‘It’s so much better here’

Tenants who followed Bay Area landlord to Colorado aren’t looking back

By Louis Hansen / The Mercury News

The first snow dusted Colorado Springs in late October.

Tony Hicks — San Jose resident for 37 years, Colorado Springs landlord for 4 months — didn’t take it as a sign he made the wrong move.

“It’s so much better here. It is nicer, cleaner,” said Hicks, a 58-year-old retired engineer and landlord. He sold his three San Jose rental homes this year, bought a half-dozen houses in Colorado Springs, and moved his family, along with several willing and eager tenants, to the Rockies.

“I’ve moved out of Hades and moved into heaven,” said Mike Leyva, a retired Santa Clara County employee who rented from Hicks and moved with him.

About 70,000 residents have left Santa Clara County, California, over the past five years — making it one of the more popular spots in the country to flee. The relentless job growth of the region’s tech sector has driven a net population gain. But the longing to leave is pushing young professionals seeking to buy a home, start a family, shorten their commutes and drink cheaper cups of coffee to other parts of California and western states like Colorado.

And for those on fixed incomes or in low-paid jobs, moving can be a financial necessity. The median rent in November for a two-bedroom apartment in San Jose was $2,630, according to Apartment List.

Hicks and his tenants took the unusual step of moving together. This news organization profiled the group in February as they prepared for the big departure. One reader, Jeff Heuser, was inspired to meet Hicks and join the exodus.

Hicks had had enough of the Bay Area — growing traffic, the homeless population, liberal politics and high prices — and looked for an out. He broke the news to his tenants, expecting them to be upset. Instead, about 10 men and women asked to come along.

“Tony asked me and I said, ‘Let’s go!’ ” said Dan Harvey, 60, a longtime tenant who was tired of the Bay Area’s high prices and frustrated by the traffic.

They left Santa Clara County — median home price $1.2 million — for Colorado Springs — median home price $284,000. The cost of living is roughly half of what the tenants, many of whom are on fixed incomes, faced in the Bay Area.

Hicks sold his three homes at the top of the market this spring. He immediately reinvested the proceeds into new properties to avoid capital gains taxes.

The first wave of the caravan started east in March. Some had rented from Hicks for more than a decade, and had family and friends in the Bay Area. But they were eager to pack their worldly items into moving boxes for a 1,300 mile trip to a new, cheaper and more conservative life.

Harvey and three of his roommates spent five days on the road to Colorado Springs. They got lost in California, ending up near Las Vegas, before getting back on track. “We took our time,” Harvey said. “We didn’t want to rush.”

Hicks purchased four homes and has plans to buy another rental in the same ZIP code, within a few minutes drive of each other. The new properties, built less than 15 years ago, are three- and four-bedrooms, and sold for between $300,000 and $340,000, Hicks said.

Leyva, 65, a renter for the past two decades, with an ex-wife and two sons in the Bay Area, expected to have roommates in Colorado.

But after reaching Colorado Springs, he scraped up enough savings for a down payment. With the help of a VA loan, Leyva bought a four-bedroom, three-bathroom house near Hicks. He filled the space with $7,400 worth of new furniture and appliances, including a pair of HD TVs and three Thomas Kinkade prints.

The new neighborhood has all the simple pleasures Leyva desired — two blocks from Costco and Safeway, and a 15-minute drive to his doctor’s office and the VA.

Leyva got a fishing license and a permit to carry a concealed handgun. He found a man-made lake nearby for casting his line, and, a few weeks ago, he drove up to Pike’s Peak. “It’s just beautiful scenery up there. Man, you can see forever,” he said.

Heuser, 64, a semi-retired nurse in San Jose, was also tired of California politics, traffic and the high price of staying in the Bay Area.

He scouted out Colorado Springs twice, and decided to leave the area he had called home for 40 years. He sold his San Jose condo and bought a new house near Hicks and his tenants.

He feels likes he’s home, he said. “I miss the weather. That was what was keeping me in the Bay Area.”

Hicks said another one of his tenants reconciled with his estranged wife, and the couple now rents a room from him.

Hicks spent $300,000 on closing and moving costs to bring his longtime tenants to new homes. He’s building a custom home, a sixth property, for his wife and young daughter — with six bedrooms, a four-car garage, home theater, and a great room on five acres in a new subdivision.

It will cost less than the least expensive home he sold in California.

Hicks has returned to San Jose twice to tie up loose ends. “I kept thinking, I used to live here,” he said. “Do I miss it? No. I’m done.”

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