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Fewer people moving to California as more leave, new study finds

A for sale sign in from of a home in Chula Vista on April 16, 2020.
Alexander Nguyen
A for sale sign in from of a home in Chula Vista on April 16, 2020.

The California Dream, the idea that here you can get rich, be famous, explore nature or just find yourself, has long enticed people to the Golden State. But that dream could be waning.

Since the start of the pandemic, the number of people moving to California from other states has dropped by 38%, according to a new study released by the California Policy Lab, a nonpartisan research institute based at University of California campuses.

But Californians are still moving out of state. The report finds the number of people leaving the state is back to pre-pandemic levels.

“Every region in the state has had entrances go down by anywhere from 25 to 45%, but we're seeing that it's especially pronounced in the San Francisco Bay Area,” said Evan White, executive director of the California Policy Lab and co-author of the study.

All 58 counties in the state have seen a drop in out-of-state entrances and most counties saw an increase in the number of people leaving the state.

Fewer people moving to California as more leave, new study finds
Listen to this story by Claire Trageser

Speaker 1: (00:00)

The California dream, that idea that you can get rich, be famous, explore nature, or just find yourself has long enticed people to the golden state. But it's a dream that is increasingly hard to attain with many eager to write its obituary due to increased wildfire, shifting business patterns and rising housing costs as a report and someone who just lives here. The idea that this place is too expensive is something I hear a lot about. I recently talked with Vanessa Houston of El Cajon, who after weeks of looking for an apartment just had to give up. I

Speaker 2: (00:34)

Decided I'm just gonna put all my stuff in storage. So I'm leaving California because the price to live in is very expensive.

Speaker 1: (00:43)

And that's one thing we've been hearing about for a long time. People are leaving California. The question we're all trying to understand is just how many are leaving a new study release yesterday by the university of California, finds that since the start of the pandemic, more people are moving out of state than coming in. Joining me now for more on this report and its findings is Evan white, one of the study's authors and the executive director of the California policy lab at UC Berkeley. Hey Evan. Hi there. Okay. So what exactly did your research show in terms of the number of people moving in and out of the state since March, 2020?

Speaker 3: (01:20)

Yeah. So since the start to the pandemic, uh, we saw that the state was losing population due to, uh, domestic migration. The big story is not that people are leaving it's that fewer people are coming. So entrances to California, since the pandemic began are down by nearly 40% now, exits are also somewhat up, but they're matching a pre pandemic trend, which was already showing that people were leaving, uh, California in small numbers. Uh, we're seeing this trend pretty much statewide. Um, every region in the state has had entrances go down by anywhere from 25 to 45%. Um, but we're seeing that it's especially pronounced in the San Francisco bay area.

Speaker 1: (02:04)

Why do you think that is? Why is the bay area kind of leading this right now?

Speaker 3: (02:07)

I would say that it's the jury's still out. Uh, we really don't know. We hope to do future, uh, future research on that question, but this report really just focuses on the numbers because a lot of, uh, the reports that have come out have been sort of speculative or the used data, that's not, uh, that's not very comprehensive. So we've tried to put some numbers to this debate.

Speaker 1: (02:26)

I wanna ask you about that data, but first I wanna turn to San Diego, how many people have left San Diego to move out of state and how many people are moving in compared to other years?

Speaker 3: (02:35)

Yeah, so our data show that over 30,000, uh, San Diegos have left the county for other states and only about 14,000, uh, moved in that's in the third quarter of 2021. The change since the beginning of the pandemic is that exits are up by 8%. But the biggest changes that entrances from other states into the, the county of San Diego are down by 39%.

Speaker 1: (03:00)

And what data did you use to measure where people are moving to and from? Yeah,

Speaker 3: (03:05)

So we used what we think is the most comprehensive data set that we've seen on this topic, which is data from one of the three nationwide credit bureaus. So when you take out a credit card or you have a, uh, a bank loan, uh, you, I provide your zip code to that, uh, lender, and they report it up to one of the credit bureaus. We use anonymized credit bureau data, um, to see, uh, whether people have changed their zip codes from one quarter to the next, we're able to see about 90% of adults in the state. Um, and so others who've used other data sources like the United States postal service data. This is a little bit more comprehensive and it's also, um, very up to date. So our numbers are through the end of September of 2021.

Speaker 1: (03:47)

I know there's a lot of focus on California losing a congressional seat due to population changes, but beyond that, why should people listening care about how many people are moving in or out of the state? Like, what does this tell us about our communities about politics? Why should people really be paying attention to this?

Speaker 3: (04:05)

Yeah, I think that's a really good question. I think people assume that losing population is sort of necessarily a bad thing and to be sure it has some negative consequences such as losing federal electoral power and federal funding, but I think there are other potential benefits, low population could decrease demand for housing, for example, and it, and thereby lowering housing prices. Uh, we saw a little bit of that at the beginning of the pandemic in San Francisco. Um, when rents went down, uh, it could also have labor market effects or impacts on, on tax revenues. So I think, you know, there's a lot of different ways. It could change things. I think the reason people are so drawn to this question is because influences their own perception of where they live. If they, they see other people leaving, they feel like maybe, maybe they should leave too or something like that. But, uh, I know for me personally, I, I love this state and the fact of people leaving or coming is not gonna change that

Speaker 1: (04:54)

In the last few years. It seems like we're always reading a study telling us about a potential California Exodus, but you say your research is in line with other university of California studies and doesn't find evidence of such an Exodus. How do you define and quantify an Exodus? And, and why do you think there's so much attention on kind of characterizing, you know, domestic migration this way?

Speaker 3: (05:17)

Yeah, it, it does seem like most weeks there's a story about people leaving California. Some of these stories, in my opinion, reflect somewhat of a conservative political bias, but some reflect genuine concerns with the livability of the state. Um, it's housing prices, it's homelessness crisis it's wildfires. We tried to bring some data, some actual data to this discussion and what our reports shows is it's really not as much about Cal eggs it as it is about Cal entrances. Uh, the bulk of the population loss from domestic migration is due to fewer people moving to the state, not not many people moving out of it. Um, so, um, you ask how we define an Exodus. I, I guess I'd look for a change in the rate of exits from the state, and we have not seen that go up. And in fact, in the early pandemic months that went down, um, although it's since rebounded to, to roughly the pre pandemic trend,

Speaker 1: (06:10)

Why is it important to kind of reframe the way we're thinking about inward and outward movements to really look at the fact that it's, that less people are moving into California? Does that reframe the issue or any potential policy points that we can make out of the data you're finding?

Speaker 3: (06:27)

I think in some ways it does, in some ways it doesn't. I think policy makers seem to be quite worried about population loss and they have to focus on both sides of that coin, keeping people, people here who are already here, but also attracting new residents. And so, because our study shows that there's so much more of a change on the entrances side, um, that could mean that California has to do a better job of marketing the state to non-California residents and trying to counter the narrative of, you know, prominent figures like Elon Musk can make a big show of leaving California, even though it factories are still here. And, uh, it may also mean improving conditions on the ground in terms of the things that matter to potential movers, things like high housing costs and homelessness and the business climate and wildfires. And I think that part is what hasn't changed because that is as true for people who live here as it is for people who we might wanna attract here. So

Speaker 1: (07:16)

You've mentioned this is the most comprehensive of dataset that you've been able to use in order to understand this phenomenon. What's next in terms of your research and questions you have as we move forward into 2022. Yeah.

Speaker 3: (07:28)

Well, we're gonna continue to monitor the trends. Um, so we'll see what changes in 2022. We also, uh, wanna take a, a closer look at the why questions to see if, and, uh, figure out what seems to be driving. Uh, these changes. Are we seeing people leave from higher cost areas or from areas where there's more availability of remote work options, or are we seeing people leave from areas where there's, um, a lot of wildfire risk. So trying to do some of that analysis to figure out the why of the question I think will be important to break through some of the high

Speaker 1: (07:59)

About this. I've been speaking with Evan white, the executive director of the California policy lab at UC Berkeley. Thank you so much for your time.

Speaker 3: (08:07)

Thank you for having me.

San Diego County is no exception. Since the start of the pandemic, San Diego County saw a 39% decrease in the number of people moving to the region from out of state since before the pandemic. From July to September 2021, 30,000 people left San Diego for another state. Only 14,000 people moved in from another state.

Vanessa Houston, a renter that was forced to relocate from her El Cajon apartment, is one of the thousands that decided to leave San Diego for the East Coast.

“I am leaving California because the price of living is very expensive,” she said, after weeks of looking for affordable housing.

The report doesn’t look into what is motivating these changes in moving patterns. There’s been a series of reports attributing people leaving to rising housing costs or the political bent of the state, but White said it’s all been speculative.

“The jury’s still out. We really don’t know,” he said. “We’ve tried to put some numbers to this debate.”

Earlier this year, California lost a congressional seat for the first time in history. But White cautions that losing population does not have to be looked at as an exclusively negative phenomenon.

“Lower population could decrease demand in housing, for example, thereby lowering housing prices,” he said. “There’s a lot of different ways it could change things.”

In spite of these changes, the study is not evidence of a so-called California exodus. Rather, White said it’s actually about shifting the narrative and looking at why people are no longer moving to California from other parts of the country.

“The bulk of the population from domestic migration is due to fewer people moving to the state, not people moving out of it,” he said. “Policymakers seem to be quite worried about population loss, and they have to focus on both sides of the coin.”

Fewer people moving to California as more leave, new study finds