Bay Area invasion

They come for cheaper land and easy living. Can you blame them?

Illustration By Frank Bella

Every day, John Dalal plops his son into a red Radio Flyer wagon, snaps a leash on his old dog, Wink, and takes a leisurely stroll around the block. His neighbors wave at him and he waves back. Cars slow down as they pass, and treetops rustle in the breeze as Dalal relishes the quietude of his daily suburban stroll in Chico.

Five months ago, Dalal’s stroll would have felt a lot different. In the Oakland industrial neighborhood where he and his family used to live, a walk around the block would have been a dirty and desolate affair—no waving neighbors, no trees, no kids—just the echoing clank of the city and the freeway’s omnipresent hum.

What Dalal moved here to escape is the stuff of nightmares for many Chicoans, who love their little town just how it is. While only a few will come right out and say it, there is plenty of fear around here that the folks coming to Chico to escape the city are bringing the city with them.

Separated by a short and rather lonesome stretch of highway, Butte County and the San Francisco Bay Area have always seemed a lot more distant than the 166-mile drive would have you believe. It’s more a mental distance than a physical one, a length more cultural than geographical. But it’s also a length that seems to grow shorter every day, as more and more people from the Bay Area pack themselves into U-Hauls and head north to Butte County.

For at least the last quarter-century, growth has been the most divisive and important issue in Chico, one that residents struggle with every time they see a construction yard. A conversation with any longtime local is fraught with questions such as: Is growth good for Chico? Is it sustainable? Will my kids be priced out of the town they grew up in? Will new residents respect small town values? Will they bring crime and pollution with them? Will we end up looking like San Jose in 20 years? Are there enough jobs to go around?

These questions are being asked with increasing frequency as across Chico developers are snapping up the few remaining parcels zoned for development and transforming this small town into—well, we won’t know what until it is transformed. But go ask anyone living next to a new development whom we can blame for ruining Chico, and sooner or later you’re bound to hear something about “those people from the Bay Area.”

Going back even farther than the days—the late 1980s—when slow-growthers adopted the phrase “No Way San Jose” to fight off the proposed Rancho Arroyo development near the entrance to Upper Bidwell Park, Chico has hidden a slight antipathy toward Bay Area refugees. The attitude was summed up in a recent weekly Synthesis music column by pseudonymous author Bud Miller, who was born and raised not more than 15 miles from Chico:

“Interlopers from California’s urban areas have sold their houses at an immense profit and immigrated to this region, driving up the cost of housing to astronomical levels. These people … live in the suburbs and couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the cultural life, such as it is, of our humble little town. As long as they can get to Safeway and to the gym and onto the highway so they can visit their former hometowns, they couldn’t be bothered. … They just want to be left alone. They do not attend University events or community events if they can help it. …”

Screeds like Miller’s show that Chicoans are concerned about the influx and understand it well enough to realize that there are both economic and cultural ramifications to it. It isn’t clear, however, how much of their concern is grounded in reality. After all, Chico is hardly alone among small towns having to deal with growth. Across the country, people are abandoning cities, striking out for the ‘burbs in search of cheap land and easy living.

Not everyone agrees that the source of Chico’s rising home prices are those so-called ‘equity refugees” who have cashed out their homes in places like the Bay Area and bought much cheaper—and usually much bigger—homes here.

‘Bay Area people are not driving up prices here—you can quote me on that,” said Brewster Beattie, president of the Chico Association of Realtors. ‘The lack of [housing] inventory is what has driven up prices. It’s very difficult to build in Chico.” Brewster sees anti-outsider sentiment as largely misplaced and predicts that Chico residential appreciation will soon level off to somewhere near the national average of 7 percent, about half of last year’s record-breaking rise.

Though no solid figures are available, Beattie estimates only about 10 percent of Chico home sales go to folks from major California cities. Many of the sales occurring now, he said, are established local homeowners either upgrading to larger houses or buying a second or third house as an investment.

But with San Francisco—the fastest-shrinking city in America, according to new census data—only three hours away, it’s more than a hunch that a lot of folks from there will sooner or later make their way here. What a lot of people seem to wonder is whether anything can or should be done about it.

The experts say no, not really. Citing state and national trends, many see growth as inevitable. They also, to varying degrees, think that in the end the folks making that 166-mile move will eventually make Chico an even better place to live. Why? Because for the most part those coming in contribute more to the economy—and probably to the culture—than they take out of it.

‘The people coming up here are either employed or bringing jobs with them,” said Marc Nemanic, executive director of Tri-County Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit company that promotes the growth of local businesses. While some towns struggle with population growth in segments that are low-income or heavily dependent on one industry, Nemanic said, Chico has what demographers call ‘high-quality population growth.” That fact tends to allay the fear that rising housing costs will create more development than the local economy can sustain.

Many of the folks moving here, Nemanic said, are coveted ‘lone eagles,” a demographic term that denotes the rising class of workers who are not tied to one job site but have the flexibility and mobility to telecommute or travel to the city while living hundreds of miles from the home office. They are likely to be highly educated, affluent and technologically savvy.

NEWCOMERS <br>John Dalal and Aaron Sauberan with adoptive son Raul.

Photo By Tom Angel

Dalal is one of those eagles. He and his partner, Aaron Sauberan, along with their adoptive son, Raul, moved here from Oakland in June to find a smaller and less hectic environment for their family. Dalal, a textile designer and importer, is able to work at home and watch Raul, while Sauberan is a special-education teacher in Oroville.

As far as making a bundle on a Bay Area home and sinking it into a much bigger one here, Dalal and Sauberan are guilty as charged. They heard about Chico from a friend who grew up here, and when they checked it out, they fell in love with the place virtually on sight. The price they paid for their ‘60s-kitsch mini-mansion wouldn’t have bought a hole in the ground in most parts of the Bay Area.

Their first impression of Chico reads like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

“We saw teenagers crossing [Highway] 32 with inner tubes going into a creek, and we just thought it was so interesting that you could still see that these days—what a great place for kids to grow up,” Dalal said.

“Of course, then when we tried to get a pizza we were kind of confused,” Sauberan added, voicing the most common complaint of new arrivals here—that there isn’t enough variety among restaurants.

But Chico won them over despite the hot weather and lack of food options because of its size, accessibility and laid-back atmosphere. To make sure their neighbors were all right with their presence, Dalal asked one if there was any resentment toward new arrivals from bigger cities. The neighbor assured him it wasn’t an issue. They don’t particularly miss the Bay Area either, partly because it’s so close but also because so many of the people they meet are themselves from there.

“I’d say eight out of 10 people I speak to are from the Bay Area, whether it’s 20 years ago or 10 years ago or within the last five years,” Dalal said. “Even service people—the guy[s] who installed the satellite dish, the refrigerator, the carpet—they were all from the Bay Area, so it’s not like this financially well-off or elite group of people. It’s a whole variety.”

Since moving here, Dalal and Sauberan have made it a point of honor to shop only at locally owned businesses. They own one car between them and usually walk or bike downtown when they need something. Sauberan made a bet with one of his new neighbors that he wouldn’t set foot in Wal-mart for a year, and so far he hasn’t even been tempted.

“The neighbors are awesome,” Sauberan said. “And not even just the young neighbors, but the retired neighbors, everybody in the entire neighborhood has been incredibly friendly.”

Despite the worries some Chicoans have of being crowded or displaced by newcomers, those same newcomers report being shocked at how friendly everyone is here. Recent San Francisco transplants Sandra and Chris LaRosa said they were moved to tears by the welcome they received upon moving into what visiting friends dubbed their “forever house” on a tree-lined street in south Chico.

“We had just finished unloading the truck when our neighbors came over with a pizza, salad and a plate full of brownies. I cried. Then, on the phone, my sister cried,” Sandra laughed.

The couple moved here in October 2002, with their 5-year-old son and Chris’ mother in tow, to escape from the intensity of city life. They went from a tiny upstairs apartment to a spacious, 3,000-square-foot house with a garage and swimming pool.

“[San Francisco] just got to be like a constant earthquake,” Sandra said. “Here, we can live an easy life.”

That’s not to say it was easy to make the move, they said. Neither Sandra nor Chris had a job when they moved here, and both said they had a tough time finding one. Chris was “this close” to going back into retail before he landed a job at Chico State University, the region’s second-largest employer. When asked what they would do if the economy tanked and they both lost their jobs, Sandra, who now works at Planned Parenthood, said the couple would rather take “four fast-food jobs” than move back to the city.

In a worst-case-scenario, they may have to. Though not subscribed to by any economists interviewed for this story, the possibility—or at least the worry—exists that Chico developers, responding to higher home prices, are currently building more houses than the market can bear. If something like the state budget crisis were to cause drastic cutbacks in university or government jobs, those houses might sit empty, creating a major economic crisis for new arrivals and long-term residents alike.

Tri County EDC’s Nemanic says no way.

“If you look at planning maps and the land there is to develop, population growth is going to far exceed the amount of [housing] inventory out there. There is a substantial mismatch between supply and demand,” Nemanic said.

HOMESTYLE <br>Sandra and Chris LaRosa smile at the antics of their son, Carter.

Photo By Tom Angel

Any “bubble” created by the present influx of people from other parts of the state is stabilized by a fairly diverse economy anchored by the presence of the university, he said.

As for growth and development, “It’s not going to stop,” he said. Nemanic thinks growth may possibly move outside of Chico, creating “concentric circles” of development. The challenges will be to strike a balance between rural, urban and ag land and to somehow find a way for the region’s infrastructure to keep pace with the growth. Already, roads, sewer drainage systems and the airport are becoming impacted.

Conventional wisdom holds that the people streaming in are predominantly pro-growth, but for the most part that doesn’t hold up. After all, most of the immigrants from the big city moved here to escape the urban lifestyle, and it seems a majority would like to see their new hometown stay as small as it possibly can.

Hillary Telleson, who moved here about three years ago to raise a family with her husband Dylan, said she understands and even subscribes to the slow-growth philosophy. At the same time, she said, she realizes her family is part of the growth problem.

“I don’t want it to sprawl either,” she said. “Chico has really beautiful little neighborhoods. It’s very real here.”

Telleson, who moved here with her husband and in-utero daughter almost three years ago, said sometimes she wishes she could “slam the door shut” behind her. At the same time, she is glad that she has been able to lure some of her friends from the Bay Area to move here. She hasn’t had any hard feelings directed toward her because of where she is from, even though she is sensitive to it.

“Most people I’ve met just look kind of downhearted when I tell them where I’m from,” she said. “I understand how they feel, but I like to think that I have made a positive impact here.”

Her family is much more involved with local politics and community projects than they ever were in San Francisco, she said, partly because of how “accessible” everything is. Back in the bay, they wouldn’t have even entertained the idea of going to a city council meeting—"That would’ve been a joke,” Hillary said—but here they became involved in all sorts of community organizations, such as the Peace and Justice Center and the COBA downtown art project.

They have also been able to ditch the 9-5 jobs that neither liked in favor of following their dreams. Dylan is selling paintings downtown and creating public art, while Hillary is setting herself up to get a master’s degree in English. If they hadn’t come here, she said, most of what they have accomplished here would have been nearly impossible.

“There are so many things to do here for a young family,” she said. “You can go downtown or go to the Farmers’ Market and meet everybody you need to know. I feel really involved with the community here.”

Susie Stephens, a local real-estate agent who gets almost all of her business from the Internet, specializes in selling property to people from outside Chico. About half of her out-of-town clients are from the Bay Area.

Last year, she estimates, she sold $5.5 million worth of property to Bay Area clients. Most of those sales did not match the typical stereotype of the yuppie couple making a bundle of loot from a Bay Area home and buying one here for peanuts. Out of her last eight sales to Bay Area clients, three were investors, two were retirees, one was a “townie” returning to Chico and the other was a couple buying a home for their college-age daughter.

That last sale may indicate a strategy that has paid off well for both in-town and out-of-town folks, Stephens said. She knows one couple from out of town who bought a house for their son to live in while he attended Chico State. After he got his diploma, the couple sold the house, recouping all of his college tuition costs plus more than $40,000.

“We were a well-kept secret, but the Internet has really opened that up,” she said. Still, she worries what that will mean to Chico, noting that the current rate of growth in Chico needs to be slowed down. “Many of our locals have been priced out of the market. Where are those people who are raising families going to live? The out-of-town people may end up being the landowners, and the locals [would] be the tenants.”

Stephens can’t blame folks for moving here from the city, though—she did it herself more than 40 years ago. More and more, she said, the same thing is happening all across America.

“In the last few years, I’ve found people are moving out of the cities and they’re not going back,” she said. “People don’t want to live in multi-million-people cities. From SARS to terrorism, it’s just not good. The challenge we have here is how to limit growth.”

Stephens personifies the dualistic nature of Chico’s attitude toward Bay Area àmigràs. When first contacted, she said she was hesitant to give out client information because “people here are not all that hospitable to outsiders, especially if they’re from the Bay Area or L.A.” Yet later on, she reversed herself, saying that her clients have universally told her how much at home they’ve been made to feel here.

“They all talk about how friendly everyone is here,” she said.

So maybe there’s a backlash and maybe there isn’t. After all, it’s hard to find fault in people seeking a better life for themselves, and even harder to fault people who, after living here their whole lives, see houses replacing orchards and buildings growing like weeds. As long as Chico can avoid the kind of malignant growth that has come to characterize the suburbs of Sacramento or San Jose, maybe everybody—locals and newcomers alike—will be happy.