Debunking San Francisco’s pandemic exodus myth

How COVID-19 has changed where Californians live

By Soumya Karlamangla

New York Times

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, we’ve been hearing about Californians abandoning their usual way of life for greener, cheaper pastures.

There are the San Franciscans who weathered lockdown orders in Lake Tahoe, and the Angelenos with new desert cabins in Joshua Tree. Tales abound of Silicon Valley types moving home to Miami and Seattle, or renting acres of land in Idaho.

The story goes like this: The coronavirus and the ability to work remotely have fundamentally reshaped where we want to live — and large California cities, particularly San Francisco and Los Angeles, are not on the list.

But is any of that actually true?

I’ll start with the short answer. There hasn’t been an exodus from California, but pandemic forces have shifted where people reside within the state. Those patterns of relocation mirror what we were already seeing before COVID-19, but on overdrive.

Here’s how this shakes out.

California’s population declined slightly in 2020, but it wasn’t because of a mass migration to other states. To blame are coronavirus deaths, a lower birthrate and fewer international arrivals.

In fact, 82% of Californians who moved last year stayed in the state, according to a report from the California Policy Lab. That figure has been basically stable over the past five years.

“A lot more people are moving around within the state than they are out of the state,” said Eric McGhee, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California. “That movement tends to be within a certain metropolitan area, and a lot of that is people moving to suburbs and exurbs.”

Californians are likely to move from Los Angeles to the Inland Empire or from San Francisco to the fringes of the Bay Area or the Sacramento region, McGhee said. That’s because they want cheaper housing but don’t want to end up so far away that they need to change jobs.

It’s been that way for a long time. These were the largest county-to-county net migrations in California between 2015 and 2019, according to census data:

  • San Francisco to Alameda (5,469)
  • San Francisco to San Mateo (4,239)
  • Los Angeles to San Bernardino (20,809 people)
  • Los Angeles to Riverside (13,949)
  • Los Angeles to Orange (11,879)
  • Alameda to Contra Costa (9,246)
  • Orange to Riverside (8,282)
  • Los Angeles to Kern (6,032)
  • San Diego to Riverside (5,892)
  • Alameda to San Joaquin (4,134)

With the emergence of the pandemic in 2020, some of these trends kicked into high gear.

The Inland Empire tied Phoenix in 2020 for the biggest gain in households from migration nationwide, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. The flow of humanity into Riverside and San Bernardino counties increased by 50% compared with the previous year.

This reflects Californians’ desire to escape the exorbitant home prices of more coastal regions. In Riverside County, the median single-family home price in August was $570,000, compared with $830,070 in Los Angeles County and $1.85 million in San Francisco.

As the New York Times noted in a recent analysis, pricey San Francisco experienced one of the most significant exoduses of the pandemic. While “migration patterns during the pandemic have looked a lot like migration patterns before it,” that wasn’t the case for San Francisco, they wrote.

In The City, net exits — the number of people leaving minus the number of people arriving — increased to 38,800 in the last three quarters of 2020, compared with 5,200 during the same time the previous year, according to the California Policy Lab report. The city lost one-eighth of its total households last year by some estimates.

But perhaps this is good news for those us of fighting the myth of a California exodus: Two-thirds of San Franciscans who fled landed in other parts of the Bay Area and 80% stayed in the state.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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