Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

During the early days of the pandemic, there were rumblings of a California exodus, particularly in large cities, where anecdotal accounts of U-Haul lined streets were widespread. And with a number of celebrities making highly-publicized moves from California to Texas, the notion that a migration shift may be underway didn’t seem so far-fetched. 

But new research from the nonpartisan California Policy Lab suggests that reports of a mass exodus from the state were overblown. Motivated by a variety of factors, ranging from low interest rates to job layoffs, many Californians did pack up their things and move but most remained in-state. 

The share of Californians relocating outside of the state has grown marginally since 2015, representing 18 percent of all moves in 2020 compared to 16 percent five years ago. While this difference is hardly discernible, the number of newcomers moving into the state was negatively affected last year. In the fourth quarter, approximately 267,000 people left the state, while only 128,000 entered.

“While a mass exodus from California clearly didn’t happen in 2020, the pandemic did change some historical patterns, for example, fewer people moved into the state to replace those who left,” said Natalie Holmes, a Research Fellow at the California Policy Lab.

When broken down by metropolitan area, however, we see that between late March and the end of the year, San Francisco recorded a 649 percent annual increase in its number of net exits. A whopping 38,000 people fled the city, compared to 5,200 during the same period in 2019. Around two-thirds of those who moved opted to remain in the Bay Area, and 80 percent maintained California residence.

The Bay Area is home to a large population of tech workers with high incomes and the flexibility to work remotely. This prompted droves of former San Francisco residents to move to other regions of northern California, including resort communities like Lake Tahoe and El Dorado Hills. According to a recent Redfin report, home prices in Lake Tahoe surged 36 percent year-over-year in January as the median number of days on the market fell 50 days.

“San Francisco is experiencing a unique and dramatic exodus, which is causing 50% or 100% increases in Bay Area in-migration for some counties in the Sierras,” added Holmes.

The team of researchers analyzed quarterly credit bureau data from Experian, tracking zip code changes for reported moves among adults with a credit history who have lived in California in the years since 2004. While this is considered a comprehensive dataset, undocumented Californians and those with short credit histories could be excluded from the data.

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