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Golis: True or false? People are leaving California in droves

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Here’s what we know for sure: There’s a mass exodus from California.

Or there isn’t.

Google “California exodus” and you’ll get 17.8 million results. You’ll also learn that people disagree about whether large numbers of Californians are taking flight.

“The Great California Exodus,” proclaims the conservative National Review. “A look at why droves are leaving the state.”

“The California exodus is a myth,” says the Los Angeles Times.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

In the oft-used example, tech workers are said to be abandoning overpriced homes in California for Texas housing that is dirt cheap. The story line has been fueled by companies leaving California for Texas, including Tesla, Oracle, Charles Schwab and Hewlett-Packard.

Having spent years railing against taxes and regulation in California, conservatives and business groups have grabbed on to the narrative as validation for their perennial claim that California’s liberals are a bunch of anti-business elitists.

It is possible, of course, that California liberals are elitists, but people still like living here. Both things could be true.

So what’s the story? Are people leaving or not?

Surveying the news landscape, you find reporters and pundits have been — you might say — all over the map.

The latest entry from the New York Times says it’s not true.

“There hasn’t been an exodus from California,” explained last week’s update, “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.”

In this version of the story, people are leaving big cities for smaller ones, which may explain why Sonoma County real estate prices are posting record highs.

But maybe the Times missed what its own columnist said about the alleged California exodus. Farhad Manjoo lamented the fires, the high cost of housing and the unwillingness to live sustainable lifestyles. “It’s the end of California as we know it,” he declared.

A second commentary from Manjoo came with the headline: “Everybody’s moving to Texas. Here’s why.”

Manjoo acknowledged that reports of a California exodus are “frequently exaggerated,” and “more likely than not” he will remain a Californian.

“Still,” he added, “there’s plenty going wrong — soaring housing costs, devastating poverty and inequality, and the cascading disasters brought about by a change in what was once our big selling point, the climate.”

Meanwhile, Texas Monthly magazine weighed in with a different spin altogether. “The Newest Texans,” said the headline, “Are Not Who You Think They Are.”

The story notes that Texas grew by 4 million people in the past decade, and half of that growth occurred because births outpaced deaths by two million people. Of the 2 million who came from outside Texas, 40% came from other countries, the report said. (In the same decade, California grew by 2.4 million people, though it lost population in the final year of the decade.)

Ninety-five percent of the population growth in Texas was composed of Latinos, Asians and other minorities (which may explain why Texas Republicans want to make it more difficult for people to have their votes counted.) “That’s 3.8 million new non-Anglos in Texas, compared with about 200,000 non-Hispanic whites,” Texas Monthly said.

So it’s complicated. While California leads other states in the net domestic migration to Texas, the numbers remain relatively small for California, a state with close to 40 million people. (Researchers at Rice University in Houston place the net migration from California to Texas at between 45,000 and 50,000 a year.)

It’s complicated in Texas, too. Here’s a headline in last week’s New York Times: “How Austin Became One of the Least Affordable Cities in America.”

This is how it goes. The more people want to move there, the more expensive housing will become. There was a time when people moved to Sonoma County because the housing was affordable.

California remains by far the most populous state. One in eight Americans lives here. The small reduction in population in the past year doesn’t change the fact that it remains the fifth-largest economy on earth, ahead of India, Great Britain and France. Never mind Texas or Florida.

Still, what should be obvious is that California must do better, and its political leadership has yet to prove it is willing to take on the hard choices.

— Housing costs are backbreaking, but until recently, state government showed no stomach for challenging cities determined to protect the status quo.

— Millions of Californians live in areas at risk of wildfires, which owing to climate change, are now more dangerous than ever. But no one in government wants to talk about whether the state should be rethinking where future housing should be located. (A recent report commissioned by the Public Policy Institute of California found that local agencies are incentivizing development in fire-prone areas.)

— Climate change is contributing to a prolonged drought. But with few exceptions — outdoor irrigation has been outlawed in southern Marin County — there’s only the most perfunctory of efforts to promote water conservation.

— Billions have been spent on reducing the number of homeless people, but state and local governments don’t have much to show for their efforts. Besieged by the squalor of sidewalk encampments, folks are angry and running out of patience, a Los Angeles Times poll confirmed last week.

— The gap between rich and poor continues to widen, and according to another poll released last week, Californians expect their leaders do something about it.

California remains a special place, but its magic won’t last unless Californians decide to be better stewards of the land and more understanding of their obligations to future generations.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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