Even Booming Bay Area Sees an Exodus
Steven Greenhut
by

When asked whether he wanted to have dinner at a particular restaurant, Yogi Berra famously quipped, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” It’s easy to apply that contradictory concept to a recent poll showing more than a third of San Francisco Bay Area residents want to move out of the area in the next few years. They told pollsters traffic is so congested and housing prices so high no one wants to live there anymore.

On the surface, the Bay Area seems to be booming. California’s Democratic policymakers point to it as an example of everything right about California. It’s a hub of entrepreneurship and jobs creation. It’s a gorgeous place with a temperate climate, a quirky and easygoing culture, and home to almost any amenity anyone could want. During a recent visit to Palo Alto, I saw small tract houses for sale for $2 million-plus. Obviously, demand is pushing those prices to stratospheric levels. It seems like everyone wants to live there. And yet interviews with people plotting an exit to Nevada, Texas, or North Carolina tell a much different story.

“It was a struggle in California,” a recent California expatriate told the San Jose Mercury News in an article about Bay Area outmigration. “It was a very difficult place to live.… It’s a vicious circle.” It’s always tougher to live in a populous, bustling urban area than a country town, of course, but the problems in California’s major urban areas are driven almost entirely by public-policy choices. Californians are again fleeing to other states at near-record levels, although the population continues to grow because of immigration and births. Over a seven-year period, 625,000 more U.S. citizens fled from California to other states than came here.

The left has for decades been waging a war on homeownership and mobility. To battle “climate change” and “urban sprawl,” the state and local governments have constricted housing supply and neglected infrastructure. Years ago, I recall one transit authority that wanted to shut down highway lanes to “encourage” drivers to try its then-new light-rail line. There’s a reason critics talk about the “congestion lobby” — the environmentalists, planners, and legislators more interested in social engineering than road engineering.

The “outward bound” point routinely to those two problems — traffic congestion and housing affordability — as the main reasons they are headed elsewhere. Those two quality-of-life matters, of course, are the ones almost totally distorted by government policies. The biggest victims are people with lower incomes, the same group that California’s left-leaning policymakers claim to champion. But instead of letting markets work, they throw a few “affordable housing” dollars toward government programs and continue on with their growth controls. Surveys also show the people leaving largely are those with middle-class or lower incomes. Yet the left can’t understand the reasons for income inequality.

But Bay Area residents largely have themselves to blame. The total number of Republicans representing Bay Area districts in both houses: one. Not that California Republicans are the answer to any serious question, but Bay Area voters consistently send to the Legislature and Congress officials who embrace the usual slow-growth nostrums. And consider the attitudes common in the region. The Bay Area Council, the moderate business group that conducted the above-mentioned poll, summarized this key result from the survey:

Rather than building more housing in the Bay Area, 60 percent of residents say it should be built outside the region, with 84 percent saying they support stronger transportation networks between the Bay Area, Sacramento and other areas in the Central Valley to take pressure off regional housing supply.

In other words, Bay Area residents are complaining about high home prices, yet don’t want to permit the development of more homes in their area. One can be only minutes from the area’s major urban hubs of San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco and be surrounded by seemingly endless open space, hillsides, and valleys. There’s no shortage of land, although there’s a shortage of courage to say that a lot of it ought to be developed.

Instead, weary Bay Area residents want to outsource their problems over the Altamont Pass and into the agricultural San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. As someone who recently spent four maddeningly congested hours trying to make the 117-mile journey from my home in the Central Valley to Silicon Valley, I would suggest that’s not a particularly good idea.

Census officials already have lumped Stockton in with the Bay Area, given that such a large percentage of San Joaquin County residents make that awful mega-commute. Even though state policy has forced these folks over the coastal ranges to be able to afford a look-alike tract home in a former bean field, you can count on those same officials condemning such “urban sprawl.” California officials are more about punishment than incentives.

We see that down in Los Angeles, also, where officials are convinced soaring home prices are the result of — get this — the growth in short-term rentals (such as Airbnb) and not their anti-growth policies. “After years of watching the supply of affordable housing plummet, evictions and demolitions surge and landlords score quick profits with short-term rentals (STRs), Los Angeles officials are striking back,” reported a recent Los Angeles Times article. “For the first time, the city attorney’s office has filed criminal charges alleging that a building’s owners offered units for rent on Airbnb after booting out tenants.”

Criminal charges? I’d make a joke about some of City Attorney Mike Feuer’s policies, but he wasn’t pleased last time I called the former Assemblyman ‘Der Feuer.’ Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Planning Commission is today considering anti-STR rules that would require landlords to turn over reams of personal data to the city about the people who rent their rooms for a night or two.

Back in Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown hasn’t exactly seen the light on the need to hike the supply of all types of housing. Years ago, he pointed to tony Marin County — the growth-controlled liberal enclave of the mega-wealthy just north of the Golden Gate Bridge — as the land-use model for the entire state. But he does want to make it easier for localities to permit more subsidized, high-density low-income housing by exempting such projects from the widely abused California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). News reports show that unions, which use the law to shake down developers for union-only agreements, and environmentalists, which use the law to halt many building projects, are working to stop even that modest change. Those powerful groups will no doubt succeed.

Well, those Bay Area residents certainly get one thing right. About 83 percent of those surveyed say traffic, for instance, probably will never improve. Actually, nothing much will improve given the current political leadership. Maybe leaving the area is the only hope. Then again, what will happen to your region once more of these residents move there?

Steven Greenhut
Steven Greenhut
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Steven Greenhut is a senior fellow and Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at sgreenhut@rstreet.org.
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