A Job Without A Home
An increasing number of Big Sur's employees can't find a home.
Thursday, April 29, 1999
Travelers journey from all over the world to visit Big Sur, one of the most renowned coastlines on Earth. They patronize its restaurants, eating beside the Big Sur River or overlooking miles of astounding coastline. At night, they sleep in luxury, or in cabins or tents tucked away among towering coastal redwoods.
But many behind-the-scenes workers are not so lucky.
Charles Eissler, a full-time cook in Big Sur, is homeless. He''s been looking for housing in Big Sur since he moved here two years ago. In that time, says Eissler, only one acceptable rental became available, but his inquiry received no response. The home had a long line of applicants.
"There were people [applying] who''ve been here years before me looking for a place, so they were obviously first," says Eissler. He sleeps in a sleeping bag in the woods, or until lately, in his van on the highway. But both these acts are illegal.
Eissler''s predicament is not unique. Many of Big Sur''s employees are homeless. Ironically, many of these homeless are service industry workers, vital to Big Sur''s ritzy resorts. Others are artists or laborers. They live in their cars, in the woods, or with a friend, while they look for a place to live.
Affordable housing is getting more and more scarce in Big Sur. The rare Big Sur rental that does open up is often pricey. Locals say you can''t find anything decent under $800 a month. And most Big Sur laborers and service industry workers can''t afford that.
For instance, Eissler makes $850 a month in the winter and $1,250 during the tourist season. Paying $800 for rent is out of the question. His upper limit is $500, and he would be happy with makeshift housing (outdoor plumbing only, no electricity, etc.), which rents for less.
Like others, Eissler--while trying to carve out a living and contribute to the community--divides his settlements between camping and staying with various friends. He doesn''t like either. Much of the land adjacent to businesses falls under State Park jurisdiction, and many who camp within walking distance of work risk getting a ticket with substantial fines.
"You hear [the ranger] coming, and pack up everything before he finds you," says Eissler. "A ticket for illegal camping is a long process involving going to court, and costs a lot of money. It''s not worth it. So you jump up and get out of there. It messes up your day, having to be stressed out as soon as you wake up, knowing you''re breaking the law, and they can take you to jail."
And what about showers? Cleanliness and presentation are key for most Big Sur service jobs. In the summer there are public showers, but not in the winter.
"I try to keep up my hygiene as much as possible," says Eissler. He''ll hope for showering at a friend''s house, or his boss'' house. Each day it''s unpredictable where he might, or even if he will take a shower. "Sinks. I use sinks a lot," says Eissler.
A large portion of Big Sur''s employees commute from the Monterey Peninsula--roughly 50 percent. But for others, driving the long commute is impractical and too expensive, especially during tourist season when traffic can substantially lengthen commuting time.
And while some Big Sur resorts provide employee housing, there are often long waiting lists. One employee was on a waiting list for three years before he got housing. In the meantime, he camped surreptitiously in the bushes--for three years.
The scarcity of affordable housing in Big Sur is such a pressing issue that Big Sur local, Bette Sommerville, recently wrote about it in the Round-Up, Big Sur''s monthly newsletter.
She wrote: "...In the last year, three of my friends...have been forced to leave Big Sur. These are all longtime residents, living here at least 20 years or more...we are losing people we want and need...people who contribute to our community. Yes, housing has always been a problem here, but usually for the locals something always turned up. Unfortunately this is a problem that will only get worse."
One such person is Gesina Stratman, a Gestalt facilitator and office worker at the Esalen Institute, who recently left Big Sur after living there 24 years, after she lost her Big Sur home to fire. Stratman spent 13 months searching for a home while living with a friend, then finally gave up and moved to Pacific Grove.
Sommerville suggests the rising prices of real estate may be contributing to the problem, making living in Big Sur a rich man''s privilege.
A Big Sur business owner, who asked for anonymity, agrees. "The situation is mimicking a pattern seen with other resort towns," says the business owner, "where low-income real estate slowly disappears, and a large percentage of employees have to commute from far away, traveling sometimes 60 miles to make beds or do a similar type job."
"The underlying problem is the fact that it''s so costly to build in Big Sur," concurs 5th District Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter, unincorporated Big Sur''s most local representative. He points out coastal property is bound to escalate in value with increasing development pressures. "With the economy as good as it is now, a lot of people are buying land," he says.
But the booming economy apparently hasn''t trickled down to Big Sur''s workers as they struggle to live comfortably.
Tim Green, a longtime landowner living in Big Sur, says he would like to see businesses required to provide employee housing. But he also understands that while larger resorts can afford the extra expense, many smaller operations cannot.
And while employees are looking for housing, he says, they should at least be able to camp roadside without fear of prosecution. Green remembers years ago, many people had to camp on the road, sometimes for a year, before securing housing in Big Sur.
"But now, even after living on the highway a year or two, you can''t find a place," says Green.
Apparently, in the past, a blind eye was often turned to illegal camping. But not anymore. According to Green and state park ranger Linda Roth, a lot of the antagonism towards "roadies" comes from the ''60s and ''70s when there was a mass influx of hippies into Big Sur. Not nature loving, peaceful hippies, but ones who paid no heed to laws, who didn''t care about littering, hygiene or the environment. Commonly they set up camp in pullouts along the highway. Safety and privacy were primary concerns for residents and businesses at these times. Thus a lingering apprehension toward people camping on the highway remains.
Green says there are a select few who shape Big Sur policy, and favor a crackdown on roadies. He says they see roadies as a detriment to the community and view them as lower life. "They''re not seen as contributors, but as detractors," says Green.
"However," he continues, "for people who are contributing to the community, and have no other place to be, allowing them to stay is good for the community."
But allowing the workers to camp doesn''t solve the housing problem. A more permanent solution must be found. Supervisor Potter says dialogue will continue between himself, Big Sur locals and business owners to come up with a solution.
Nevertheless, Big Sur locals, tucked away in their rugged paradise, aren''t terribly optimistic about the situation improving any time soon.
"It''s not going to change as far as I can tell," says Stratman. cw