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The vast majority of residential moves in 2022 were within California. Stock photo
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Elias: Is California exodus ending?

Strong signs abound that this year will mark the end of the over-publicized “California exodus,” which saw this state lose about 340,000 persons in 2021 and 2022, a bit less than 1% of its population.

The dates alone give some idea of why this population reduction occurred: They coincide with the nadir of the coronavirus pandemic, when thousands more Californians than usual died and hundreds of thousands of workers were given license to operate from home, wherever they chose to make it.

Some of those factors are now reversing. The virus is now at bay, stymied by a combination of vaccines, boosters and natural forces. No virus wants to kill off all its hosts, thus preventing expansion. So COVID-19 has evolved into something less serious than it was, with a lower percentage of cases than before carrying potential dire outcomes.

Death rates have dropped precipitously, with many hospitals converting their former Covid wards into other functions and treatments like Pfizer’s Paxlovid knocking symptoms back quickly.

At the same time, many employers are asking workers to return at least part-time to offices, so distance between home and office is again a factor in choosing where to live.

All this shows up in new census figures. Yes, California had the lowest in-migration rate in the nation in 2022, with out-of-staters kept away mostly by sky-high property prices.

Only about 11% of those moving to California spots during that last year of severe pandemic came from other states. This meant the vast majority of residential moves were within California. 

That did not end the out-migration trend, but slowed it considerably, while making the Inland Empire region of Riverside and San Bernardino counties and the Sacramento into the fastest-growing regions in the state, even as population decreased a bit in coastal areas around San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The big metro areas, of course, are where home prices remain highest while the growth regions see far lower real estate and rental prices.

The actual figures show that about 4 million persons moved in 2022, when the current trends began, with a pretty normal 9% of Californians changing their residences.

California’s in-migration rate was among the nation’s lowest in part because home prices remain high in its coastal areas, where most newcomers prefer to live. 

But the in-state migration numbers indicate that once they’ve been here awhile and start to yearn for home ownership, folks are quite likely to move inland, even if the weather is often  hotter than near the ocean.

By comparison, Texas had an even lower migration rate than California over the last year on record, with just 11.7% of its moves going out of state (California saw 44,279 persons move in from Texas, the highest from any out-of-state location, beating out New York state by about 13,000.)

All this also means that the factors behind California’s many decades of steady growth remain in effect: Scenic coastlines, gentle and blizzard-free climates that allow outdoor activity year-round, accessible mountain activities from hiking to skiing, industries like entertainment and electronics and many work openings in agriculture are keeping any massive population drain from lasting long.

So the usual reporting of trends seems to have occurred: They tend to go unnoticed until they’re almost over and beginning to reverse.

That’s happening right now with office workers. While some of those leaving in 2021-22 went to cheaper, more rural locations like Idaho and Montana, that’s ending as some employers want to see more of their workers in office. 

Some who moved to distant points now face the dilemma of how to move back into California if they want to keep high-paying tech jobs.

But new tech workers can find plenty of luxury accommodations close to office areas because of the boom in apartment building spurred by pro-density state laws, combined with a plethora of vacancies in those same areas.

Plus, inflation-boosted pay and a likely easing of interest rates promise soon to make California more affordable.

All of which means that in the long run, the so-called California exodus will likely turn out to be very short-lived, with 2024 promising to be the year it began to peter out.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]. 

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