The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A churning Golden State on the eve of new population numbers

Whitney Ranch is one of many development projects in Placer County, two hours east of San Francisco. The area offers more affordable housing to Californians in the increasingly overpriced Bay Area. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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ROCKLIN, Calif. — Shannon Sessions has a seat in left field, in the shade of a willow. Her goldendoodle, Yeti, is leashed to her folding chair.

These are prime tickets at the Little League diamond here at Whitney Ranch park, an expanding development of red-tile roof houses, barbecues and backyards. Less than two months into her move to this old-new boomtown in the dry air of the Sierra Nevada foothills, she already knows to arrive early if she wants a good view of Carter, her 8-year-old son, playing first base.

Sessions is a newcomer, a Bay Area transplant, and among a quickening migration from west to east transforming a state once shaped by arrivals heading very much in the other direction.

The trend has made Placer County, climbing from the outskirts of Sacramento to the blue depths of Lake Tahoe, among the fastest growing places in the state over a decade when California’s famed historic growth has slowed to a virtual standstill.

As the U.S. Census Bureau prepares to release its first batch of population data next week, California is bracing for the first time to lose one of its 53 congressional seats. The data will probably show that California’s population grew 6.5 percent over the last decade, slightly below the national average. The state has reported a net loss of nearly half a million people in the last two years alone.

But the more detailed data to be released in the coming months will show that California’s out-of-state exodus is overshadowed by the churning movement of people within its borders, now remaking once-rural communities such as this one.

For many in California, the coronavirus outbreak accelerated the move from city to distant suburbs, acting in the words of one Bay Area business leader as a “steroid” for migration. The pandemic forced a decision point for working-parent families such as the Sessionses — a nurse, a firefighter and a second-grade son.

“Once covid hit and school stopped, I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” said Sessions, whose family moved from Novato, which sits in the county across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. “It just wasn’t sustainable with both of us working. We came up here for the kindness and the freedom. It’s just simpler.”

Goodbye to all that

The image of California as a kind of promised destination, a pioneer place to get rich in the movies or in Silicon Valley or in the vast, carved fields of the San Joaquin, has lost its focus for much of the country.

Beginning in 1960, the state population grew by more than 30 percent each of the next three decades, a rate that peaked in the 1990 Census, which found California’s population had jumped 37 percent over the previous 10 years.

The out-of-state exodus today has become part of a wider political debate here over whether the government has over-regulated, overtaxed and just generally overburdened both industry and taxpayer.

The divide between the liberal coast and the more conservative interior, including here in Placer County, which voted twice for former president Donald Trump, has never been deeper or more bitter. Wildfires displace thousands of Californians each year — some temporarily and some permanently, including a core of survivors who arrived here after the 2018 Camp Fire burned the town of Paradise, about 85 miles to the northwest.

The relatively low net-exodus numbers earlier in the decade suggest that the “leaving-California” story may have been more election-year talking point than fact. But there is one key caveat: The departures are accelerating rapidly and, given when they occurred, may not be fully accounted for in the census.

A study published last month by the nonpartisan California Policy Lab at the University of California found that from October through December last year, 267,000 people left the state, while only 128,000 people arrived. The census count ended in the spring.

“The Bay Area, and especially San Francisco, really stood out,” said Natalie Holmes, a doctoral student at Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy who was the author of the California Policy Lab study. “I don’t think it’s clear yet whether they have left permanently. We are already hearing rumblings some intend to come back.”

Leaving the Bay

The Bay Area consists of nine counties reaching from Wine Country in the north to Silicon Valley in the south, with San Francisco and Oakland as urban cousins on opposite sides of the bay. The region has some of the nation’s highest property costs, and relatedly high homeless rates, which have joined to become primary drivers of city-to-country population shifts in recent years.

A survey published last month by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found 90 percent of state residents say housing affordability is a problem where they live — and many are “seriously considering” a move.

Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a public-policy advocacy group comprising the region’s top business leaders, arrived from New York City 40 years ago. He had no job lined up, just a fixed image of a hopeful place in his head.

“People wrote songs about it; there was a movement out here,” Wunderman said.

Life in the state has changed over the decades. Especially in Wunderman’s Bay Area, property values have spiked, largely a testament to the success of Silicon Valley, as well as to the failure of the state to keep up with affordable home construction.

“In recent years, there is just no longer that national movement to come to California,” he said. “Whether we are at the end of this trend it is hard to say. There are question marks out there.”

The slower growth is also attributable to a late-decade decline in those arriving from outside the country.

International migrants have long viewed California as a first port of call, even if many later move on to other parts of the country. State officials say the Trump administration’s often harsh rhetoric toward immigration slowed the still-positive net flow. In addition, the state’s death rate is rising and its birthrate is at a record low. By the end of this decade, 1 in 5 Californians will be over the age of 65.

“We do have an out-migration and that has picked up recently,” said Walter Schwarm, chief demographer at the state Department of Finance. “But for the most part, over the decade, this has not been far outside the historic trend.”

Schwarm said more than 13 percent of the migration out of the state comprises people over 65 years old, a trend that may benefit the oversubscribed housing market in some places.

Since the late 1970s, many Californians have stayed in their same homes after the ballot initiative known as Proposition 13 placed hard caps on annual property tax increases until the house is sold. It was a powerful incentive for staying put.

Now, Schwarm said, many senior citizens are cashing in on decades of accumulated home equity, moving east and opening up housing stock to young families.

There has been migration in Southern California for the same reasons shaping those trends in the Bay Area. Many Los Angelenos have moved east, making the Inland Empire county of Riverside one of the fastest growing in the state.

But the Bay Area exodus has been far more pronounced. For one, there is a greater ability for the region’s workforce, much of it involved in the technology sector, to work remotely. The Los Angeles economy is more diverse and dependent on the service industry, whose employees must work where they are.

“A lot of folks who have more of a policy or political ax to grind, than a demographic lens to shine on it, look at migration patterns and say, ‘Aha, we’re observing some type of a Mad Max-style exodus away from California,’ ” said H.D. Palmer, the state Department of Finance’s deputy director and chief spokesperson. “The data don’t bear that out. Is there out-migration from California? Yes, there certainly is. But it’s certainly not at the apocalyptic levels that those, as I say, who do have a policy or political ax to grind might like to suggest.”

One of the California Policy Lab study’s most important conclusions, from a state finance standpoint, is that its richest residents are staying put.

California relies heavily on its income tax revenue to pay for public services and, even more specifically, on a small percentage of superwealthy Californians to do so. Just 1 percent of the personal income tax returns filed in 2018 accounted for $40.3 billion in income-tax revenue, nearly half the state’s total.

Many of the rich have grown even more prosperous during the pandemic. The state, despite an overall economic downturn, has found itself with tens of billions of dollars in budget surpluses.

“What’s the equilibrium going to be? What’s the workforce going to look like in terms of how many people are going to be working remotely versus how many people are going to be going back to an office environment?” Palmer said. “I think it’s fair to say that it’s not reflexively going to return to the old office model. There will be some type of a change in work patterns, which in turn is going to affect living patterns and migration patterns.”

A race the other way

This is gold country, the glittering destination for the mid-19th-century rush west by the dreamers searching for this soon-to-be state’s natural wealth.

In the antique town of Auburn, the county seat, old train trolley carts that hauled gold-veined rock through the mines now decorate street corners. The town’s post office dates to 1853. One of its clapboard downtown malls is called Gold Rush Plaza.

True to its loose-law frontier past, a downtown plaque honors a popular town madame, who operated a “house of ill-fame” and saved four men on two occasions from burning buildings. She is known as the Fire Queen.

At the town entrance, a hulking blond-stone statue of Claude Chana, a French prospector, can be seen from the rushing Tahoe-bound traffic on Interstate 80, hunched over in the act of panning for gold. Chana is said to have first discovered gold in the Auburn Ravine in 1848, two years before California officially became a state.

The race west was on.

Now the race within the state is east — to the Central Valley, as well as these forested Sierra foothills — and it is picking up.

Census figures show that Placer County has grown 14 percent over the past decade — more than twice the state rate.

Many of the newcomers have moved from Sacramento, about an hour away, and maintain that commute. Sacramento real estate is skyrocketing as fleeing Bay Area residents seek less expensive homes and a still-manageable commute, a tumbling of dominoes from San Francisco through Alameda County and finally out to the capital and beyond.

The upward pressure on home prices here, where not enough affordable housing is being built and demand is outstripping supply, is even pushing Placer County residents to look further east. From October through December, 8,267 people left the county, a 7 percent rise from the same period the previous year.

“So many folks, even my parents, may be concerned that we have thousands of housing units about to come online, but those have been on the planning books for years,” said Krista Bernasconi, the mayor of Roseville, one of the county’s fastest-growing cities. “We cannot create an environment here that resembles the one many of these new arrivals left.”

According to the county’s April real estate report, the number of homes on the market is down almost 62 percent from the same month the previous year, evidence of fast sales and a shortage of contractors unable to keep up the building pace. The average home sale price now exceeds the original asking rate.

“This is a market right now with no winners,” said Cheryl Keller, president of the Placer County Association of Realtors.

Keller was referring to the fact that home prices are climbing, which would generally make it a seller’s market. But because real estate is so expensive in many nearby areas, those selling have few options for where to move next.

“We have people coming from the Bay Area with a lot of cash and their etiquette has always been to spend over the asking price, to waive the inspections, to forget the appraisals,” said Keller, who has lived in Placer County for 35 years. “It is changing our local market dramatically.”

Nearly all longtime Placer County residents interviewed described the newly arrived as kind, respectful of local customs and holding a similar shared community ethic of environmental care for this place. But some urban arrivals also bring certain expectations to a county that is still 80 percent White and protective of its small-town traditions.

There are the farm supply stores along the I-80 corridor, the slightly tattered roadside-attraction motels with their pole-top signs featuring a Jetsons-like mid-century design aesthetic that once helped define cross-country road trips.

But there is also a Tesla dealership, a thriving Harley-Davidson franchise and a downtown Auburn restaurant, not far from where the Wells Fargo stagecoach regularly stopped on its perilous run west, billed as a “fusion kitchen and raw bar.”

“We sell pizza, not pasta,” said Reese Browning, who moved to Placer County in 1983 as a Hewlett-Packard employee.

He now owns four Old Town Pizza restaurants, a company the 65-year-old is turning over to his son. The new residents have benefited his business — his family has plans to open a fifth location next year — even if some of the transplanted urbanites have other ideas for how his restaurant might run better. “Until recently, I think I’d been asked once in the past 10 years why we didn’t serve pasta,” Browning continued. “Now I get that question every day.”

The rising housing prices have made finding young service-sector employees difficult. On a cloudless Sunday morning, downtown Auburn is packed, not a parking place in sight. But the “Help Wanted” signs in shop and restaurant windows are hard to miss.

The city’s downtown resembles a movie set, which it has served as for more than a dozen films and television shows.

But the buildings are real, not Hollywood confection, and its restaurants and shops like The Front Porch and The Pour Choice bar serve as a picturesque way station for Bay Area residents heading back to San Francisco after a weekend at Lake Tahoe.

“The shortages we are having in the labor pool I think are the result of young people taking advantage of the covid crisis to change careers,” said Lisa Ford, who with her husband, Brian, owns the popular Auburn Alehouse in a graceful old two-story building in the center of town. “I think some of the government unemployment subsidies, in some cases, also made it less important for some service-industry folks to come back to work.”

A happy landing

The signs around Rocklin and Roseville poke up from nearly every empty lot: “New Homes — Arlington, Belmont and Saratoga.” “One and Two-story Homes — Three new communities.” “Commercial Property — Build to Suit.”

With home building visible in the distance, the “Frozen in Time” shaved ice truck is catering a birthday party on a recent sunny Sunday morning behind the ballfield where Shannon Sessions awaits the first pitch.

In Novato, Sessions was a surgical nurse, a profession she trained for at Azusa Pacific University, accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in student debt in doing so. Her shifts were long, if also fulfilling, and her husband, Ryan, commuted to the fire department in Berkeley about 45 minutes away.

But $4,000 a month was a lot to pay for a 1,000-square-foot house in a working-class suburb of San Francisco. It left little room to pay down student debt, little time to spend with Carter.

As covid-19 set in, and the schools shut down, the Sessionses decided it was time to move. Otherwise the couple would have to start paying someone to watch Carter while they worked — Ryan 48-hour shifts at a time, her own hours often daybreak to dusk.

But where to?

Last year, the family took a road trip to Idaho on a scouting mission. But the couple found the income levels too low in Idaho and the home prices still too high. So they shifted their focus to inside the state, where they might also be able to keep their current jobs.

Now they are building a 2,300-square-foot home in Lincoln, just north of Rocklin. The mortgage will cost them $1,000 a month less for much more room — and, as Shannon put it, “a view and no one behind us.” She is paying down thousands in student debt. “The trade-off is remarkable,” she said.

She shifted her nursing focus to case management, allowing her to work remotely for the same employer. Ryan commutes once a week to Berkeley — about two hours away now — and works his 48-hour shifts. Then he’s home, as he is this day, helping Carter with his bat and glove as they make their way to the diamond and the start of the game.

More are on the way. Her sister, Mikayla, has made an offer on a house in Lincoln and will be moving within months with her three children, all close cousins to Carter. Another group of friends appear to be headed to Montana.

“I feel like there’s a lot of movement in my friend circle right now,” said Sessions, watching Carter’s team taking the field. “I miss being 45 minutes from the beach in Novato. But now I’m 45 minutes from Lake Tahoe.”