek. “Sad to let you know we’re moving out of the area,” she wrote. “Come for the fires, stay for the debris flow just isn’t on my mood board for 2021.”

After evacuating during the CZU Lightning Complex fire, and concerned about landslides after rains, Banks and her family put their home across from Boulder Creek Elementary School—where she had envisioned sending her children—on the market. The Santa Cruz mountain town of 2,183 homes and 5,182 residents lies about 18 miles via winding, two-lane roads from Netflix’s headquarters, and less than 30 miles from Apple’s.

“When we bought the house I remember thinking, ‘Are we crazy to buy in the mountains right now?’ But it was two blocks from the fire station, and built in 1863. It stood this long. Neighbors said, ‘It’s close to the fire department; you’ll probably be fine.’”

Structurally, it is. The burn scar has not led to the debris flow that local officials feared—yet. But evacuating the CZU fire left emotional scars that couldn’t be reconciled.

Banks remembers searching online from their temporary landing pads in Capitola and then Reno during the fire to see if their house was still there. “Every time there’s an evacuation, you’re checking Nextdoor and Facebook, hearsay, to try and see if the house is still standing, if there’s debris flow. I don’t have it in me to keep putting my family through that,” she says. Living with her husband, mother, two toddlers and pets—especially during a pandemic—made the thought of another evacuation just too much.

“Looking ahead, do I want to do this all season long? The risk [of debris flow] is there for two to five years,” she says. She remembers being particularly rattled by an L.A. Times article that suggested “these mountains could turn to jelly.”

“Whether there is a risk or not changes depending on who you talk to,” Banks says. “If debris flow wasn’t a thing, we’d still be there. We planned to raise our kids there.”

Banks looked at a map of the U.S., thinking, “Where can we go where we won’t be at risk of debris flow, wildfires, hurricanes or tornadoes?” and landed on Tucson, Arizona.

“No trees, no earthquakes, houses made of bricks,” she says.

The family hit the road, toddlers and chickens in tow.

But as residents like Banks and her family flee, others are rushing in to take their place. Banks’ home received two offers above asking price even though during the first week the house was for sale, there was no power, and mandatory evacuation was ordered in the second week. A neighbor’s house, she says, sold in four days.

Banks understands the appeal. “It’s still part of Silicon Valley,” she says. “It’s a desirable place to live, if you can navigate those threats.”

Mass Exodus

Meanwhile, with the pandemic-driven advent of remote workers, Silicon Valley real estate agents are seeing an exodus from San Jose and neighboring communities to not only the Santa Cruz Mountains, but also—well, pretty much everywhere.

The South Valley market is hot, with some homes in Morgan Hill and Gilroy selling for $200,000 and even $300,000 over asking price, says Sandy Jamison of Tuscana Properties in San Jose.

“Sellers want to sell but can’t find anything to purchase for themselves,” Jamison says. “Even out of state, places Californians are moving to—Tennessee, Idaho—are having a shortage of inventory.”

Gary Palacios of Morgan Hill-based Compass affiliate Palacios Group says the increased demand for South County properties is driven by “the larger lots, swimming pools, garage space, she sheds. It’s mind-blowing to see how many people also want chickens.”

Jamison has seen other Santa Cruz Mountains residents driven to flee by the recent wildfire evacuations and mudslide threats, just like Banks. “Sellers had to evacuate and it really scared them,” she says. “The thought of losing everything they established. Some packed up and left the area completely.”

Palacios and Jamison say many of their clients are moving to other states like Arizona, Texas and Florida.

“The list goes on and on,” Jamison says. “Clients are looking farther and more distanced from where they work because they don’t have to commute to the office. When everyone can work remotely, it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have a strong internet connection. We’re finding people are moving to areas they’d rather be.”

Disaster Proofing

SPACE RACE Gary Palacios of Morgan Hill-based Compass affiliate Palacios Group says the increased demand for South County properties is driven by “the larger lots, swimming pools, garage space, she sheds.

However, Palacios says there are emotional consequences for this kind of migration trend. “The decision is easy,” he says, “but you have to say goodbye to family, friends and neighbors, and goodbye to that everyday life. You have to build a whole new community. Nobody really takes that into play.”

And nowhere is guaranteed disaster-proof. Palacios recently heard from a client who moved to Texas only to be stuck in its current winter storm, which has led to dozens of hypothermia deaths, spurred evacuations and left millions without power and clean drinking water.

Despite the Santa Cruz Mountains’ particular unprecedented threats from nature, Palacios remains optimistic about those choosing to move there.

“Covid has taught people it outweighs high-density living,” he says. “There are fires, but fires are normal. We got through the worst. I know we haven’t had an earthquake, but that’s what California is. The Santa Cruz Mountains are gorgeous. You have the space to be who you are, and think.”

Will South County residents face similar ongoing threats from wildfire and debris flow? After all, the East Hills of Morgan Hill also had fire evacuations in August.

“We’ve seen folks leaving Holiday Lake or the mountains in Gilroy because they’re afraid of fires,” says Jamison. “Finley Ridge in Morgan Hill can’t sell because of fires up there.”

New Reality

In Boulder Creek, Fire Chief Mark Bingham admits that with the lack of mudslides after the most recent storms, the region “dodged a bullet.”

“The weather moved off the Santa Cruz Mountains, where it was projected to hit hard. Salinas and Monterey had weather events we avoided,” he says.

Though Bingham emphasizes he’s “not a weather expert by any means,” he is deeply familiar with the area and its ecosystem, having grown up in nearby Santa Cruz Mountains town Ben Lomond and moved to Boulder Creek at 18. As both a first responder and resident, what he’s seeing now is different from what he remembers, a time when the rains began around Halloween and continued through March—the classic mild, wet winter of Mediterranean climates.

“It doesn’t seem to be that predictable anymore,” he says. Rains arrive less frequently and in higher concentrations. Bingham’s inclination from “growing up here and talking with local and national weather folks” is that the rains we could see will likely be “infrequent but heavy and major showers.”

In terms of risk to local residents, what happened—or in this case, what didn’t—during the last storm can’t be seen as a predictor of what may transpire in the future.

“The recent storm met or exceeded the debris flow rainfall intensity thresholds in some (but not all) areas in the burn scar,” Santa Cruz County Geologist Jeffrey Nolan writes in an email to this news organization, “but no debris flows were observed. The existing models aren’t well calibrated to the local area, so there was always some question as to how accurate the rainfall thresholds would be.”

As the thresholds are reassessed, Nolan points to a partial reason the region escaped the dreaded debris flow this time around: “The ground was very dry prior to this recent storm, and the mountains soaked up the rainfall like a sponge.”

With the ground already wet, though, “it is possible that the future storms will produce a different result.” Nolan’s expectation, given changing weather patterns, “is to see more fire seasons like last summer going forward.”

Uninsured Future

CLIMBING DEMAND Santa Cruz Redwood Homes realtor Logan Andren says high-profile evacuations and the fact that insurance is getting harder to come by has not deterred an influx of Santa Cruz Mountains homebuyers. (Photo by Tarmo Hannula)

Some residents like Banks may have had enough, but Santa Cruz Redwood Homes real estate agent Logan Andren has seen that an influx of homebuyers to the Santa Cruz Mountains has not been discouraged, even as insurance is harder to come by.

“I’ve seen stories on Boulder Creek Neighbors, the Facebook community we have up here, always on top of things and willing to lend a hand, of private insurance companies cancelling coverage and refusing to cover new homes,” Andren says. “I just purchased a small home, and had to go with the California FAIR plan to cover fire—an insurance association that offers coverage to high-risk homeowners and renters in the state” who have trouble obtaining it otherwise.

“Inventory is low and we’re in a seller’s market with limited competition,” Andren adds, with interest rates at historic lows and “many people working from home indefinitely.”

Andren has continued to see many “who have high-tech jobs up north—Palo Alto, San Jose, Campbell, Redwood City” moving to the Santa Cruz Mountains for the “ability to own a home for half to a third of what they would be paying in Silicon Valley.” He points to the recent repaving of Highway 9 to Saratoga, with low commute-time traffic even pre-Covid, with its scenic commute as a further allure. A Felton home received 10 offers in a week, sold for above list price, all cash, close to $900,000, Andren says.

“Fires and rain have not deterred them.”

Realtors are required to disclose if listings are in wildfire and debris flow zones, Andren says. “Homes below burn scars tend to be prevalent to mudslides,” he says, “and since so many trees were destroyed, those root systems that were holding up hilly areas have been compromised.” Andren also explains to prospective buyers the regular upkeep those moving in from more urban areas probably haven’t had to deal with—“from blowing the roof to getting the septic system pumped every three to five years.”

Training Days

What restoration ecologist Dr. Grey F. Hayes would like to see for mountain residents—along with more normal-times maintenance tasks like roof-blowing and septic-system pumping—is specific training on what living in wildfire and potential debris flow zones entails, and modes of responding.

“The central tenet is to have people become indigenous to where they are living,” he says.

Recent debris flow evacuations “went a little broader than they needed to,” Hayes believes, in the wake of some of the fire evacuation orders coming too late.

“Safety first, though,” he says.

The longtime North Coast resident, who lectures on land restoration and management at UC Santa Cruz and at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, points to the deadly 2018 Montecito mudflows and cultural memory of the 1982 Love Creek landslide in Ben Lomond that killed 10 people as precedents for the degree of caution being taken now, along with governmental constructs like “evac periods’” to decide what to do.

“I make it my central focus to think about how people live on the land and respond to these kinds of things,” he says.

Hayes did not evacuate his home to the west of Boulder Creek, a few miles inland from Davenport, during the CZU Lightning Complex fire. But he is uniquely equipped to deal with these catastrophes.

It’s a story he has documented in harrowing detail, replete with a timeline and photographs, in a post titled “CZU Lighting Fire Recap” at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

Still, Hayes is reluctant to share his story out of concern that people without his background in fire and ecology might attempt similar feats: “I stayed put for the fire and protected my house, but it wasn’t in isolation,” he says. “I had a plan. My knowledge was backed up by the Bureau of Land Management fire chief and others who said, ‘You know what you’re doing.’ Do you stay or do you go? It’s dangerous stuff. People have egos that extend beyond their skill level.”

Hayes has trained with Cal Fire and worked on prescribed burns as a natural steward for university lands, so he was prepared for worst-case scenarios. Ultimately, he and a neighbor saved most of the structures on the property.

But it didn’t come without cost, either. His shoulder still hurts from dragging the fire hose. His partners in fighting the fire struggle with PTSD.

Still, he says, we must learn to live with the particularities of a Mediterranean climate—atmospheric rivers, dry summers—which are particularly conducive to wildfires.

Hayes compares Cal Fire to being “right up there with Australian and South African” firefighting forces, not coincidental as “Mediterranean climates are fire climates.”

The large-picture issues are both environmental and systemic. Making conservative decisions about zoning and permitting isn’t part of a capitalist reality. Besides, “humans increase fire frequency wherever we go,” Hayes says.

Solutions, Hayes says, rely on mitigation strategies now. “If we want any trees,” he says, the focus should be on landscape-level management, including “prescribed burns and physical labor to manipulate fuels, so when fires come it’s not as bad.” On the individual level, he suggests “training people to shelter in place” and for “reacting to fire, doing prescribed fire,” as the best course forward.

“We need to become as indigenous as the native peoples were here. Native Americans would have known how to adapt to episodic disasters. We’re not there yet. We as a society should be smart toward reorienting people for safer lives,” says Hayes. That includes paying to relocate those in the path of debris flow, and making zoning changes.

Hayes mentions the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association as a potential avenue for community involvement in mitigation. As described in a late-December 2020 Facebook post on the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County page, this project of the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Benito County, assisted by the Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, is “a new prescribed burning association … starting with some smaller prescribed fires and will hopefully build to larger, community-driven burns over time.”

Now settled in Tucson, Banks can put wildfire out of her mind, but she does anticipate feeling more heat. “Summer will be brutal,” she says, providing a reminder that nowhere, climatologically, gets off scot-free. “It might be 120 degrees.”

While there is no perfect place from which to face down the effects of climate change, and the lifelong Californian calls it heartbreaking to have left, “the relief of not having those worries in the background every time it rains—it’s a nice feeling to not have to be thinking about that in an existential way.”

19 Comments

  1. This is actually another ordinary kind of article, not surprising.

    The interesting thing will be how many leave and don’t come back, not because high housing costs lock them out (keeping-and-renting-out takes care of that), but because they don’t wish to or think of it after they get a new life elsewhere. Many retirees know and have left, other households, not looking or “thinking” back.

    Given the state’s decline, notably in major metros but elsewhere, it’s like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, a good metaphor to use for more ignorant people who can’t conceive of leaving, even temporarily. “After all, the state is only one in name now” — it’s not the higher-quality California it used to be, by far, and the decline increasing.

  2. I guess that urban growth boundary is really keeping people from living in the trees.

    Are we going to extend BART to Santa Cruz now?

    Bike Lanes on 17?

  3. SJ Kulak,

    It just frustrates many housing providers here that these people are in fact not “trapped” in this area to have a “Tech” job, earn the high pay and not share it with you.

    If it wasn’t for some factors regarding my situation, I could have left months or years ago myself. But there are “personal” reasons why that cannot happen.

    So what gets many here is that their “investments” in housing are tanking, in my city alone the housing prices have returned to the 2014 level, wiping out any ROI they were expecting. Especially anyone purchasing them after 2015.

    And this trend is not showing any signs of stopping. I know that these “investors” think they are “wealthy” But here is the facts.

    When you buy a property but not with cash, you actually have a debt. You only get away with “claiming” its debt as a “wealth” due to the accounting practices called Generally Accepted Accounting Practices. This is called “Mark to Market”. It also got Enron and Worldcom to be bankrupt. They used their own stock as collateral on loans to buy stocks and pay workers.

    The same thing is happening in this business. People claim their recently bought properties are higher than they are worth to use as collateral to buy other properties on loans. But if the system starts to correct for the previous claims, the collateral is destroyed and the borrower is left with nothing to back up any more business.

    It really doesn’t actually become your wealth until you pay off all debts connected with it. In fact you only have a “holding” title, the creditor has the full title.

    The worst case is if it loses value after purchase, which in the case of apartments, when the rates go so low as to eliminate any chance of getting any ROI. And worse that the “appraisal” formulas discount the value of the property.

    This can be described as the “biggest” deception of landlords.

  4. Don’t worry Goldstein. Fortunately Mr. Kulak wasn’t born yesterday. He and I and most other responsible, sensible conservatives are not so stupid as to believe we own something until we actually pay it off. What a concept huh? Working hard year after year, keeping your nose to the grindstone, finishing the job job you started, never once complaining that your fellow citizens need to help you because you’re “struggling”? Signing a loan agreement with a bank and honorably keeping your promise to make the payments even when your properties are underwater? Hard to imagine isn’t it Goldstein?
    Every hi tech worker could leave. I’m sure Kulak will be just fine. He’s obviously not an irresponsible, “enlightened” progressive who has been brought up to believe that it’s “our community’s” job to hold his hand and look after him all his adult life.

  5. Mr Galt,

    Yes, actually on the debt front, this year has been great. Refi’ed a couple of loans down to the threes and one bank offered 9 years fixed on a commercial loan, usually its 3-5. They are betting rates stay low for some time seems.

    I find this site very informative regarding the misconceptions on real estate, valuations, loans, how stuff gets built, how money works, its endlessly fascinating. Like how some beleive you can rebuild a region of 7.7m people to be bike friendly or build free housing for everybody or be safe without cops. Its like an anthropology class or more like an extraterrestrial study.

  6. Mr. Kulak,
    I agree. This site is indeed endlessly fascinating. Woke editors. Woke “journalists”. Woke commenters with teeny tiny little attention spans who run away screaming with their hands covering their ears upon hearing noises from outside their woke echo chamber.

  7. Or just a pathology study. The Left has offered a living, continuous pathology study since the late 1960s, and the disease gets florid at times in California, including in government nowadays. That, sadly, is decline of the state as a positive choice and act.

  8. Gee, a long article about unforeseen challenges, tough decisions, personal sacrifice, quality of life issues, and the real estate market with nary a mention about race or inequality. How’d this get published?

  9. If the “responsible, sensible conservatives” (i.e. Trumpist libertarian rental property owners) find this sight objectionable, then the responsible and sensible thing to do is to exit the site. Take your own advice regarding half the population who cannot afford to own a home in this county and move to another place (https://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2019/07/26/new-data-a-little-over-half-of-people-in-santa.html). It’s not like the bulk of readers will miss you.

    Why waste your time with “woke” journalists and readers. You can find a cozy and appropriate ghetto in Grafton, NH (https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/september-october-2020/libertarians-took-control-of-this-small-town-it-didnt-end-well/) or Galt’s Gulch (from whence Mr. Galt derives his pseudonym) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_Shrugged; https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/02/libertarian-expat-communities-chile/).

    And anyone who can’t see race or inequality in Liza Monroy’s article is simply revealing their lack of observation skills. Every single person interviewed in this piece is a property owner with the means to relocate, or a real estate agent/broker who own their home, or a publicly employed professional who usually have fairly good and stable incomes, probably own their own homes and are no doubt mainly white.

    We also know that those living in fire zones are, by definition, subsidized by residents who don’t live in that zone and whose tax dollars help the bulk of the salaries of public officials involved in land and fire management and mitigation. Examples include the Bureau of Land Management; Cal Fire; Resource Conservation District of Monterey County, the University of California Cooperative Extension in San Benito County and the community-based Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association. To these we could add the fire departments and resources of Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties. Is it fair that the taxpayers of those counties, that are respectively 70%, 44%, 67% non-white (including Hispanic), should subsidize almost exclusively white mountain town dwellers?

    It sounds increasingly like what the majority non-white residents of Los Angeles County end up doing with respect to their very wealthy and predominantly white co-residents of Malibu. The real estate developers there, as in so many places, were able to capture public authorities and hijack public resources to underwrite the many significant risks associated with building in such places. Could there be any better argument to just let Malibu burn? (https://longreads.com/2018/12/04/the-case-for-letting-malibu-burn/)

    A few excerpts from Mike Davis’ monumental book, “The Ecology of Fear” (1999):

    “..[S]tand at the mouth of Malibu Canyon or sleep in the Hotel St. George for any length of time and you eventually will face the flames. It is a statistical certainty. Ironically, the richest and poorest landscapes in Southern California are comparable in the frequency with which they experience incendiary disaster. This was emphasized tragically in 1993 when a May conflagration at a Westlake tenement that killed three mothers and seven children was followed in late October by 21 wildfires culminating on November 2nd in the great firestorm that forced the evacuation of most of Malibu.

    “But the two species of conflagration are inverse images of each other. Defended in 1993 by the largest army of firefighters in American history, wealthy Malibu homeowners benefited as well from an extraordinary range of insurance, land use, and disaster relief subsidies. Yet, as most experts will readily concede, periodic firestorms of this magnitude are inevitable as long as residential development is tolerated in the fire ecology of the Santa Monicas.

    “On the other hand, most of the 119 fatalities from tenement fires in the Westlake and Downtown areas might have been prevented had slumlords been held to even minimal standards of building safety. If enormous resources have been allocated, quixotically, to fight irresistible forces of nature on the Malibu coast, then scandalously little attention has been paid to the man-made and remediable fire crisis of the inner city….

    “By declaring Malibu a federal disaster area and offering blaze victims tax relief as well as preferential low-interest loans, the Eisenhower administration established a precedent for the public subsidization of firebelt suburbs.”

  10. Mr. Trouble,

    Of course if you just ignore us, we will go away. But I know you can’t help but be drawn to us, so it is what it is.

    This, however is not your best work. The insults are flat and the scholarship is more SALEM like with hints of ECONOCLAST. Really far from what I expect from you. Your work is usually far more crisp, cuts far deeper and subtly informed by a more balanced set of life experiences not some belching regurg of a cheap braindead narrative.

    Maybe you haven’t been getting sleep, worried about rent. Well, if your landlord is like most, they give you a few days grace to get your affairs in order. But the fifth is coming, so maybe its time to call mom or do a live stream on youtube and fleece some fellow resent-o-cultists out of a fiver or two Jimmy Dore style?

  11. Safest place in the US statistically is South East New Mexico. Few natural disaster and the only alien abduction were outside of Roswell, we got them!

  12. I’m retired and found a better place to be, but that’s a million dollar house even at the secret location I’m in now. Lot’s of UFO tourist that could be a money maker.

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