Given its iconic hold on the American imagination, the idea that more Americans are leaving California than coming breaches our own sense of uniqueness and promise. Yet, even as the economy has recovered, notably in the Bay Area and in pockets along the coast, the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that domestic migrants continue to leave the state more rapidly than they enter it.
First, the good news. People may be leaving California, but, overall, the rate of leaving is about three-quarters less than that experienced in the first decade of the millennium. In the core, booming San Francisco metropolitan area, there was even a shift toward net domestic migration after 2010, something rarely seen since the 1980s.
Outmigration dropped with the initial economic slowdown of the last recession, particularly as housing prices in some areas, notably the Inland Empire and the Sacramento area, drifted toward the national norm of three times incomes by 2010, having been twice that high or more in the boom times. The initial recovery after 2010 may also have encouraged people to stay as well.
Back to mounting outmigration
The San Francisco Bay Area lost more than 600,000 net domestic migrants between 2000 and 2009 before experiencing a five-year respite. Now, sadly, the story seems to be changing again. Housing prices, first in the Bay Area and later in other metropolitan areas, have surged mightily, and are now as high as over nine times household incomes. In 2016, some 26,000 more people left the Bay Area than arrived. San Francisco net migration went from a high of 16,000 positive in 2013 to 12,000 negative three years later.
Similar patterns have occurred across the state. Between 2010 and 2015, California had cut its average annual migration losses annually from 160,000 to 50,000, but that number surged last year to nearly 110,000. Losses in the Los Angeles-Orange County area have gone from 42,000 in 2011 to 88,000 this year. San Diego, where domestic migration turned positive in 2011 and 2012, is now losing around 8,000 net migrants annually.
The major exceptions to this trend can be found in the somewhat more affordable interior regions. Sacramento has gained net migration from barely 1,800 in 2011 to 12,000 last year. Even some still-struggling areas, like Modesto and Stockton, have seen some demographic resurgence as people move farther from the high-priced Bay Area.
California and the new demographic reality
The movement away from expensive core regions reflects the basic preference among people for affordable, less dense housing. The new Census estimates have confirmed this national trend. Migration to both suburbs and smaller cities — and away from dense core counties — is now at the highest rate in a decade.
Population growth in big urban core cities, including New York, is now about half of what it was back in 2010. Last year, all 10 of the top gainers in domestic migration were sprawling, more affordable Sun Belt metropolitan…