Viewpoints

What I want most in life is a home for my family. That doesn’t seem possible in SLO

Buying a home in San Luis Obispo: ‘It’s not feasible’

Natalie Marinelli, 25, a Cal Poly graduate and former Apple employee in the Bay Area, moved back to San Luis Obispo County with her husband for the quality of life, only to discover they can't afford a home here.
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Natalie Marinelli, 25, a Cal Poly graduate and former Apple employee in the Bay Area, moved back to San Luis Obispo County with her husband for the quality of life, only to discover they can't afford a home here.

One morning a couple of weeks back, a Realtor knocked on my front door to tell me about a home she had just sold in my neighborhood, how highly desired our neighborhood is, and to ask if we might be interested in selling our home.

“We’re renting, actually,” I replied, swallowing the little bit of shame that bubbles up when I consider our decade-long failure to buy a home.

The Realtor meant well. She asked whether we’ve ever considered buying a house, and suddenly there I was, uncorking the details of our anguish with trying to find a home for ourselves in San Luis Obispo. Tears welling up, I apologized (how embarrassing!), and she kindly handed me her card. I don’t think either of us expected such an emotionally fraught encounter at 9:15 in the morning.

At 35 years old, I’m considered an elder within the “millennial” generation. I was the first of my friend-group to marry, the first to have children, and the first to really face the demoralizing reality of our local housing market.

The single material thing I want in this life is a home of my own in which to raise my family, preferably in the city that I devote so much of my time to serving, where my children attend school, and my husband and I work. A small parcel of property that will play setting to the story of our family as it unfolds. A place where my children can learn to wash neighbors’ cars for spending money, and where I can invite folks on our block over for coffee.

Just to be clear: I don’t want to turn around and flip the home for a profit. I don’t want to rent it to students at $1,000+ per bedroom. I don’t want to turn it into a vacation rental, or keep it as a private vacation home.

More than just the home itself, I want my children to have the opportunity and privilege to feel a sense of place — a sense of belonging to something bigger than our family unit. But as I look closely at the decisions that were made in the past, and indeed at the decisions being made presently, I see that — unconsciously or deliberately — our community is pushing families like mine to the furthest edges of the county, if not out-of-the-area entirely.

First-time home buyers in San Luis Obispo are struggling under the burden of years of well-intended yet short-sighted decisions, the effect of which has been to drive the middle class out of San Luis Obispo in record numbers.

Meathead Movers reports that out-of-state moves have increased 91 percent since 2016, and a closer look at California’s migration data reveals that young families lead the way in out-migration to Texas, Arizona and Nevada.

Decisions, though widely framed as binary, always involve both gains and losses. Our “yeses” carry inside them hidden “nos,” and the inverse is also true. Left unidentified, these hidden yeses and nos become unintended consequences, the effects of which ripple outward for generations. Proactively identifying the unintended consequences of our choices is a mark not only of wisdom, but of courageous leadership.

Passed in 1978, California’s Proposition 13 is one such example of well-intended, yet short-sighted decision making. While successful in its design to protect homeowners from unexpected increases in property taxes, it has placed a disproportionately heavy tax burden on younger generations, and enables older (typically wealthier) homeowners to avoid contributing their fair share.

California’s recent increase in fuel taxes is a contemporary example. Faced with some of the nation’s worst infrastructure (and also among the nation’s highest taxes — go figure), the state of California has opted to levy yet another regressive fuel tax on its residents. No one doubts that our roads are in disrepair, but is it wise to further penalize those who can’t afford to live where they work, and out of necessity must drive into and out of our communities on a daily basis?

The working poor are most affected by rising fuel taxes, but this move toward regional sprawl hurts everyone. For a community that prides itself on its greenbelt, and environmentally conscious image, I would expect longtime residents of San Luis Obispo to balk at the number of miles driven into and out of SLO by everyone who has been squeezed to the furthest edges of the county (or all the way into Santa Barbara County). The traffic alone should be enough to trigger some introspection.

All of our yeses and nos contain some degree of sacrifice in them. As a city, if we elect to say “no” to sprawl within the city, the hidden “yes” is building taller, more dense housing in the core of town. If we desire to say “no” to the nasty traffic into and out of SLO during rush hours, the hidden “yes” is to build more housing within SLO itself. If we wish to say “yes” to accessible parking in our neighborhoods, the silent “no” is not cramming as many drivers as possible into a rental.

In order to course-correct, each of us is going to have to bear some burden or inconvenience. Property owners might consider occupancy limits on their rentals, in order to free-up street parking, and retain the family-friendly quality of their neighborhood. Average income families like mine won’t have a backyard big enough for a tree, let alone a treehouse. All of us, when walking through downtown, will lose some viewing angles of Cerro San Luis.

Nobody gets everything they want all of the time. But there’s unity, even in that. My family is more than happy to bear our share of burdens and inconveniences, and look forward to one day finding a neighborhood full of people unified in the spirit of leaving our community better off for the people who will inherit it when we’re gone.

A community that drives out its young families — unintentionally or not — is a community that is atrophying. All of us together as a community must take responsibility for circumstances we’ve inherited, and look wisely and carefully at how to reconcile them. We have an opportunity to shape the kind of community we want San Luis Obispo to be for our children, and their children.

Let’s make choices that, though perhaps difficult or inconvenient for us today, will enable us to look our children and grandchildren in the eyes knowing that we made decisions with their best interest in mind, not our own.

Melissa Godsey is a writer, speaker and curriculum designer in San Luis Obispo. She serves on the city of San Luis Obispo’s Promotional Coordinating Committee, the steering committee for SLO U40, the leadership team for MOPS San Luis Obispo, and co-educates her children in partnership with San Luis Obispo Classical Academy.

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