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What you learn when you leave

What you learn when you leave


December 22, 2002
by Heather Boerner [Gimme Shelter]

The last you heard from me, I was contemplating whether to stay in Santa Cruz. Today I bring you the tale of a family that made that decision, and what they’ve learned so far.
Robert Mittendorf is a fortysomething guy who used to have a mane of rocker hair. In the 15 years since moving to Santa Cruz, he cut his hair, got married to Rebecca and had two daughters, now 3 and 6. Two years ago, Robert and Rebecca set a deadline for themselves: Buy a house in one year or leave.
Two weeks ago, the family moved into a rented three-bedroom house in Bellingham, Wash. Mittendorf, a former Sentinel copy editor, is still giddy with the change.
Not only does he like Bellingham, which he describes as a pre-earthquake Santa Cruz, but he’s glad he’s gone from a Santa Cruz he sees turning into someplace he doesn’t want to live.
“I’m afraid Santa Cruz is turning into the next Carmel,” said Mittendorf. “It makes me sad. Did we save Lighthouse Point so rich people could bring their dogs? Did we save Lighthouse Point so people could live here and commute over the hill? It’s really changed. And even though it was hard to leave, seeing how it had changed made it easier.”
That last thought how coastal living has changed is exactly what Louise Lacey was thinking of when she wrote “Find a California Home for $150,000 or Less,” published by Growing Native Press of Berkeley.
Lacey, herself a Bay Area resident, was determined to get off the rent “inflation spiral.” Her answer to the question of where can you find a nice, affordable place to live, is anywhere but the coast. She identifies 15 towns everything from Yreka near the Oregon border to Redlands in the Inland Empire. Her criteria was good schools, low crime and a good sense of community.
Her advice: “All you need is a car, a good map and some time. Choose and go. Get to know those people.”
This is a thought that’s repugnant to some Santa Cruzans. Those of us who are here love Santa Cruz and know there is no place like it. Its match of beauty, culture, progressive politics and proximity to big cities has us intoxicated.
But let’s take a minute to consider what Mittendorf is learning.
As far as he can tell, Bellingham is Santa Cruz circa 1988. There’s no traffic. There’s a small downtown spotted with gentrified or run-down historic buildings. There’s an organic co-op the family joined. There’s a farmers market three times the size of Santa Cruz’s (though it’s closed for the winter). The town is on Puget Sound and Western Washington University is nearby.
The biggest things he misses so far are walking to work, green tea ice cream from Polar Bear or Marriane’s and the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Co.
Food, gas, electric everything is cheaper in Bellingham. Mittendorf took a pay cut, but can still afford to be the family’s only bread winner. They’re paying $925 a month for a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a three-car garage.
And as he spoke to me, he was preparing to tour a house. He figures they might bid $170,000. Santa Cruz’s median home price in November was $510,000.
A lot of the stress that came with living in Santa Cruz is slipping away from Mittendorf. In Santa Cruz, he and Rebecca found they could afford a $200,000 mortgage, so they looked at mobile homes. They planned to buy a friend’s spot in a park and buy a new modular home. But the plan quickly unraveled. Mobile home rent control is under attack in the courts. His costs would be a $1,500 monthly mortgage on top of rent and yearly vehicle license fees, without the benefits of property owners tax breaks.
“It was livable but crappy,” he said of their plan. “It seemed like really high payments and for what? A lot of uncertainty and a house that wouldn’t appreciate in value. It was pointless, and we accepted that we needed to move.”
Accepting that was the most difficult thing. Acquaintances distanced themselves from the family because they didn’t want to get too attached. They all left friends, and Leah, 6, left her whole social circle. Luckily, Mittendorf knows two families who moved to Bellingham from Santa Cruz several years ago. They aren’t completely alone, but it feels pretty lonely now.
Contact Heather Boerner at hboerner (at)


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