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In California, Going to the Beach Can Break the Bank

Centuri Cook and family visit the California coast | Photo: courtesy Centuri Cook
Centuri Cook and family visit the California coast | Photo: courtesy Centuri Cook

Centuri Cook has loved California’s coast since the first time she saw it in 2007. “Every single time you ever go there, it’s like you’re seeing it for the first time and feeling it in your mind, body, and soul,” says the 35-year-old homemaker and mother of two.

Cook lives in Roseville, California – about 3,000 miles from the Mohawk Nation where she was raised. As someone who grew up deeply connected with her community and the land, Cook has found that the coast fills an important space of nonmaterial wonder for her and her family.

But like a number of California residents, Cook says that visiting the coast can be prohibitively expensive, especially for those coming from farther away and looking to spend a night or two near the beach.

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A recent survey conducted by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that nine out of every ten respondents said the coast is personally important to them. Yet six in ten said they face challenges that limit their access to California’s shores.

The reasons are vast: it’s not just that beachfront property owners attempt to keep the public from enjoying the coast, but that limited public transportation, high-cost parking, and exorbitant overnight lodging costs present major obstacles when it comes to someone’s ability to enjoy our beaches.

A new survey by the Coastal Conservancy in fact shows that of those who do stay overnight the vast majority are over 65 and white, two demographic groups most likely to be able to afford the rising costs of accommodation in coastal regions.

In search of affordable lodging

Cook first moved to California in 2007; when she got pregnant a year later, she moved back to Mohawk territory. She decided to return to the state 2013 – and marked the occasion by setting out to visit the coast with her boyfriend and daughter. They set out to Crescent City, a remote northwest corner of the state where Cook says she found affordable lodging. The family spent time in the redwoods and then headed down to Santa Cruz, where Cook had found a good deal on a hotel near the beach. Her daughter Alove, who was just four years old at the time, loved the water so much she threw on a bathing suit and braved temperatures in the low 50s just to get a chance to swim.

Upscale lodging in the once-affordable Capitola | Photo: yhelfman/iStockPhoto
Upscale lodging in Capitola, near Santa Cruz | Photo: yhelfman/iStockPhoto

The following day, the family headed south to Monterey, just an hour away from Santa Cruz. That’s when Cook says she learned that hotel rates near the shore can make it so that a family has no option for lodging. “The prices were insane!” recalls Cook, who remembers seeing hotel rooms with $200, $300, and even $400 a night price tags. “So we went back up to Santa Cruz.”

What Centuri Cook and her family experienced isn’t unusual: UCLA’s study found that out of those people who face challenges getting to the coast, an astonishing 75 percent say it’s because they’re priced out of lodging. “The average amount that people said they were willing to pay for overnight lodging on the coast was $117.65 per night,” noted the study, Access for All. But even that cost is high for a lot of Californians.

Sam Schuchat is Executive Officer with the Coastal Conservancy, a state agency that works to expand access to the California coast. He says that in order to bring more residents to the beach the Conservancy needs to begin to shift the way it sees and works around issues of access.

“It used to be we thought of access as being the last 100 feet,” explained Schuchat, noting their focus had been on things like parking and the shoreline. “But [what the Conservancy survey shows] is that most Californians see access as involving the entire journey.”

For Cook and her family, who have to drive three or more hours to get to the beach, the cost of that journey quickly adds up. Before even budgeting in the cost of overnight stays, Cook has to calculate the cost of gas, tolls and food for the day. That means that anything over $50 a night is a stretch for the family. “We really want to go to the beach,” says Cook, “but we don’t want to break the bank.”

Even AirBNB rentals are pricey in Monterey | Image: AirBnB/KCET
Even AirBNB rentals are pricey in Monterey | Image: AirBnB/KCET

Limits on the Coastal Act

The California Coastal Act of 1976 was created to keep the coast impeccable, with equal access for everyone. But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. During its first five years, the California Coastal Commission was charged with the duty to protect, encourage, and provide affordable permanent housing along the coast – but legislators yanked that authority from commissioners in 1981. The Coastal Act still requires the commission to protect and encourage affordable lodging, but its power to do so is limited. “[The Coastal Act] clarifies that the commission cannot set room rates,” says Madeline Cavalieri, a coastal program manager at the commission.

Here’s what that means in practice: If a luxury hotel company wants to develop a new property along the coast, it has to obtain the commission’s permission to do so. Under its responsibility to ensure equal access for all, the commission would naturally be concerned that the rates may be too high at the luxury hotel for low-income beach-goers. But commissioners can’t mandate that any number of rooms be designated at a lower rate – because, as it stands, the Coastal Act bars the commission from doing so. The same act that’s meant to guarantee equal access for all essentially prohibits some of the most obvious methods to do so.

To mitigate that challenge, Cavalieri says that in some cases of clearly high-cost hotel projects, the commission may ask for in-kind development of lower-cost projects, like hostels and campgrounds. Yet those schemes aren’t always successful. A hostel planned for Imperial Beach in San Diego was abandoned in February. It’s slated to be a restaurant and 10-barrel brewery instead – and not necessarily one that low-income visitors will be able to afford to enjoy.

Old motel sign | Photo: Tim Parkinson, some rights reserved
Mid-century style affordable lodging is a dying breed along the California coast | Photo: Tim Parkinson, some rights reserved

As it stands, lower-cost accommodations like hostels and campgrounds are always in high demand – most summer dates for these spaces along the coast are already sold out. Hostels and campgrounds can be reserved online, but navigating the login and reservation system can be cumbersome for people who can only get online via cellphone.

And not everyone wants to stay in such accommodations. The Coastal Conservancy’s survey – which polled 1,200 residents statewide in Spanish and English – found that close to 60 percent of respondents would not stay in dorm-style lodging even if it were available, though younger visitors ages 18-34 were more inclined to stay in dorms or similar types of accommodations. Hotels are the most common type of lodging for visitors to the coast, the survey found.

Latino family members play on the beach at Malibu | Photo: depphoto/iStockPhoto
Father and child play on the beach at Malibu. Coastal access is a legal right for all Californians. | Photo: depphoto/iStockPhoto

For parents like Cook, comfort has a lot to do with it. After watching the kids all day, she says, “You kind of just want to lay in an actual bed.”

Cook says she’d like to visit the coast a lot more, but has to settle on going once or twice a year. The family packs up and takes off around 8 a.m.; they can’t leave much earlier because her son is still a toddler who needs his mornings to sleep, eat, and settle in to the day. They get to the coast before noon and spend whatever time they can before packing the car and kids back up and spending another three hours on the road to get home.

They haven’t been staying overnight because they haven’t found options under the $100 range. “That’s groceries for one-and-a-half weeks,” explains Cook. As important as it is to commune with the coast, it’s also important to put food on the table. But it isn’t a decision any California family should have to make.

A bill in California’s legislature introduced by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) would mandate state agencies create plans for affordable lodging along the coast. AB-250 passed the Natural Resources Commission with a 7-to-1 vote and is headed to the Assembly's Appropriations Committee later this month.

This story was written with support from New America Media’s California’s Coast: A Time of Reckoning Fellowship Program. Banner: Signs of bygone affordable beach lodging | Photo: Kevin Russ/iStockPhoto

For the record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sam Schuchat's title. His correct title is Executive Officer. We regret the error.