Jason Henry / The New York Times
Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017 | 2 a.m.
OAKLAND, Calif. — Russel Lee and his wife spent the past few years going online to do the depressing math of how much less housing costs pretty much everywhere that isn’t California. They looked at Idaho, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky, but Lee, who was born in San Francisco and has lived in the Bay Area his entire life, could never quite make the move. Then the fires came.
In October, as the most destructive wildfire in state history swept through Northern California, Lee’s three-bedroom home in Santa Rosa was consumed by the flames. He lost everything: his tools, his guns, his childhood report cards. Forced to confront the decision of whether to stay and rebuild or pick up and go somewhere else, Lee finally decided it was time to go. He used the insurance payment to buy a $150,000 home outside Knoxville, Tennessee, and will soon leave California for good.
“It was like ‘welp, it’s time,” Lee said. “It’s kind of like the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in reverse.”
For the half-century after World War II, California represented the epitome of middle-class America on the move. As people poured into the state in search of good weather and the lure of single-family homes with backyard orange trees, the state embarked on a vast natural engineering project that redirected northern water southward, creating the modern Southern California and making the state the most populous in the nation.
Those days are long gone. For more than three decades, California has seen a net outflow of residents to other states, as less expensive southern cities like Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston and Raleigh, North Carolina, supplant those of the Golden State as beacons of opportunity. California still has a hold on the national imagination: It has lots of jobs and great weather, along with the glamour of Hollywood and the inventiveness of Silicon Valley.
Still, for many Californians, the question is always sitting there: Is this worth it? Natural disasters are a moment to take stock and rethink the dream. But in the end, the calculation almost always comes down to cost.
Last Friday was Saul Weinstein’s last day at work, and the start of his last weekend as a Californian. Weinstein, a 67-year-old commercial banker, retired and moved to Nevada. He has lived through several fires, and the 1994 earthquake that killed 57 people and shook him and millions of other Southern Californians out of bed at 4:30 in the morning.
But what finally sent him packing was money. Weinstein is selling his 2,000-square-foot house in Baldwin Park, east of Los Angeles, for $570,000. He paid less than half that for a similarly sized place in Pahrump, about an hour’s drive west of Las Vegas. He moved Monday.
“When you retire you have to watch your money,” Weinstein said. “The San Andreas Fault is what they politely call ‘overdue,’ and I will be much more comfortable when I’m away from that. But if it wasn’t for the cost of living I probably would have stuck around and taken my chances.”
California was once a migration magnet, but since 2010 the state has lost more than 2 million residents 25 and older, including 220,000 who moved to Texas, according to census data. Arizona and Nevada have each welcomed about 180,000 California expatriates since the start of the decade. Next week, as people start decamping for the holidays, airports throughout the South and Southwest will fill up with people who are from California and are now traveling West to see the family they left behind.
Next year, Heather Birdsell is likely to be among them. Birdsell, a 33-year-old legal assistant, grew up in Orange County and now lives in a two-bedroom condominium in Lake Forest. After years of watching friends move out of state and listening to them talk about how much easier life was and how much bigger their homes were, Birdsell and her husband finally put their home on the market. They are in escrow now and plan on moving to Phoenix early next year.
“The money we make in California is more than sufficient to work in any other state,” she said. “We’re just excited about finally getting what we want and not being strapped to make it happen.”
Fire is an annual affair, and even as climate change stretches the burning season from summer and early fall clear into December, people here accept that pleasant weather and destructive forces are linked. People who live in Florida and the Gulf Coast have made a similar peace with hurricanes.
“I think you’ll find that even people who lost houses will stay here,” said Tom Sheaffer, 54, who grew up in Ventura. The same warm offshore winds that helped spread the fire are responsible for shaping the nicely curled waves that Sheaffer surfs on good mornings.
Sheaffer’s wife, Mary Beth, said the image that she holds with her is the one of the iconic cross at Grant Park, which sits on a hillside overlooking the downtown area. The fire burned everything around it at the park and charred the cross itself. But it is still standing, and many Ventura residents are using its image with the hashtag #Venturastrong to indicate a willingness to rebuild, to get their lives back.
“That makes me cry the most,” Mary Beth Sheaffer said.
“We’ll get through this,” her husband said.
And in the end the state always does. California has 40 million people and has grown through much worse. San Francisco was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire and was rebuilt in time to host the 1915 World’s Fair. The 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the worst since 1906, was followed by the 1991 Oakland fires, followed by the 1993 Malibu fires, followed by the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
None of this was enough to dissuade Silicon Valley from expanding into the world’s technology capital, or to induce Hollywood to leave Hollywood. “The wrath of God has failed to deter companies from thinking this is a great place to be, although it is expensive and crowded,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center For Continuing Study of the California Economy.
Living here means accepting the existential threats. Out on the horizon, beyond the periodic fires, floods and landslides, lies the knowledge that at some point the next great earthquake is going to cause a staggering amount of destruction and, if it damages the water system, could render large parts of the state uninhabitable. But shortly in the aftermath of a disaster, after checking the first aid kit and refilling the fresh water bottles, Californians go back to living.
“It’s a kind of episodic mindfulness and then you retreat back to oblivion,” said Jim Newton, a journalist, historian and lecturer at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. “People talk about traffic, people talk about the price of homes.”
Right now it is the Republican tax plan that is causing people to rethink their finances and ultimately where they want to live. The plan, while still a work in progress, is almost certain to land harder on California and other heavily Democratic states if it passes. The state’s median home cost is $500,000, twice the national level, and for decades residents have softened the blow from high home prices and high state and city taxes by using generous federal deductions that lower their taxes.
Curious as to how this might change Californians’ outlook, Redfin, a national real estate brokerage based in Seattle, recently asked a sample of 900 homeowners if they would consider moving if they could no longer deduct state and local taxes. Some 37 percent of Californians said they would consider it. Californians looking elsewhere are already among the most popular searches on the Redfin website.
“We have real estate agents all over the country who meet their customers in airports,” said Glenn Kelman, the company’s chief executive. “They’re coming from California.”