Why I Live Here: I bought my Aptos house for $100K in 1981. Friends tell me I’m lucky; I don’t agree.

Aptos writer Claudia Sternbach
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

Claudia Sternbach landed in Santa Cruz County by chance in 1981, when she and her husband, Michael, were idealists searching for a way to make a life close to the water. Today, their Aptos home is worth 10 times what they paid, but people she has known for decades are leaving, unable to afford the soaring home prices. Her daughter can’t afford to live here. She wonders aloud what Santa Cruz is becoming and what will happen to adventure-seeking young people today.

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We had been looking at the map of the United States for days.

It had begun to curl at the corners due to the humidity. It was 1981, and Michael and I had been living in Mexico for a year and had decided to return to the U.S., the land of our births. Michael on the East Coast, I on the West. We were young and unafraid.

Let me just say, if you are contemplating a serious relationship with another, a reliable test of your compatibility is to move to a small village in the Yucatan where there is no television, no phones, very little when it comes to radio, (thank you BBC for Sunday morning story hour!) and the only fresh drinking water is an hour away by bus. If the person you believe to be the love of your life can’t deal with having only you to entertain them, the chance of remaining together for decades is slim.

However, if said person can hold you up under your armpits while you hover over the toilet, too weak to even sit on your own, unable to keep anything inside you after dining at a “rustic restaurant” in the jungle, and he or she is still into you, well, you might have something.

The sun sets on Lighthouse Point and Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz

Why I Live Here

We each have different reasons for making Santa Cruz home.

Some of us can’t live without the ocean or the redwoods. Some of us landed here decades ago and never left. Others commute long distances to live in what used to be a sleepy beach town, but today is one of the most expensive small towns in the country.

For some, the pull is family, familiarity, the smell of salt and sea lions. The place that whispers, “We belong.”

What is Santa Cruz to you and why do you call this quirky corner of our planet home?

Our new series explores that and asks us to think about our community, how it’s changing, who’s coming and who has left, who we were and what we are becoming.

Why — of all the places to live in the world — do you choose this one? We welcome your thoughts and ideas.

If you have ideas, stories, reasons to share, please submit pieces of 800 words or less to jody@lookoutlocal.com. See here for guidelines.

We had, almost 40 years ago, decided to move to the Yucatan because we had no reason not to.

My father had begun building a house in what was then the tiny village of Akumal. There was a dive shop, a few houses and one restaurant. My father’s house was unfinished and he dangled it like bait. “Go,” he said. “Live in the house until it is complete.”

I invited Michael — we had been dating for three months — and off we went.

We spent a year snorkeling every morning before breakfast, hanging out at the beach, where Michael taught tourists, mostly Europeans, how to windsurf. I created hand-painted T-shirts to sell to the visitors to our little community. We were either incredibly brave or incredibly naive, never giving a thought to a future much beyond the white sand beaches and barracuda tacos at the beach bar in Akumal.

But now, the house was complete and it was time to leave. Where to go?

We had little. No jobs waiting for us. Just a small amount of money in the bank. It could have felt overwhelming, but it did not. We felt so free. We had each other. We were such innocents.

We laid the map out in front of us. We could choose anywhere. Before moving to Mexico, we had lived in Berkeley. I adored it, but imagining going back there felt wrong. It felt too busy, too crowded, too much stimulation after living in such an isolated environment.

We’ll figure it out tomorrow, we said again and again. Then, we settled into our hammocks, each with a cold cerveza, and watched the pelicans fly low over the turquoise water, diving for dinner.

Time was running out, however. We knew we wanted to be close to the water; we had developed a connection to the ocean. Swimming with barracudas, angel fish, parrot fish, turtles and rays had become a necessary part of our day.

Southern California held the promise of warm water. Not as warm as the Caribbean, but swimmable. But the thought of all of the freeways, traffic, people, put us off.

We decided the East Coast didn’t fit us, either, and folded the map in half, narrowing down our search. Using a red marking pen, we began to circle possible new homes. With just days to spare, we chose a small college town right on the coast of Central California. It had a university, beaches and was relatively inexpensive.

Santa Cruz was the right choice.

Aptos writer Claudia Sternbach's Aptos home in 1980
Claudia Sternbach’s Aptos home in 1980.
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

We have lived in our small Aptos house ever since. Thanks to a bit of family help, we were able to buy a three-bedroom, one-bath house in a neighborhood filled with similar homes with slightly different floor plans. We had a village just a short walk from our house. A small grocery store, a pub and the old Bayview Hotel, which was still open for business. Small-town charm.

The houses, built in the 1970s, were selling for around $100,000. One of the homes had a second story built over the garage, and I recall our realtor saying the owners would never recoup the money they had invested in their property.

Well, ha to that.

Today, Aptos Village would not be recognized by folks who settled here in the 1970s and ‘80s. We have a new neighborhood of condos, a shopping center with an inviting New Leaf Market, a wine shop and other new businesses, including a restaurant that might soon get a Michelin star.

After years of debate about the “new Aptos,” it came together just before the pandemic hit.

Some locals were dead set against it. Now, after almost three years, I find the renovations and new stores a welcome addition. The improvements brought new jobs and, as someone who drives through the village daily, I am not bothered by an increase in traffic.

It has not been as bad as many thought it would be. But will the people who are employed by these new stores and restaurants be able to continue to live here? I just don’t know how.

Aptos writer Claudia Sternbach's Aptos home in 2022
Claudia Sternbach’s Aptos home in 2022.
(Via Claudia Sternbach)

Today, we regularly receive postcards in the mail offering more than $1 million for our 1,000-square-foot home. Every house in the neighborhood that goes on the market sells in just days, for well over $1 million.

I am always surprised when a young family moves in. I can only imagine what their mortgage payments will be.

So far, none of our closest neighbors, friends who have lived here for decades, have sold and moved on. We are settled. But our grown children are scattered around the country, priced out. Our daughter could never purchase even the smallest home here in Santa Cruz.

Friends in other parts of the county tell us how lucky we are. I suppose they imagine us selling and enjoying the profits. But where would we go? This is home. So no, I don’t feel lucky.

I keep thinking about young people living in other parts of the world who have an adventurous spirit and are looking for a place to build a life, contribute to a community, raise a family. Where will they go? Not here.

What will we miss as a town if that new energy they would bring never arrives? Will we still be able to attract artists, writers, teachers and adventure-seekers? If not, how will this affect our community?

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Akumal has changed. It is a large resort town that is unrecognizable to those of us who lived there decades ago. And Santa Cruz is a different place than it was in the 1980s. Still beautiful, still welcoming, but only if you have the funds to purchase a million-dollar house with no ocean view and only one bathroom.

Yesterday, I received an email from a friend I’ve had for decades who has lived here for 30 years. She and her partner have been renting a sweet little place tucked away on a hillside. She wrote to tell me that they are moving to Auburn, where they can afford to buy a house. They have been priced out of Santa Cruz County. They both have been active in our beachside town. There will be a hole in the fabric of Santa Cruz once they leave.

What is the price we are all paying as the cost of living continues to rise?

I have no answers to these questions. I only know that all of those years ago if housing prices were what they have now become, Michael and I never could have circled Santa Cruz in red and decided to call it home.

Claudia Sternbach is the author of three memoirs. Her most recent is “Dear Goldie Hawn, Dear Leonard Cohen” (Paper Angel Press). Her previous piece for Lookout, “Fear was never part of the school day, but this is the country we live in now,” appeared in May.

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