Ramblings and thoughts by a Mensch or two.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Who would leave California?

I was born here, in California, almost 40 years ago. I've lived here my entire life, mostly in the Bay Area, with a short hiatus down near San Diego to get my degree. The weather is nice year-round, BART provides a great means to get around without a car, and there are plenty of technology jobs available. The food can't be beat--sure, if you're rich and going to only the best restaurants, you might be able to find better food in NYC, but the food available around the Bay is some of the best in the country. We have the ocean and a zillion trails in easy driving distance, yet can make it up to the snow in only a few hours. I can bike to work year-round.

Yes, I love this state; turns out, though, a lot of other people do as well. Property values have become famously high; I've been a bear on the property market here for years, and it's gotten to be quite a familiar habit, but I'll go ahead and say it again: "These property values are WAY too high, and I expect them to crash any year now." But that by itself isn't a reason--if you want to stay somewhere, how much your house is worth doesn't matter.

On the other hand, if you're contemplating moving, having your housing value crash doesn't look so good. But why would I leave? What's the motivation? That will require a bit of back-story...

Where I live right now is in a condo complex, of sorts. It's not quite a normal condo development, though--there are several things that make it different. One, the layout of the community is designed to encourage interaction. Typically condos are designed to maximize the illusion of privacy and minimize the fact that you're living in relatively close quarters with a bunch of people. Two, the people in most condos only rarely interact with each other--and here I know the first name of every adult community member and almost all of the kids, and they all know who I am. That's nearly 70 names. There have been times of my life where I've known the names of no more than 20 people who I interacted with on a regular basis. Knowing this many people, and having this many friends right near home, is a profoundly new and positive experience for me. Three, there's a building known as the "common house" that has extra amenities that any resident can use for free (by signing up, first come first served), including guest rooms, a workshop, a pottery studio with kiln, a kids' play room, a television/sitting room, and a large meeting room with attached commercial-quality kitchen. There's even an optional meal rotation where, a couple times a week, someone will cook a meal in the kitchen and everyone interested signs up to eat, contributing their share of the costs. Four, there were a number of kids my daughter's age here, and because of the social aspect, the kids' room, and the high ratio of stay-at-home parents, it seemed like an ideal place for a kid to grow up. Five, the building was done as super-green and ultra-insulated, and that aspect was also in sync with my values.

So for the social aspects (knowing your neighbors, built-in playmates for your kids, easy and casual social events) and the shared-resources aspects (there's one shared lawnmower, some cool shared tools, extra rooms for guests to stay so you don't need a giant house with rooms you pay to heat that rarely get used) I really liked the idea of this community.

But all is not perfect. When we moved in here, we were trying an experiment on several axes. First, we'd read about communities like this--they're called "cohousing", which is a poor choice of a name in my opinion, since everyone who hears the word thinks it's some kind of co-op or communal living arrangement, which it really isn't--and what we read sounded interesting. Deborah and I had also been reading about voluntary simplicity, and I was starting to buy into the concept that having less junk would actually improve my life. We had been getting rid of junk we'd been accumulating for years at an impressive pace, and I had a false sense of optimism about how much we'd really purged. So when a unit HALF the size of our current place became available at a cohousing community, I thought, what the heck, let's try it out.

Here we are, two years later, and I can report that the social aspects are wonderful, but that not all is perfect. It turns out that a 4+ bedroom house with garage can hold a LOT of stuff in all of those extra closets, and it was really hard for a while to figure out what to do with most of it. Now that we've reached an equilibrium, though, I've discovered that I pretty much need a home office space--not just a corner of the bedroom, but a real office. This goes against the "smaller living" movement, but for whatever reason I need the space. So that's the first non-negotiable reason I want to move: I don't have enough space here.

Why not get another unit in this community? Well, one would need to become available. Wait, there IS one available, I could move there! OOPS, the owner only wants to rent it, and won't accept cats. Most everyone else in larger units here seems to be here for the long haul, so I'm not going to wait around for that option.

There's also another reason that I'm not eager to stay here: Philosophically I don't feel like I'm quite in sync with my current community. Some cohousing communities attempt to reduce everyone's costs by demanding everyone participate in the physical maintenance of the community; here they attempt to apply that particular strategy, and it's a nightmare of arguing about details and a drain on everyone's energy that I have absolutely no desire to be associated with. The frustrating thing is that, after you do the money analysis, you realize that all this extra work ends up saving people no more than about $10/month on their HOA dues (which are currently $300-$400/month, so we're talking a 3% savings).

I also have some other ideas about building these communities that I'd like to test out by founding a new one. If I did come across the absolutely perfect community, I wouldn't go to the trouble--but I'm an entrepreneur at heart, and I have ideas (for better or for worse) about how to do things, and I'd like to see if my ideas pan out.

So here I am, in a cohousing-style community, and wanting to move to another such community or found one. California has the most cohousing communities in any state in the nation, there must be another one I'd like, right? Or somewhere I'd be able to build one? Well, there are a few constraints that complicate matters.

If I'm living in the Bay Area, it needs to be near BART. I work in San Francisco, and I am not going to do a car commute, nor am I going to live in San Francisco. Period. End of negotiation. The Peninsula has CalTrain, but that requires a bus ride at the SF end of the line to get to my job, and I'm too impatient to wait for two successive public transit modes on a daily basis. I also want to be able to get to BART on my bike, for similar reasons--most BART stations these days end up with full parking lots, so I don't want to drive, and I don't want to bus-to-BART. And I want to be walkable or at least bikeable to interesting retail. I don't want to live in an area where I'll fear for my daughter's safety, and I do want to live in an area with good schools.

That narrows down the options a lot. So where does it leave? Berkeley would be great on several axes, except there's only one cohousing community in Berkeley, and it's a small one with high work requirements (according to their cohousing.org listing, and in any event they don't appear to have anything for sale). Building a new community in Berkeley, well...let's just say I'm not that much of a glutton for punishment. There's still a knee-jerk reaction in Berkeley that Development Is Bad, and it can easily take years to get even a small development through the planning process...and that's if you can find the land, which is already quite expensive in the interesting areas. So scratch Berkeley.

Points farther east like Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill are nice on a few other axes--but they're quite expensive, and most areas that are close enough to BART to be interesting are very built-up. And frankly, most people willing and interesting in living in communities like this are, well, liberal--and out in the "Far East Bay" things turn a bit more conservative. There are also no quaint downtown areas left--only upscale malls that try to pass themselves off as downtown streets--with the single exception of Lafayette, though it looks like 5-10 years of development will erase the few remaining quaint bits there as well.

This leaves me with no options that work for me in California. Other more remote locations in California could work for the short term, as I managed to arrange to keep my job as a telecommuting position for the Colorado move at least, but longer term there's no guarantee that I'll be with this company forever, and what do I do then? I also would like to be closer to an urban setting (no, Reno doesn't count) than most remote areas with reasonable housing prices allow. So goodbye California, Hello Colorado.

There are a few other reasons California and other coastal locations aren't my first choice for long-term habitation: If you follow the news on global warming, it doesn't look good. If you follow it closely, the theme seems to be that everything is happening faster than scientists expected. We've seen this movie before: Everyone ignores the warnings of the scientists, sometimes even ignoring the early proof, and then are surprised when calamity strikes. I'd like to be on higher ground when the calamities strike.

Why Colorado? That's the topic of another post...