THE BAY AREA?
These folks did it — with mixed results
Raya and Michael DeMarquez both grew up in San Jose, got married here, raised their kids here, bought a house here more than 20 years ago and felt settled in the Bay Area life — for life.
Then they lost that house after the 2008 recession, lost their jobs. In the ensuing years, they worked hard to put things back together, rebuilding their careers, renting a house. Yet all the while, they sensed the encroaching costs of change: the tech boom, the swelling prices, the thickening traffic, the culture shift. They started to feel like outsiders in their own hometown.
So in 2015 they did something they never would have considered a decade before. They moved. Away.
To Portland, Oregon, in fact, as many Californians have done, often to the chagrin of Oregonians. And while there have been some adjustments and trade-offs (think weather), they’re truly happy they did it.
“We’d never go back to San Jose,” says Raya DeMarquez. “We’ll see if (Portland) is where we’ll stay. We’re giving it through this winter to decide if we can handle the weather — it was rough last year.
“But we’d never move back,” she says. “Never.” Admit it. You’ve thought about it, too. Usually when in suspended animation on the Bay Bridge, or touring a 1,200-square-foot, million-dollar “starter home” in Pleasanton. Sure, the Bay Area is wonderful, beautiful — I mean, look at that view when you’re stopped on the bridge! But there are greener — or at least cheaper, calmer, less-congested — pastures … right?
You’re not alone in such thoughts. Results of the 2017 Bay Area Council Poll, an annual public-opinion survey, show 40 percent of respondents are seriously considering leaving the Bay Area in the next few years.
But what’s life really like on the other side? We talked with a few folks who have made the move — often finding a common thread to be ongoing effects of the economic downturn. Some abandoned the Bay Area and love their new digs. Others moved, then found the new location wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be and moved back.
That’s what happened for Peggy and Tony Ucciferri. They had lived in Walnut Creek for years, then moved to New Orleans in 2012. They stayed nine months.
“When we left (the Bay Area), it wasn’t like, ‘We hate California, we’re leaving.’ We were victims of the recession,” says Peggy Ucciferri. She’d been laid off from her editing job at a parenting magazine. About a year before that, Tony had left his job in affordable housing and had trouble finding another gig. So when an opportunity arose for him in New Orleans, the Ucciferris sold their house, took the leap and quickly felt mover’s remorse.
They loved New Orleans as a place to visit, but didn’t feel welcome as residents. Their son, still in high school, was miserable with no friends. Tony’s job wasn’t what he’d hoped. The political climate did not suit their views.
“We live in a bubble here in the Bay Area, and you take it for granted when you’re here,” Peggy says. She was terribly homesick, missing family and friends. “One day we woke up and said, ‘This isn’t working for us. Let’s go home.’ ”
So they made the equally bold leap to move back in 2013, staying with a friend for a couple of months until another friend offered them an affordable rental in
Walnut Creek. Tony was able to get a new job. Their son returned to his old high school and “everything was right with the world,” Peggy Ucciferri says.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to buy again — we sold at the lowest point in the market, and now, well …,” she says. “But we learned our lesson. We won’t be leaving the Bay Area again. As crazy as it is, we’re so lucky to be here.”
Sadhana Agarwala suffered similar homesickness when she and her boyfriend moved from San Jose to North Carolina in 2005. She sold her Alum Rock district home, and they followed other family members who had all bought homes in a new development outside of Greensboro. In her new home, she too felt at odds with the political leanings and was sad to be “out in the boonies,” she says.
That was until Agarwala and her boyfriend came back to the Bay Area for a visit two years ago — the perfect cure for her long-lasting malaise.
“Tom and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Oh my God. What the hell happened?’ ” she says. “The traffic is insane. There’s construction everywhere. Everything is too freaking expensive. I was lucky to buy my house when I did and sell when I did. Now, we have five times as much room for five times less money, plus property for our dogs. We’re never moving back.”
Julia Park Tracey, a writer and recent Alameda poet laureate, just moved to the redwoods of Forestville in unincorporated Sonoma County earlier this year. It’s not so far that she and her husband can’t get to Bay Area family and events. But it’s far enough away to feel far enough away.
Married 10 years with five kids between them, they had long rented a large house on Alameda’s old Navy base. When they got down to one kid at home, they downsized to a second-floor apartment near Alameda High School. But when Tracey’s husband became disabled, he was no longer able to work, and the stairs became an issue. They wanted to move and no longer pay rent, but knew they couldn’t afford to buy a house here.
Fortunately, they already had a house. A really tiny house at 648 square feet, but a house nonetheless. The 2008 recession had actually worked in their favor, providing a glut of cheap vacation homes that had stood empty for years. So, “with bubble gum and baling wire and coupons,” she jokes, they bought the Forestville place in 2011 for a mere $56,000 to use as a retirement spot far off in the future. The future couldn’t wait, so they made the move sooner and couldn’t be more pleased.
“We’re in a cathedral of redwoods,” Tracey says. “It’s a better environment for my husband healthwise. Santa Rosa’s only 20 minutes away. It’s just over an hour to the Bay Area. I’m working, writing, volunteering. We’re very happy up here. I go outside at night, and there are no sirens, no airplanes. The stars are amazing. Right now, the only noise I can hear is a chicken having a meltdown outside.
“Housing is pretty expensive up here now,” she says, “so it was just luck of the draw that we got in when we did.”
The burst of the housing bubble wasn’t so helpful for Raya and Michael
DeMarquez, especially since they both were in real-estate-related careers — Michael as an escrow officer and Raya in support services at a title company. Michael was out of work for a year. They lost their home, their savings. They managed, though, and had come out of the doldrums somewhat.
“We were living a good life, but we could not save. It was reaching a point like, OK, what are we gonna do?’ ” Raya says.
To top it off, they were living in a rental in the neighborhood behind Westfield Valley Fair shopping mall near the San Jose-Santa Clara boundary, which was undergoing a huge expansion, wreaking havoc on local traffic. “And for me, the culture in the area changed drastically,” she says. “You’re in competition for everything, from a parking place to a home to a line at a restaurant.”
One of their three daughters had moved to Portland and loved it, finding it urban with lots of artistic talent — like a mini San Francisco. The median home prices were in the upper $300,000 range at the time. Michael was able to get a job transfer, and they moved in 2015. He immediately “connected and plugged into the city,” he says. Raya found it a little more difficult, but was willing to hang in there.
Portland is getting busier itself, however, with an influx of tech workers, more traffic and new housing. “In the first six months, everything was new, a discovery. It felt like everything kind of slowed down for us, which was great,” Michael says. “Then last summer and fall, I was already noticing that traffic was increasing, and those same forces were at play as in the Bay Area. So this might not be our permanent home.”
Still, when they left San Jose, Raya says she felt like she had escaped something. “The conversations everywhere you went were so negative: it’s so busy, it’s so expensive. That’s all you heard, and it was exhausting.
“Of course, when my parents moved out of the Bay Area 20 years ago,” she says, “they said the exact same thing.”
Michael and Raya DeMarquez escaped the bustle of the Bay Area in 2015for Portland. Here they are at the Cape Horn Lookout overlooking the Columbia River Gorge.
Patrick and Julia Tracey at the weekly summer farmers market in Forestville. The Traceys recently moved from Alameda to the small town in unincorporated Sonoma County.