Carmel's growing number of absentee homeowners worries community leaders.
Thursday, April 29, 1999
The Carmel resident homeowner looks to be a fast-disappearing breed. A sharp increase this past decade in the number of absentee owners--big city folks who buy a vacation home in Carmel but only show up a few times a year--has longtime residents concerned that the quality of life in their "village by the sea" will deteriorate.
Last fall, the Carmel Residents Association (CRA) published figures from the County Assessor''s Office showing that a whopping 69 percent of Carmel homes stand empty. But City Councilmember Sue McCloud says that figure included people living in one home in Carmel while renting out a second, and that the real number of absentee owners within city limits is only 40 percent.
The city Planning Commission, however, puts the number closer to one-third. Relying on census figures from the Department of Commerce, city planning director Brian Roseth says that in 1980, 564 out of Carmel''s 3,124 homes were listed as "vacant." By 1994, that number had jumped by almost 100 percent: 1,023 vacant residential units, out of a total of 3,375.
Some of those homes are up for sale or rent. But most of them are listed as "seasonal/recreational" homes, meaning their owners bought them as second homes, to be used now and then for vacations--633 of the 1,023 empty units fall into that category, Roseth reports, up from 299 in 1980.
For a small town, with a listed population of 4,400, 1,023 empty homes means a lot of absentee owners. And that''s a social, political and economic problem that has some city residents seriously concerned.
"Like it or not, this phenomenon is changing the fabric of our village," stated a recent CRA newsletter. "The pool of active, interested full-time residents who have the time to become involved in Carmel''s civic or social activities is rapidly diminishing."
Roseth agrees, saying, "Absenteeism diminishes neighborhood cohesion, and affects all community functions. These are people who are less inclined to volunteer for community groups, donate to local causes, or vote in local elections."
For the Residents Association, which is engaged in an ongoing pitched battle with downtown commercial interests to keep out chain stores and retain Carmel''s precious "village" quality, the increase in absentee ownership means a critical decrease in their own political power. Who''s going to keep Burger King--or Longs--off Ocean Avenue, they ask, a bunch of Silicon Valley magnates who just show up now and then to do a little gardening?
Willard Neumann has lived on Torres Street between Mountain View and 8th avenues for 43 years. He says that just 10 of the 20 houses on his block are occupied by anyone, owners or renters. "Across the street from me are five empty houses," he states. "How are you going to build up relationships when there''s no one in the houses?"
Economically, fewer residents means less support for local businesses that serve residents'', rather than tourists'', needs, from pharmacies to hardware stores. And once theses stores close down, the gift shops and chain stores are lining up to take their place.
Will part-time residents show up at CRA and City Council meetings to lend their support to the forces of small-town preservation? That''s the real question, says CRA president Suzanne Paboojian, a 27-year Carmel resident.
On one hand, Paboojian says, "these part-time owners have all come from somewhere else, and they want the conveniences they''ve come to expect. They don''t realize we''ve given up a lot of conveniences, for something else in return." Carmel has no streetlights, she says, "so you can see the stars." Carmel has no sidewalks, so it looks more rural.
"If a community decides it wants all those things, then Carmel will become like other cities," Paboojian says, with a frown that shows this is not the alternative she would choose.
"The great fear is that these people come here for the weekend, fall in love with the place, sell their homes and buy a little house here, tear it down to build a big trophy house, then their marriage falls apart and the house goes up for sale," she says. "This is not someone who commits himself, who cherishes the place. I compare them to Cinderella''s stepsisters, trying to fit their huge feet into tiny shoes."
Ironically, Paboojian fears, residents'' tireless efforts to protect Carmel''s pristine beauty may lead to its undermining, as newly wealthy city slickers and big ticket chain stores are drawn to it, drive prices up, and eventually recreate the town in their own generic image.
On the other hand, she notes that Carmel has been a second-home community since its founding, so part-time or vacation owners are nothing to fear--in theory. In actuality, it''s the change in the kind of new owners, rather than just their numbers, that concerns long-time residents. Media reports of Silicon Valley whiz-kids in their 30s and early 40s buying up million-dollar homes in resort towns including Carmel has the CRA buzzing.
Richard Warren, founder of the Carmel Woods Neighborhood Association, which represents that residential area just outside city limits, has been a local real estate agent since moving here eight years ago. He estimates that "maybe 50 percent" of the homes he sells are intended as second homes. "I hear there are a lot of people coming down from Silicon Valley, new money," he says. "But I''m seeing both them, and the older clients, from the Bay Area and [other countries]."
Carmel architect and former Planning Commissioner John Thodos points out that the city dug its own grave by putting impediments in the way of people looking to buy second homes in Carmel for rental properties. "This is a huge market of potential fulltime residents," he argues. "People who have the means to buy a second home and rent it out while looking forward to the day when they''ll come to live here. Instead, we''ve allowed the mega-rich in, who build a second home as a toy and have no intention of ever living here. We''re stuck with 70 percent [sic] of people who have no emotional equity in this city. Wait ''til they start voting!"
Paboojian says the trick will be to cultivate part-time residents, in the hopes that they will soon become fulltime residents and passionate defenders of the village lifestyle.
"My hope is these new and, I hope, smart part-time residents will be smart enough to figure it out," she says. "Apparently, that happens in every resort: New people come in, they say, ''I don''t want this to change,'' and they become the new preservationists. That''s my hope for Carmel''s part-time residents."cw