There was a story in the Herald about a guy who bought a house in Pebble Beach a few years ago for $23 million. Turns out he’s now in trouble with the law for allegedly backdating stock options, but that’s beside the point. The point is: $23 million. In some places that’s enough to buy 100 houses.
Of course, Pebble is one of the most desirable properties known to humankind, and draws its residents from the world’s super-rich, so it’s not exactly a fair indicator of how expensive it has become to live around here. But still, year after year, statistics show that Monterey County is the least-affordable place in the country.
In my neighborhood, where cannery workers once walked to and from their jobs, small two-bedrooms are fetching $800,000. Pathetic little condos are going for six-fifty. There’s a teardown in Seaside right now you could get for a half-million—it’s one of the cheapest houses available for purchase on the Peninsula.
Nowhere is such inequality so starkly evident.
In Salinas, prices aren’t all that much better. Here in the capital of our nation’s fresh-produce industry, a city surrounded by Jolly Green Giant-sized lettuce fields, is the most crowded Census Tract in California: the suburban-looking Alisal, where three and four families must chip-in to share a cottage (with live-in garage).
Meanwhile, on Fort Ord, whole neighborhoods sit empty. We’re not talking here about the barracks visible from Highway 1 of the Imjin Parkway—go into the depths of the old Army base and you will find bucolic cul-de-sacs surrounded by ranch homes built in the 1970s (with solar panels on their roofs!)—empty. Ocean-view parks abandoned to weeds.
When Fort Ord was closed, and its land given to local municipalities, the people of Monterey County were promised that it would become a public resource. There have been thousands of homes built on the old fort in the six years since I have been watching its redevelopment. Fewer than 100 would now be affordable to the average Monterey County working family.
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Every night starting around nine until just after midnight, a steady stream of men can be seen pedaling cheap bicycles on the Rec Trail, heading from Monterey toward Seaside or Marina. Busboys bicycling home from work. Some carry a paper bag, clenched to their handlebars in one fist. Leftovers, and maybe a tall-boy. It’s a scene few tourists and only a small number of locals get to see.
Don’t feel sorry for them. These men probably brag about their commute when talking to friends and family elsewhere. Like the rest of us who live around here—those of us fortunate enough to spend our nights relaxing, fortunate enough to own cars—they might very well believe they’ve got it licked. They live in a famously beautiful place. Odds are they’re making enough to squeak by and send a little money home.
Home, for a lot of them, is somewhere else. There are a lot of reasons for that; for one, they can’t afford to buy a home here. That’s fine all by itself, but the fact that the workers driving the regions two major industries see this place as nothing more than a pretty work camp, that’s unacceptable. And the fact and their neighbors see them as a visiting “workforce”—that’s vulgar.
And the bigger fact is, even the majority of native-born construction-workers and mechanics, even the teachers and cops, most working people can’t afford to buy a home here. It’s just a fact.
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There are some unpleasant facts about our world that are so big they become invisible. They fill up the background of our landscape so completely that it’s impossible to focus on them. We don’t like it; we would never agree to create a world in which such monstrosities exist, but we nevertheless take these things for granted, as if they make up a basic truth that can’t possibly be questioned and therefore is not worthy of discussion.
There are some things about our world that most of us would agree to change if we believed we could. Most of us would not be proud to say that we helped build a society (or a community) in which a small percentage of people get to live in regal splendor while most people can’t afford to take their kid to a doctor after paying the rent.
Among the most important historical developments of our times, this ugly truth lurks almost unseen: through a stunning display of greed and raw power, the United States has become two nations—one, the land of unprecedented wealth, and the other, a land of monstrous poverty.
This is the ugly truth about Monterey County—the flipside of its vaunted beauty and enviably luxe lifestyle. This is a place where billionaires keep opulent summer homes, and a place where families cram into garages and are afraid to let their kids out in the street for fear that they’ll be shot. Nowhere is such inequality so starkly evident.
In the past six years, I have watched things get mostly worse. That trend will continue unless you believe it’s possible to create a better world.