California Exodus: An Online Industry Seizes COVID-19 to Sell the Red State Dream
At first, Stephanie Morris was nervous about leaving Modesto. She’d lived in the Central Valley her whole life, but her family couldn’t keep paying $850-a-month for her sons to share a living room while she, her husband and the baby slept in their apartment’s only bedroom.
The anxiety faded by the time her family pulled out in a U-Haul bound for Salt Lake City on a smoky September night. Morris, 31, had still never been to Utah — her husband liked it when he worked there as a truck driver — but she had discovered a whole world of people planning similar escapes online. They posted faraway landscapes on Pinterest, smiling family photos on Instagram and memes about leaving “Commiefornia” in Facebook groups like “Conservatives Leaving California.”
“I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not moving out of California to a third-world country,” Morris said. “I’m leaving a third-world country to join America.”
Unaffordable housing. High taxes. A Democratic stranglehold on state politics. The concerns driving transplants like Morris out of the country’s richest state during the COVID-19 era are not new. What is changing quickly is how disillusioned California residents are coming together by the tens of thousands on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere online, fueling a cottage industry of real estate agents, mortgage lenders and political advocates stoking social division to compete for a piece of the much–discussed California Exodus.
Facebook groups like “Life After California” are full of stories about $4,000 U-Haul bills and home bidding wars in Texas, but it’s too early to tell if more people are leaving during the pandemic. People move for all kinds of reasons — a new job, to be near family, to buy their first house — and while many online moving groups target conservatives, a parallel migration of more liberal transplants has also scrambled the politics of some red states.
Early polls show that up to 40% of Bay Area tech workers will consider leaving if remote work continues. Recent tax proposals have also triggered familiar warnings about wealthy residents fleeing the state.
Even before COVID-19, California’s population growth had slowed considerably. Since 2015, the state has lost at least 100,000 more people than it gained each year from other U.S. states, including growing numbers of working class and Black residents. But California is still a top U.S. destination for people moving from other countries, plus affluent transplants from other states. From July 2018 to July 2019, California saw a net loss of 197,594 people to other states.
Now, the pandemic has stripped away amenities used to justify California’s high costs, and created a backlog of 1.6 million unemployment claims in the state with the nation’s highest functional poverty rate. Though Gov. Gavin Newsom styles California as a semi-autonomous progressive enclave, economic stimulus measures that promised near-term relief withered in Sacramento this summer. In November’s election, the biggest state battles revolve around commercial taxes and gig work — and in the meantime, the state’s national profile promises to keep rising as a political piñata in the culture wars that surround President Donald Trump.
Scott Shepard has watched these forces collide from his new home in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The California-bred realtor started relocation website ExitCalifornia.org and a namesake Facebook page early last year, when he saw a business opportunity in the endless stories of friends and neighbors moving out of state. Now, during the pandemic, the site is so busy he doesn’t even have to pay for online ads.
“It’s starting to kind of take on a life of its own,” Shepard said. “I would be straight and say that it is primarily political. Then it really does come down to the cost and taxes.”
The Anti-California Dream
Exit California is emblematic of a growing number of online relocation companies marketed heavily on social media. They target prospective transplants who skew white, right and over age 30, though renters post alongside members in the market for million-dollar houses. Between photos of tidy brick facades, crystal-clear pools and recommended moving truck routes, the Facebook pages revolve around ominous articles about Black Lives Matter protests, crime, immigration and, of late, pandemic shutdowns.
Prospective movers who click through to the website can pick a state — Arizona, Idaho, Tennessee, Texas — and see financial incentives to use selected realtors, mortgage lenders or other service providers. Beyond the mechanics of buying a house, the online groups are a platform for places to pitch fed-up Californians who don’t know where to start.
“There’s a fair percentage of them that don’t know where they wanna go,” said Scott Fuller, an Arizona transplant and real estate investor who started LeavingTheBayArea.com and LeavingSoCal.com three years ago. “They just know they want to go somewhere else.”
That’s not surprising to Bill Bishop, author of “The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart.” He’s studied how over the past several decades, neighborhoods across the country have become increasingly politically homogeneous. Where people choose to live has become “a stage,” he said, to flaunt their values as old anchors like a one-company career fade into a blur of unstable jobs, anxiety and dwindling time with family and friends.
“What they’re doing is selling a way of life that then corresponds to political choice,” Bishop said. “It’s kind of pathetic, actually, but what the hell?”
It’s not just real estate agents using social media to reach jaded Californians. Sometimes, the California Exodus content is bankrolled by people in high places.
Take the YouTube video “Fleeing California,” which has racked up 2 million views since it was posted in March. It starts with sweeping L.A. views of palm trees and Spanish-tile roofs, then fades to a grainy montage of sidewalk tent cities and a person being pushed in front of an oncoming truck. A moment later, in Texas, viewers see happy kids getting off a school bus and a golden retriever bounding down a jungle gym while Republican Sen. Ted Cruz talks in the background.
The video was made by PragerU, a conservative digital media nonprofit that produces other titles like “Make Men Masculine Again” and “Dangerous People Are Teaching Your Kids.” The California video was commissioned by a donor, producer Will Witt said: Texas ranching and oil scion Windi Grimes, a board director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and member of Trumpettes USA, a women’s group formed in Beverly Hills five years ago to boost President Trump as the country’s “savior.”
How many people are persuaded to pack up and move by similar videos, social media content or Joe Rogan’s recent podcasts on moving to Texas could help shuffle the country’s electoral map at a pivotal moment. Some of California’s last Republican strongholds, like Orange County, are seeing their residents decamp for other states — a net loss of nearly 25,000 people last year alone — along with notoriously liberal urban areas like L.A., which posted a net loss of more than 97,800 people.
The anti-California political spectacle playing out online has become a hobby for 30-year-old Texas country singer Charley Austin, who started the “Conservatives Leaving California” Facebook group last year. Some members post memes warning newcomers “Don’t California My Texas.” But Austin, who says he has campaigned for Trump, sees an opportunity to keep the state red as cities like Austin (“the San Francisco of Texas,” he said) go farther left.
“There’s nothing really we can do to stop people moving here,” Austin said. “The best thing you can do is help people that move here get acclimated to the state.”
Making the Move
By August, Juliette Saunders had been fighting the state of California for almost six months over her missing unemployment checks. Her business doing wine and paint nights in Orange County disappeared overnight when the virus hit, and she was getting by with free lunches from her daughter’s school while her resumé with a master’s degree got turned down at Target.
Fed up with her cramped apartment, Saunders and her daughter left to visit her sister in Prosper, Texas, where she and her husband had built a 5,000-square-foot house near an artificial lagoon. They should move, too, Saunders thought, and the deal was sealed when her California boyfriend came to visit and proposed.
“We’re gonna miss Laguna Beach and the art scene, and you know, Disneyland,” said Saunders, 53, whose now-fiancé was furloughed from his job as a security guard at the amusement park. “But none of those things are open right now.”
Saunders will also have work after she moves. She plans to go into business with her sister, real estate agent Marie Bailey, who’s busy managing her 20,000-member Facebook group “Move to Texas From California!” She moved from Orange County three years ago with her husband, who works in tech, to the gun-friendly Dallas suburb that feels “almost like a country club resort.”
In online groups like Bailey’s, much of the conversation is pragmatic: whether to drive to Reno to save on a moving truck; how to change your car registration in Phoenix; which little league team to join in Frisco. Members compare notes on median home prices — $725,000 in San Diego, versus $260,000 in Fort Worth or $619,000 in Scottsdale — but there are also other trade-offs.
“Don’t expect California in Texas,” said Tommy Vasquez, 46, who moved to the Houston area with his wife and three children over the winter. “The climate is different. It’s flat out here. But everything is green.”
Vasquez was happy to trade his three-hour commute from Hesperia to Miraloma, where he kept driving all day doing deliveries for Costco, for a role as a night supervisor eight minutes away from his new house in Texas. Property taxes are still high, but he knew from Facebook that gas and air conditioning are cheaper, and his neighborhood is nicer.
Competing with other prospective Texas buyers was the challenge for Julie Druyor, 40, and her family as they planned to leave Livermore this spring. They lost two houses near Frisco after bidding wars that she vented about online, but they bought the third one sight-unseen. She’s embracing new economic freedom to stop working as a marriage and family therapist and stay home with her kids, who have started at better public schools.
“It’s miles different,” Druyor said. “You feel like you matter.”
As California expats scatter, there are groups pushing others considering joining them to move in-state instead. “We’re smarter, more dynamic and wealthier than all those other states,” said Barry Broome, CEO of the Greater Sacramento Economic Council.
He should know. During the last recession, Broome was making the same low-tax, bigger-house arguments to California companies and their employees on behalf of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council. At the time, business groups were melting down about a proposed tax on high earners to fund education, Prop 30.
Broome says he did pick off about 30,000 back office workers from California companies, and recent reports show that hundreds of businesses have continued to move facilities out of state. So in Sacramento, Broome is now offering startup grants or new incentives in biotech and finance tech. There are small signs of momentum; his group purchased cell phone location data from “consumer intelligence technology” company Buxton, which estimated that 193 people who work for Facebook have already moved to Sacramento.
While politicians in other parts of the state similarly stake their hopes of economic recovery on remote work and inland relocation, Broome worries that recent tax bills and labor reforms like AB 5 could undercut those efforts. Still, he’s not expecting a mass exodus this time around, either.
“These economies are a lot more intertwined than people ever really want to admit,” said Broome, a former union worker from Ohio. “It speaks to sustainability. We’ve been eroding the middle class for a generation.”
Economists also wonder how this recession will be different. At Stanford, Professor Mark Duggan said the state will have to make big decisions about generating revenue to stave off major budget cuts after borrowing billions from the federal government to pay unemployment claims. Political sacred cows like residential property tax cap Prop. 13 may need to be reconsidered, he said.
“I worry a lot about if we’re complacent,” Duggan said. “We’ve been able to get away with not-great policies because of the amenities.”
For now, people like Terry Gilliam will keep selling the Red State Dream in Facebook groups like “Life After California.” Though it’s been harder to convince his own family to leave the East Bay, he has a plan: the mountains near a place like Prescott, Arizona, where the scenery is dramatic but the climate is mild — “much like the Bay Area,” he said.