I remember getting that phone call 20-some years ago while at my desk at The Lima News, which was a sister newspaper to The Orange County Register. "Would I like to come to California to work at the Register," the editor asked? "Why, yes," I eagerly said. "When do I start?" I forgot to ask about the salary.
When I told my wife the exciting news, she asked if we were going to weigh the pros and cons of such a big move from our cozy Ohio town to sprawling Southern California. "No," I answered. "There's nothing to discuss." We're going to California and, unlike the words in the Led Zeppelin song, it's not with an "aching in my heart." After crossing the border near Needles, in the 110-degree desert heat, I fell in love with the place and never looked East again.
Like others from the Midwest and East, I had long dreamed of the Golden State. By then, of course, California already ceased to be the magnet it was in earlier decades. The number of Americans who left California for other states had surpassed those from other states who moved here. Immigration rates and birth rates were still growing, however, which has propelled our population from 30 million in 1990 to nearly 40 million now.
"Nearly" is the key word. California has been inching toward the 40 million mark for some time but hasn't reached it. Its growth rate last year of 0.47 percent is the slowest in recorded history. The exodus to other states has accelerated. International immigration has slowed. Even births are lower this year than last year. We're a long way from the Gold Rush, when fortune-seekers from around the world tripled California's population in a flash.
Based on the latest U.S. Census data, domestic out-migration to places such as Texas, Arizona and Oregon has outstripped domestic in-migration for eight years in a row. Anecdotal stories abound. One friend, who we met shortly after moving to Fullerton, is now a successful Texas Realtor who specializes in relocating Californians to Dallas.
Another California acquaintance, who now lives in Pennsylvania, helps our state's businesses relocate. At social events, people always talk about the states where they are considering moving. Recent surveys show that 53 percent of Californians are considering moving elsewhere. Such ideas used to be heresy. I've lived in seven states plus the District of Columbia and, quite frankly, the rest of the country seems drab in comparison to California. But, lately, I'm starting to think these California refugees have made a wise choice.
We've reached the tipping point, where California's progressive political imperatives are having such glaring real-world repercussions that it's hard to keep ignoring them. Why are people leaving? Top of the list is home affordability. The national median home price is around $227,000. The median single-family home price in California topped $600,000.
In Orange County, that median price is around $700,000. In the entire Bay Area, the median price for homes and condos is $860,000. In San Francisco, you'll need a cool $1.7 million (listed price) to get a median-priced abode (and it's not going to be special). Our cost-of-living is astronomical in many areas. Gasoline prices are $1.29 a gallon more than the national average. Even California's notoriously overpaid government retirees are moving elsewhere.
This is the fault of public policy. Regulations and fees can add 40 percent or more to the cost of every new house. Slow-growth rules, and the lawsuit-generating California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), impede housing construction. The state is vastly underbuilding the number of housing units it needs even to keep up with its slowing population. Gas prices are high not only because of our high taxes, but because of the special California-only formulation that limits competition.
We all know about our nationally high tax burdens. Our property taxes are reasonable, thanks to Proposition 13, but liberal groups are gunning for its protections on commercial properties in a 2020 ballot measure. They'll probably be coming for your home protections next. Regulatory burdens make it tougher to grow a business here than elsewhere.
Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 5 into law, which messes with our ability to earn a living. That law forbids many types of contract labor. But many people don't want to be 9-5 wage slaves and prefer piecing together various contract jobs. Businesses aren't going to respond by hiring everyone as permanent workers. This will squelch job growth, especially in California's innovative tech economy.
We're also facing statewide rent controls, which will further depress housing availability. And just wait until lawmakers make good on their promise to provide single-payer healthcare. I've been to all 58 counties and still love the terrain, climate, culture and beaches. But if I were to get that call today, I'd have that long discussion with my wife before agreeing to move here.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.