Updated Jan. 10, 2020

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In 2017, Susanna Cardenas-Lopez left her home in Salinas to visit her brother in Idaho. Three days into her trip, she called her husband and told him they needed to move there.

Back in Salinas, Cardenas-Lopez and her husband were left out in the cold after their landlord decided to stop renting the home they lived in. They couldn’t afford anything else, so they had to move in with a family member, which was stressful.

Now in Idaho, she and her husband have free time and money left over at the end of each month. There’s a bonus — the area is significantly safer, she said.

“I feel like it’s a dream with the quality of life we now have,” Cardenas-Lopez said. “Yes, the pay is less, but that just doesn’t even seem to matter to me. At least we have enough to pay our rent and bills.”

Many of her family members face the same situation. Five months ago, her 35-year-old daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren left Salinas after their rent increased from $1,300 to $2,000 in just three years, she said. 

“I love California, but it’s just not the Golden State in my eyes anymore,” she said.

Cardenas-Lopez isn’t alone. U.S. Census Bureau numbers show that the middle- and lower-classes are leaving California at a higher rate than the wealthy. Many who have left in recent years say they simply couldn’t afford to stay. 

Susanna Cardenas-Lopez and her husband left their home in Salinas and moved to Idaho, citing California’s high cost of living. Boise, the capital of Idaho, (pictured above) has about 229,000 residents, about 20,000 more than a decade ago. (Photo via iStock.)

Cost of living: the defining issue

In the second quarter of 2019, the San Francisco Bay Area topped Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago when it came to people leaving major U.S. cities. It was second only to New York City. More than 28,190 people departed the Bay Area during those three months, close to double 2017’s rate, according to a regular migration report from real estate brokerage Redfin.

In 2018, according to the U.S. Census, about 190,000 more people left the Golden State than moved there. It was the second year in a row of the negative trend. However, the population is still rising due to the birth rate. California added 141,300 residents between July 2018 and July 2019, bringing its population to an estimated 39.96 million people, according to the California Department of Finance

A recent Edelman Trust Barometer survey found 53% of residents and 63% of millennials were considering leaving the country’s most populated state because of its high cost of living.

The majority of people leaving reported an annual income of less than $100,000, while the state has seen an influx of those making $100,000 and more.

According to a 2018 United Way Cost of Living report, Latino and African-American households struggle at the highest rates in California; the cost of housing is their largest burden.

Still, state demographers said a mix of factors likely are playing into the flight of the impoverished, elderly and those on fixed incomes.

“Moves relate to relative employment situation and they do relate to costs and amenities,” said Eddie Hunsinger, a demographer with the state Department of Finance. “They also, too, move at different stages of life. It’s generally a mix of factors going into migration.”

Hunsinger added that even when people are leaving the state in droves, there is still a steady flow of people moving into California. 

Randa Moore, who used to live in Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, said the No. 1 reason she left for Florida was the cost of living. 

“We were working 10-16 hours a day, seven days a week, every holiday, and were still struggling to buy groceries,” she said. 

Now, Moore rents a three-bedroom home with a pool for $1,400 a month and has money to spare.

“The difference is in the thousands of dollars and hours working,” she said. “We don’t make California money anymore, but we actually have more money at the end of the month. 

“Do I miss it?” she asked. “I miss what it used to be. Before the industries were destroyed as well as the middle class. It seems it’s become a two-class system, the haves and the have-nots. The poor have no chance to survive.”

Housing crisis

California is attempting to address the housing issue. Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed $1.75 billion to fund new building projects to tackle California’s housing crisis. In October, Newsom signed various housing bills, including one that capped rent increases and stifled evictions.

“We’re living in the wealthiest as well as the poorest state in America,” Newsom said when he signed the bills. “Cost of living. It is the issue that defines more issues than any other issue in this state.”

Between 2010 and 2017, negative domestic migration to the state increased annually, according to the California Association of Realtors. In the same period, the median cost of a home in California doubled; in the Bay Area, it tripled.

“About 32% of households in California can afford to buy a median-priced home, which is around $600,000,” said Oscar Wei, the realtor association’s senior economist and director of research. “Compared to 2012, we were at 52% (across the state). In San Francisco and San Mateo only 12 or 13% of residents can afford to buy a median-priced home there.”

In San Francisco, a median-priced home costs around $1.5 million.

Wei said states with a low cost of living or no income tax can tempt people by offering wages that aren’t quite middle class in California, but would put them above-average elsewhere.

“In California, to buy a median price home it requires an income of $100,000,” he said. “In Arizona, you can buy a median-priced home with an income of $50-$60,000.”

While Wei does not expect housing prices to drop the way they did at the end of the last decade, when the housing bubble burst, he does anticipate price drops in the next five to ten years if the housing crisis isn’t addressed. 

“We have been seeing some companies leaving So Cal and the Bay Area,” said Wei. “Toyota and Nissan left Southern California, and home prices might have slowed down but they haven’t dropped really significantly.

“If the housing affordability issue isn’t addressed in the next five to ten years we will see companies starting to move out,” he said. However, he didn’t think enough companies would move out over a short enough period to truly tumble housing prices.

“After all,” he said, “California is a good place to live. It’s the cost that is an issue.”

‘The state pushed us out’

Pat Tollefson, who said her great-great-grandfather, Joseph Fredrick Snyder, was an early settler of Salinas in the 1860s, moved to Washington state with her husband three years ago, after spending her first 60 years in California. 

“We love California, but the state pushed us out,” she wrote to The Salinas Californian on Facebook. 

“The first year (we were in Washington), our Prius California renewal registration was due at a cost of $290, but we transferred the registration to Washington state at a cost of $63,” she said.”That was just one surprise benefit!”

Tollefson said they found the cost of purchasing a home, as well as utilities were lower than they had paid in California. The lower cost of living, combined with their access to nature has helped lower their stress.

Salinas realtor Chris Barrera has worked for Windermere Valley Properties for five years. In the last few years, he has seen more and more clients cite cost of living as a main reason they are leaving California. 

He estimated about a quarter of the 20 clients he works with a month felt they could no longer afford California. Most are in the service industry or live on a fixed income, and many are leaving for Texas and Idaho, states with a low or no income tax, and a low cost of living.

“People are being priced out,” Barrera said. “I have a lot of clients who are selling and they’re just tired of California politics. 

“Monterey County is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S., and the only other option is to have numerous families living at one property,” he said. 

That creates its own problems, and can push people out.

“When does this stop?” Barrera asked. “When does this start evening out? All of us are going to be in that situation one day when we retire. To have to leave where our family is and where we were brought up just because we can’t afford it is pretty sad.”

‘A lot of anger’

Those who leave California don’t always leave it behind, though. Communities that sometimes double as support groups have sprung up online for former Californians. Here, they can complain about their former state, or even their new one, while still maintaining that they’re glad they left.

Some also say politics, not just taxes, play a role in their decision to leave.

In “CA Exodus and Ex-CAers,” a Facebook group for ex-Californians and those planning to leave, the banner photo is an altered “Now leaving California” sign. It reads: “Was it something we taxed?”  

Here, a couple hundred members share California laws and regulations they find ridiculous or costly, affirming their and other members’ decision to leave. Mostly, though, they share stories of other Californians leaving California.

“I joined this group so I would at least have others to commiserate with,” said group member Melinda Temblador, who said she left “Commiefornia” because of “the high cost of everything, extreme moral decay and (being) pretty sick of bearing the cost of freeloaders for their free medical, free college, free free free stuff while I slave away staying awake at night wondering how I’m going to pay for my daughter’s college but the illegal next door gets it for free.

“If you sense a lot of anger on my part,” she wrote, “You would be correct. We absolutely made the best decision to flee. Have no regrets and are actively helping several family members to leave ASAP as well.”

Other group members echoed Temblador’s sentiments, adding that the state’s liberal bent left them feeling frustrated and isolated.

“I guess maybe it helps to solidify the fact we are not alone,” said Jonathan English Olmstead, who plans to leave California. “In this state, being a devoted Christian and Republican you feel as though you are the only one with these views.”

Not everyone is taking off for cheaper or greener pastures. Some have instead resorted to subletting or moving in with family to meet increased rental prices. 

Marina native Raycheal Jarvis said she and her family, including four children, are living with her in-laws. Jarvis wanted to stay in Marina where “where neighbors still look out for one another,” but, she said, commuters to San Jose are snapping up properties at sky-high prices. Jarvis is looking at other options, but so far, it seems the only place she and her family can afford housing is outside of the area. 

“We don’t make enough to afford a home big enough to raise our family,” she said.

Kate Cimini is a multimedia journalist for The Californian. This article is part of the California Divide project, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.

Note: This story has been corrected from a previous version to reflect that about 109,000 more people left California than moved there in 2018.

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...