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Cold Comfort 

Humboldt real estate rises amid COVID, climate change

click to enlarge Homes in Trinidad.

Photo by Mark Larson

Homes in Trinidad.

Humboldt County hasn't always been well known to the rest of the state, with many Californians placing the northern border somewhere near San Francisco, long unaware one could drive six hours past "the City" and still be south of Oregon. But things are different now.

The Redwood Curtain has been lifted.

Trinidad has always been a tourist town but longtime residents will tell you this year has been unlike others in the past. Despite COVID-19, the streets of the tiny village were crowded with strangers and the big parking lot next to Trinidad State Beach was packed day in and day out. License plates were from Utah, Texas, Arizona and other hot, dry states. Long lines formed for take-out service at the town's restaurants.

While the tourists are usually gone by Labor Day, the season continued well into October this year. A few said that they were fleeing the fires and looking for permanent housing. Many more said they were escaping the smoke that has blanketed the entire West Coast. Though there were smoky days here, it just didn't seem as bad as where they came from. But the most common comment was that it was cool. They were not referring to lifestyles. They were referring to temperature.

While 78 degrees might be a record-breaker for the foggy coastal town of Trinidad, it was not 110.

Wildfires — and the hot, dry conditions that drive them — are the most visible symptom of climate change. Scientists warn more rather than fewer of them are likely as the global temperature inexorably climbs upward.

But the change is not evenly distributed and the increase of even one degree can make a great deal of difference in local climate, says National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Ryan Aylward.

In coastal Humboldt, according to graphs furnished by Aylward, the average temperature has increased by two degrees Fahrenheit over the past 30 years. In comparison, Ukiah, some 150 miles to the southeast, has increased by three degrees, making a town that was always hot in the summer now unbearable to many.

Realtors are well aware that Humboldt's coastline has suddenly become attractive as a climate refuge to both Californians and residents of other states.

"I'd never come here before," one house hunter said. "I found Trinidad on a map — and here I am." Others have come here before for vacations and decided it might be a good place to settle in — especially if their jobs enable them to work remotely, something many are doing in the COVID age.

And, as restaurants, small shops and entertainment venues began closing, the attraction of large cities — with the crowds and higher rates of COVID — is losing its luster for some.

Statistics kept by the California Association of Realtors show that home sale prices in the Bay Area and Southern California have started to drop as people emigrate to less crowded areas. And, not surprisingly, housing prices have risen in the coastal areas of Humboldt County.

"Real estate follows the laws of supply and demand," local Realtor Patti Stearns said. "The supply is limited; the demand is high; so the prices go up."

Stearns, who notes 60 percent of her new buyers are from outside Humboldt, estimates the price of a two-bedroom house in Arcata as $350,000 and one in Eureka as $300,000.

Prices, however, can go a lot higher.

"When people come here from other areas, they are initially surprised by the prices. They have the 'Humboldt Dream' in their mind," Stearns said. "They want clean, breathable air, and open space. They want a nice big house with a lot of acreage that is close to town but has lots of privacy. They don't want to be in a subdivision. They are surprised to realize that even if they can find this combination of attributes, it may cost over $500,000."

Another factor in the real estate boom is the drop in interest rates. With rates hovering at about 2.5 percent, the cost of a mortgage is much lower than it would have been five years ago. Somebody who might not have previously dreamed of buying a fixer-upper can now borrow the money to make the necessary repairs without going broke in the process.

But salaries, like temperatures, are not evenly distributed throughout the state, and rural counties like Humboldt are not in the same range as large urban ones.

So, a Bay Area climate refugee who is able to hold onto a high-paying tech job and work from home has a distinct financial advantage over a local nurse or teacher who thought they'd saved enough for a down payment on a starter home.

Meanwhile, a strong housing market coupled with a limited housing stock puts additional pressure on the rental market, pricing some current residents out of it.

With prices increasing, there is an incentive for property owners to put their houses up for sale, which means if it was previously being rented, the tenants must find a different place to live. This can be difficult in an environment where there is already a shortage of rental housing.

"I have people who are waiting for a house to come onto the market — and in the meantime they are renting here," said Mike Reinman, the owner of North Coast Furnished Rentals.

He noted there is an incentive for owners of rental properties to convert cheap unfurnished apartments or houses into more lucrative furnished rentals.

Moreover, state and local laws protecting tenants against eviction because of COVID-related financial problems have had an unforeseen side effect. Some landlords, especially small landlords who own one or two rental properties and depend on the rent for their own income, may be beginning to wonder what would happen to them if their tenants couldn't pay the rent.

Those cases might create another incentive to put rental property on the market while they still can — resulting in more displaced tenants.

Few people are willing to discuss their financial difficulties publicly — but a close look at the local housing section of Craig'slist shows about a third of the listings are from people wanting housing. Many convey a sense of desperation.

"I'm looking for a studio in Arcata," said one young woman, "but I'll settle for anything within a 45-mile driving distance."

Lowest rents, not surprisingly, can be found in Crescent City, which is 78 miles north of Arcata. For those with a mobile home, RV or a tiny house, a space can be had for less than $400 a month compared to double for a one-bedroom apartment in Arcata, at around $900 per month. That's not including deposit, the possible need to pass a rigorous screening test and a potential several month wait to get in.

At the bottom of the ladder are those without any four walls to call their own, camping in their vehicles, couch-surfing with friends or doubled up with other family members. Even getting into a homeless shelter requires one to be connected to a social services agency. And there is a three- to five-year waiting list for affordable housing units sponsored by HUD, also called "Section 8 housing."

One elderly woman, who asked not to be identified, said she had finally gotten into a HUD apartment "after being on the waiting list for three years."

How will this all turn out? Will Humboldt turn into another Carmel, available only to millionaires? Will a sudden housing boom place even more pressure on our agricultural and forested lands? What will happen when sea level rise becomes more noticeable and unaffordable flood insurance starts affecting residents of King Salmon and the peninsula? Only time will tell.

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Elaine Weinreb

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