The Long Road to Work In Big Sur, market forces and nature conspire to limit housing availability, forcing lengthy commutes


By Laith Agha
Photos and video by David Royal

Amy Stone could argue, with little pushback, that she has one of the most majestic work commutes in the world. Heading down Highway 1, she passes through the wooded coastal community of Carmel Highlands, then for the next 16 miles she is flanked by California’s most dramatic coastal mountains on the left and the world’s biggest body of water on the right. She passes over Bixby Bridge and by the Point Sur Lighthouse. Her final eight miles wind through the Big Sur Valley, a gauntlet of redwoods and commercialized Bohemian outposts.

When she finally arrives at work, spending the day behind the jewelry counter of Nepenthe’s Phoenix Shop, she is a mere headturn from gazing into the horizon of the Pacific.

The downside is that Stone lives in Seaside. So this drive she does five times a week takes more than an hour each way, and up to 90 minutes when the tourists are out in force.

“Thank God it’s beautiful,” she says.

The daily journey is worth it, Stone says, because she wants to be part of the Big Sur community. Ideally, she would live down the coast, but that’s really not an option for her and her husband, because housing is so sparse. So she copes with the long commute by reminding herself that she’s fortunate to work where she wants to, savoring the view, and occasionally taking out her frustrations on her Dammit Doll.

“It’s just a known thorn in everyone’s side,” Stone says. “The commute has become quite a contention.”

If Stone could find a place to in live in Big Sur, there would still be hundreds of other retail attendants, restaurant dishwashers, hotel maids and other workers making the daily trek there from as far as Castroville and Soledad to pull a paycheck. Others have been known to live in tents and under bridges as they take jobs during the peak tourist months of summer.

The general manager of Big Sur River Inn, Rick Aldinger, says he commutes from Monterey because he can’t find an affordable place to live near work.

It’s a reality that Big Sur’s business community increasingly grapples with, as it struggles to keep help-wanted signs out of windows while a slew of forces, old and new, have all but eliminated the area’s affordable housing options.

The Multiple Listings Service, which is the real estate world’s master database for housing inventory, showed just 12 Big Sur houses available for sale in mid-January—the cheapest of which was listed for $1.2 million. There are likely more houses available as pocket listings, but such properties tend to be higher-end.

As for long-term rentals, “there is nothing at all,” says Butch Kronlund, president of the Big Sur Coast Property Owners Association.

Efforts to add more affordable housing have been underway for years. But those plans are still in the brainstorming phase, with community leaders and governing agencies having yet to engage in any meaningful collaboration. Monterey County Supervisor Mary Adams, whose district encompasses Big Sur, says she has had several informal discussions on the matter, but is still anticipating the first official proposal from Big Sur’s community leaders.

“They are the ones who have the knowledge to solve the problems,” Adams says. “I feel in some ways my job is simply to take their suggestions and ideas, apply it to the plan, and then attempt to implement things.”

The hard part is coming up with the right ideas in an area that is rife with challenges.

“There really aren’t a lot of viable options to develop additional housing,” says Nepenthe owner Kirk Gafill. “You run up to the zoning constraints, you look at the construction costs, you look at the estimated return on investment on that—how much rent you can charge… I think it’s going to take years to figure out.”

When referring to a community, like Carmel or King City, one typically invokes an association with a contiguous grouping of adjacent residential and commercial districts, within a confined oblong or squarish area.

Big Sur doesn’t work like that. It is a narrow strip 70 miles long (think of a mini Chile), from a little south of Carmel down to the Monterey County line, with one main road and a series of dead-end side roads branching off up into the mountains or down toward the shore. Somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 people live in this enclave (depending on which authority you ask), in houses blending into the terrain—and sometimes to its wrath.

There is no town center. It has a commercial strip of sorts, but this, too, bucks convention. Most of the few dozen businesses that line Highway 1 stand alone on their own dominions, serving as landmarks just as Bixby Bridge and Point Sur Lighthouse do.

This is exactly where Stone, the jewelry salesperson who lives in Seaside, wants to be. As do many others, which is why Nepenthe is able to staff 105 employees to operate the 40-acre cliffside complex—which includes two restaurants, the Phoenix shop, and maintenance of 20 or so workforce housing units.

“At full capacity, we’ll be up to 130,” Gafill says. “Those next 25 employees will mostly come from outside of Big Sur.”

That number would represent the demands of peak tourist season, as well as a full recovery from the economic fallout brought on by the eight months Highway 1 was closed two miles up the road because of a storm-damaged bridge. The road re-opened in October. It’s also a number—despite Nepenthe’s popularity with job seekers as much as with sightseers—that is becoming increasingly difficult to reach.

There is no official data on the number of people who work in Big Sur and live elsewhere. But if anyone would have a sense of how many workers commute to down the coast, it would be Gafill, a third-generation owner of Nepenthe and the president of Big Sur’s Chamber of Commerce.

He lives on site, among the Nepenthe complex’s 23 workforce housing units. Ironically, some next-generation Gafills want to get into the family business but are struggling to find somewhere to live in Big Sur.

Ask Gafill what’s the genesis of the housing crunch in Big Sur, and he will start at the beginning—as in 1937, when the coastal highway opened to connect the Monterey Peninsula to San Luis Obispo and create what would become one of the most traveled scenic routes in North America.

He’ll tell you that the world-famous Ventana resort was the first local business required by law to provide workforce housing, in 1974. Post Ranch Inn, a competing resort across the road, built its own onsite quarters for its employees in 1992.

While he can’t pinpoint an exact number of commuters, he can extrapolate from his own business’ numbers: approximately 40 percent of his employees commute. With about 1,100 workers in Big Sur — a number that does not include government employees or tradespeople doing contracting jobs in the area — that would put the total number at 440.

Gafill qualifies such a calculation with a wide plus-or-minus disclaimer, but he makes the point that hundreds of people make the long, winding, two-lane highway every day—in many cases because they don’t have the option to live in Big Sur.

The reason for the shortage is complicated. It starts with the very nature of Big Sur, where the natural landscape—coastal mountains, landslides, forest fires—isn’t terribly conducive to a denser population. Plus, new construction is limited by some of the county’s tighest building restrictions (the Big Sur Coast Land-Use Plan, implemented in 1981, says that “future land use development on the Big Sur coast should be extremely limited”) and a long practice by public agencies of acquiring lands for preservation.

But recent shifts in the local real estate scene have also had an impact.

“There has always been somewhat of an absentee population,” says Kronlund, a contractor who builds custom homes in Big Sur. “But now more money is coming in from out of the area, mostly from Silicon Valley and some from Los Angeles.”

This has increased second-home ownership. It has also cut into the tradition of homesteading, in which a caretaker would live on a property and watch over it for the owner (who likely lived elsewhere part of the year but was invested in the local community). This would be a side gig for the caretaker, who’d hold a job at a local business.

In recent years, this more personable approach to property management has given way to a more corporate one: the new breed of second-home owners are increasingly turning to property management companies for oversight.

Forest fires have also factored in, having wiped out about 100 homes in the past decade. Only a portion of those have been rebuilt, further diminishing the area’s housing inventory. Fire affected Stone’s living situation; she said she and her husband had been living in Palo Colorado Canyon and wanted to buy a place down the coast. They found a property and were ready to make an offer until that house was wiped out by the Soberanes Fire.

Perhaps the most controversial factor is the rise of the short-term rental.

“It’s the biggest, most profound change we’ve seen in the past 10-15 years,” Gafill says. “That has just been galloping at this incredible rate.”

Because of online avenues such as AirBnB and VRBO, homeowners can easily rent out their guest quarters like hotel rooms, at much higher rates than if they were to rent to long-term tenants on an annual or month-to-month lease. Cities on the Peninsula have responded to this trend by implementing bans or passing legislation to regulate it.

With upwards of 100 short-term rentals operating in the Big Sur area, STRs represents roughly 20 percent of the housing demand for Big Sur’s commuting workers. That’s why Gafill, Aldinger and a slew of other members of the Big Sur Local Defense Committee are fighting to eliminate the short-term rental.

As a hotel operator, Aldinger says short-term rentals are bad for business, and they increase traffic on Big Sur’s sideroads—remote areas where residents don’t appreciate the uptick in strangers roaming their streets.

With every new short-term rental, “there’s one less house in the inventory for an employee of the River Inn or any business to rent,” Aldinger says. “And now there are few long-term rentals, so it drives the price up for those that are left.”

Gafill takes the argument a step further, referencing the Big Sur land use plan that stipulates housing cannot be converted for any other use. He says short-term housing is a conversion of use.

While the push against short-term rentals is strong, so is the effort to keep them legal. Operators of the short-term rentals don’t want to give up their income, which in many cases might be necessary to keep up with the cost of living in Big Sur.

So fierce is the battle, there are stories of longtime friends no longer speaking to each other over the matter. Kronlund said that when the property owners association—which takes a neutral stance on short-term rentals—did a survey of local owners on the issue, 47 percent said they were for STRs, while 53 percent were against.

A resolution appears to be in the works, as the county Planning Commission decided earlier this month to include Big Sur in its pursuit of a short-term rental ordinance.

In the meantime, employers do what they can to keep and attract employees. At the River Inn, Aldinger says that includes subsidizing housing for a few employees while raising wages for others.

“But people traveling 30 to 50 miles aren’t going to do that long-term,” he says.

One of his employees, Jonathan Colin, doesn’t mind driving down from Seaside three days a week to run the River Inn’s gas station. “I actually love doing the drive,” Colin says. “But a lot of people I know don’t like it.”

That includes at least three co-workers he knows who have moved out of Big Sur because they couldn’t afford to live there.

For now, employers such as Aldinger and Gafill have to rely on finding workers like Colin and Stone, who enjoy the drive or who are intent on working in Big Sur.

If Big Sur businesses think they have a problem now, the state Department of Transportation, or Caltrans, projects that Big Sur tourism may not peak for another 30 years—meaning food and lodging demands are likely to continue increasing over the next three decades.

That also means more cars on the road, which means longer commute times for employees coming from the north.

“We’re at a turning point here in Big Sur,” Kronlund says. “You see it on the Peninsula, but it’s really amplified down the coast. Visitorship is just off the hook.”

So what’s the solution? “There’s no simple answer,” Aldinger says.

It could take multiple approaches to attempt meeting the housing demand while preserving Big Sur’s natural allure.

The River Inn is Big Sur’s northernmost business; it’s 24 miles south of the Crossroads Shopping Center in Carmel, or about a 35-minute drive on a good day. Nepenthe is another 5 miles, or about 10 minutes, south of there. Again, that’s without any tourists clogging the road—sunny days can mean rolling down the coast at 15 to 20 mph slower than a local’s preferred speed.

There are plenty of popular destinations between these points (Fernwood, Big Sur Roadhouse and Pfeiffer State Park, to name a few), and several more further south (such as the Henry Miller Library, Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn and the waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park), that need to be staffed and that draw hoards of visitors.

Just five miles north of the River Inn is a place where people have lived for much of the past 60 years: the old Point Sur Naval Facility. It’s abandoned now, and the structures have deteriorated to a state of disrepair similar to the old Fort Ord barracks blighting a stretch of Highway 1 in the Seaside-Marina area.

But it is an open, relatively flat area within a short trip to Big Sur’s commercial zone. And it has a history as a residential area, with more than 100 naval staff living there at one time.

There are some challenges to developing this spot, Gafill says, such as providing modern water and sewage accommodations. There are also complications: it belongs to the State Park system and it’s been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

Adams views that spot as a potential location for a park-and-ride for commuting employees and tourists, who could shuttle south from there. That wouldn’t add any housing, but it would help take cars off the road—and shorten commute times.

“There has to be something that happens between now and when there are shovels put in the ground,” Adams says. “I don’t think we can sit back and wait until there is some sort of building taking place. We have to look at the issue now and start coming up with solutions that work in the interim.”

Other approaches being discussed for additional housing include seeing more guest units built on existing residential properties. Another is for businesses to provide more housing on their premises. But not every business has the space or money to do so. Businesses and private landowners could collaborate to produce a residential facility, or multiple facilities. Kronlund says spots are currently being scouted, though that pursuit is in its infancy.

This idea part of the update to the Big Sur Land-Use Plan, which has been in the works for four years and has a strong focus on the housing shortage.

“The last plan was very strong on preserving the environment and resources,” says Mary Trotter, chair of the Big Sur Land-Use Committee. “We feel it has done a satisfactory job of that. Now we find it is time to protect the community and address the housing shortage, because it is particularly severe in Big Sur.”

The first draft of the plan was turned into the county about a year ago but has not yet been addressed, Trotter says. So it has a ways to go to get through the county system and eventually to the ultimate authority on the matter, the Coastal Commission.

Given that time frame, more housing is likely years away. And even when a plan is agreed upon and ultimately brought to fruition, it isn’t guaranteed to be the ultimate fix.

“Whatever we could come up with,” Kronlund says, “it wouldn’t be enough.”

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Laith Agha

About Laith Agha

Laith Agha is a former Monterey Herald reporter and Peninsula native. He recently returned to the area after a long hiatus in that big urban area a little to the north and in that even bigger one to the south — which helped confirm long-held feelings about the Giants and Dodgers.