Erica Atreya never fell out of love with San Jose. The Silicon Valley capital just became too damn expensive. Her husband, Krishna, really wanted to buy. But even with his engineer’s salary, the couple could only afford to rent a one bedroom town home.
The Atreyas soon realized that if left the San Francisco Bay Area, they could actually buy a piece of the proverbial American dream. So they started house-hunting farther and farther afield, in places like Pleasanton, Dublin and Livermore. But their goal of homeownership continued to remain elusive. “We kept getting bought out by people who were offering cash,” Atreya says.
Finally, the Atreyas found their way to Folsom, east of Sacramento. Erika Atreya loves the small city’s easy-going vibe and its proximity to nature. But she misses San Jose.
A year and a half out, she continues to struggle with the emotional fallout of the change. “There was more than an adjustment,” says the self-taught visual artist, who lived in San Jose for 18 years before she and her husband decamped for Folsom. “There was depression, and loneliness.”
For one thing, San Jose’s demographic mix makes for a richer, multi-cultural feel, which Atreya loves. For another, the art gallery scene in Folsom doesn’t really compare to her old home base. “Back home, I had so many people to reach out to in my art community,” Atreya says.
Room to paint in Folsom
That said, the Atreyas’ new three-bedroom house gives the couple space to breathe and grow. Now, instead of ever so carefully spreading out on the couch with her materials, as she used to in San Jose, Atreya has her own studio in the garage. She also has enough wall space in the house to accommodate 40 works of art, many by friends she had to leave behind.
Atreya is constantly adding to the collection with new works, like this one:
“I did lot of detail and texturization with puff paint,” Atreya says of one of the pieces on display in her home, titled Eve. “So you can actually touch the piece.”
Not Johnny Cash’s Folsom
The Folsom the Atreyas moved to is not the one that comes to mind from the 1968 Johnny Cash song “Folsom Prison Blues.” These days, the city is like a comfortable, middle class Sacramento suburb. Intel is the biggest employer. Half the population hails from the San Francisco Bay Area or Southern California.
“It’s cyclical,” explains Mary Ann McAlea, senior vice president of the Greater Folsom Partnership, a consortium of organizations that oversee tourism, trade and economic development in the region. McAlea says Folsom’s population expands every time real estate booms to the west. “It’s tied to the real estate values on the coast.”
McAlea says Folsom has witnessed a spike in in-migration over the last five years, especially young families looking for more square footage in an area where they can also find well-paying jobs.
Dramatic losses for San Jose
In recent years, rising real estate prices have pressured – or forced – artists to leave San Francisco and Oakland for cheaper places elsewhere. The same thing is happening in Silicon Valley.
The average rent for a San Jose apartment these days is $2,600 according to the real estate brokerage firm Marcus Millichap. That’s not as bad as San Francisco, but San Jose rents are still steep, and nearly 50 percent higher than they were five years ago.
Even for those who can afford to pay the rent, the pull to leave for cheaper living is hard to resist — especially if you’re an artist whose partner makes the bulk of the household income.
In the time since she left for Folsom, Atreya says she knows of five other artists who left their hearts in San Jose. This number includes a musician who like her also moved to Sacramento County, a painter who moved in El Dorado County, and three people who left for Oregon. “We know the market has changed drastically,” acknowledges Kerry Adams-Hapner, San Jose’s director of cultural affairs.
Adams-Hapner says the city of San Jose is surveying its artists for the second time in eight years to get a current handle on their housing and work space issues. Real estate costs are dramatically higher now. But even five years ago, 47 percent of the 700 artists canvassed in the survey found San Jose area housing unaffordable; two-thirds reported spending more than 30 percent of their income on mortgage or rent.
“People need a space to live, fundamentally,” Adams Hapner says. “Also, people need a space to present their work. They need a space to rehearse. And they need spaces also to connect with each other and network.”
In Folsom, Atreya is gradually building a new network of friends and professional contacts. But she still feels an emotional pull towards her old home. “All my art family’s there, mostly,” Atreya says. “So, my heart’s still here in San Jose.”
Atreya still regularly drives three hours southwest to reconnect with her friends in San Jose. She’s still a member of the San Jose Art Salon, a group of creatives who meet regularly for collective inspiration. And every month, she returns to Arte nella Piazza, an art bazaar in San Jose’s Little Italy neighborhood.
Those that stayed behind
This exodus of artists is depressing for those left behind in the South Bay, too – even if they’re not about to get priced out. At the art fair, Steve Borelli has his own table set up near Atreya’s with his abstract drawings available for sale.
“Every passing day, I feel I’m luckier,” Borelli says. Borelli bought a house years ago in Campbell, near San Jose. Borelli pays the mortgage with his salary as a graphic designer. But his true love is drawing – and his connection to the local artists’ community.
“I fear for the future,” Borelli says. “You know, if it keeps going the way that it is, eventually you’re going to see a mass migration out, and I just hope it never comes to that.”
The exodus is a function of the economy, says Matthew Mahood, president and CEO of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The loss of school teachers and firefighters might seem to be a more pressing concern for San Jose than the flight of artists. But Mahood says quality of life is equally essential for the region to thrive going forward. “In order to attract and keep a quality workforce, you have to have arts and entertainment,” Mahood says. “Those things where people want to call this home.”