Given its iconic hold on the American imagination, the idea that more Americans are leaving California than coming breaches our own sense of uniqueness and promise. Yet, even as the economy has recovered, notably in the Bay Area and in pockets along the coast, the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that domestic migrants continue to leave the state more rapidly than they enter it.
First, the good news. People may be leaving California, but, overall, the rate of leaving is about three-quarters less than that experienced in the first decade of the millennium. In the core, booming San Francisco metropolitan area, there was even a shift toward net domestic migration after 2010, something rarely seen since the 1980s.
Outmigration dropped with the initial economic slowdown of the last recession, particularly as housing prices in some areas, notably the Inland Empire and the Sacramento area, drifted toward the national norm of three times incomes by 2010, having been twice that high or more in the boom times. The initial recovery after 2010 may also have encouraged people to stay as well.
Back to mounting outmigration
The San Francisco Bay Area lost more than 600,000 net domestic migrants between 2000 and 2009 before experiencing a five-year respite. Now, sadly, the story seems to be changing again. Housing prices, first in the Bay Area and later in other metropolitan areas, have surged mightily, and are now as high as over nine times household incomes. In 2016, some 26,000 more people left the Bay Area than arrived. San Francisco net migration went from a high of 16,000 positive in 2013 to 12,000 negative three years later.
Similar patterns have occurred across the state. Between 2010 and 2015, California had cut its average annual migration losses annually from 160,000 to 50,000, but that number surged last year to nearly 110,000. Losses in the Los Angeles-Orange County area have gone from 42,000 in 2011 to 88,000 this year. San Diego, where domestic migration turned positive in 2011 and 2012, is now losing around 8,000 net migrants annually.
The major exceptions to this trend can be found in the somewhat more affordable interior regions. Sacramento has gained net migration from barely 1,800 in 2011 to 12,000 last year. Even some still-struggling areas, like Modesto and Stockton, have seen some demographic resurgence as people move farther from the high-priced Bay Area.
Joel Kotkin is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class Conflict, The City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He is executive director of NewGeography.com and lives in Orange County, CA.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey” and author of “Demographia World Urban Areas” and “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.” He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.