The California Exodus, Housing and the Political Future: How the Crisis Weakens California Nationally

Unless California solves its housing crisis, the state will lose more congressional seats and could shift the political alignment of the whole country

PUBLISHED JAN 26, 2024 7:40 A.M.
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As residents continue to exit California, the state’s political power at the national level is at risk.

As residents continue to exit California, the state‚Äôs political power at the national level is at risk.   Kehn Hermano / Pexels https   Pexels License

With 52 seats in the United States House of Representatives, and 54 electoral votes in presidential elections, California has more raw political clout than any other state. The reason, of course, is that California has more people than any other state, about 39 millionBut that population is shrinking and has been every year starting in 2020, following at least 120 straight years of growth prior to then. California shed 800,000 residents (give or take) from 2020 to the start of 2023, according to state Department of Finance data

According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, by 2030—when another census is taken—California will send just 48 representatives to the House, which also means only 50 electoral votes. 

What’s going on? There are a variety of factors leading California residents to the decision to move elsewhere. But none is bigger than the high cost of simply keeping a roof over your head. While there are no clear stats on ex-Californians’ reasons for fleeing, data from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows that 34 percent of California residents—more than one of every three—say they are considering an out-of-state move simply due to high housing costs.

California’s failure to solve, or even moderately alleviate, its housing crisis could have consequences that reach well beyond the state lines, pushing the federal government to the political right.

Red-Blue Power Shift Coming?

As California’s population declines, so does the state’s political power at the federal level. California’s 52 House seats in 2024 are already one fewer than the previous decade. According to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice, by 2030—when another census is taken—California will send just 48 representatives to the House, which also means only 50 electoral votes. 

California’s population drop will affect not only the state’s ability to get things done at the federal level, but could shift the political balance of the country as Republican-leaning states pick up House seats and Democratic ones see their delegations shrink. 

Because the total number of House seats is fixed at 435 and has been since the 1929 Permanent Apportionment Act, California’s loss needs to be some other state’s gain. According to the Brennan Center projections, in 2030 Texas will gain the four seats lost by California, and Florida will add three of its own. Four southern states—Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina—will also add one each. 

Each of those states already leans heavily Republican in its congressional delegation. Texas, for example, has 38 House seats, 25 occupied by Republicans as of 2024. Florida has 28 seats, 20 of them Republican.

California, on the other hand, sends 40 Democrats and just 11 Republicans to the House. (The seat formerly held by Bakersfield Republican Kevin McCarthy is vacant; a special election for the seat is set for March 19, 2024). With other “blue” states including Oregon, Michigan and Rhode Island projected to lose one each, California’s population drop will affect not only the state’s ability to get things done at the federal level, but could shift the political balance of the country as Republican-leaning states pick up House seats and Democratic ones see their delegations shrink. 

Declining Population, But Housing Lags Anyway

In 2016, the giant management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. issued a report on “Closing California’s Housing Gap” that quickly became something of a definitive source on the housing crisis. In the report, McKinsey found that from 2009 to 2014, California added 544,000 new households but only 467,000 new housing units. The result? Median housing prices rose by 15 percent—while median income in the state grew by only 5 percent.

Not only are Californians leaving the state, they are spreading out within the state and that has a seriously negative effect on the amount of available housing. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the average size of California households has been on the decline

That alone was a significant red flag, but McKinsey also found that to bring the housing supply up to an adequate level, California would need to build a daunting 3.5 million new housing units by 2025, a 10-year span—in either words, 350,000 per year. When he ran for governor in 2018, Gavin Newsom campaigned on a pledge to do just that. 

By the time of his reelection campaign in 2022, Newsom had downgraded his promise to 2.5 million new homes by 2030. But California is not coming close to the rate of building needed to reach either goal. The year 2022 was California’s best for new housing construction since 2008. But even then, the state added 123,350 net new units—that is, new units built minus old units demolished or deemed uninhabitable. That number, obviously, was well short of the rate required.

But solving the problem is not merely a matter of building new dwelling units, though that’s clearly the biggest piece of it. The 800,000 residents lost since 2020 left California’s population in about the same place it was in 2015, the year prior to the McKinsey report. But since then, California has added approximately 800,000 housing units. 

So, 800,00 fewer people, 800,000 new housing units. That should help at least take some of the sting out of the housing shortage. Right? 

Not so fast. Not only are Californians leaving the state, but they are spreading out within the state and that has a seriously negative effect on the amount of available housing. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the average size of California households has been on the decline, according to data cited by the PPIC

Even with the population exodus, California added new households between 2019 and 2021, 366,000 of them per the Department of Finance data. In that time, the state added just 254,000 new housing units.

Kicked Out! Is California Forcing an Exodus?

Faced with the twin, interconnected crises of the housing shortage and the exodus, it would appear to make sense for policymakers to prioritize keeping people in their homes. That way, they are not cast into the brutal, high-priced housing market where they are sure to have difficulty finding a home and may be motivated to abandon the state for places where it’s easier to put a roof over their heads.

As the eviction bans were lifted throughout the state, however, the surge in eviction filings that had been predicted by housing advocates and experts did, in fact, take hold.

Instead, thanks to policy decisions at the local, state and federal levels made as the pandemic subsided, people who rent their homes are being kicked out at rates not seen in years, according to a report by the public interest nonprofit news site CalMatters.

During the pandemic years—2020, ’21 and ’22—the state imposed a moratorium on evictions. The ban worked. Though landlords were allowed to evict tenants in certain circumstances, non-payment of rent was no longer one of them. Evictions quickly fell to only about 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels, per PPIC data. 

As the eviction bans were lifted throughout the state, however, the surge in eviction filings that had been predicted by housing advocates and experts did, in fact, take hold. Many landlords blamed debt they’d incurred during the pandemic for their urgency to kick out tenants who owed back rent, according to the CalMatters report.

The connection between rising eviction rates and increases in homelessness seems like it should be obvious. A 2022 study published in the academic journal Housing Policy Debate provided empirical evidence to support that conclusion. The study found that the rise in eviction filings tracked with an increase in the homeless population. 

According to the study’s statistics, 780 people would be made homeless every time statewide eviction filings rise a single percentage point,. 

Of course, eviction rates vary from county to county. In 2023, eviction numbers went up 31 percent in San Mateo County compared to 2019, 37 percent in Santa Clara County, 17 percent in the state’s largest county, Los Angeles. For the record, L.A. saw a 15 percent decrease in 2022 when the city kept its moratorium in place. The state lifted its moratorium in June of 2022.

Other than homeless shelters, where do evicted tenants go? That’s where the data comes up short. It’s not unreasonable to assume that some percentage leave the state in search of more accessible housing, but no empirical studies yet exist to confirm that suspicion. But there is one certainty—if California wants to stop the exodus of its residents and the weakening of its political influence that comes with the population decline, not kicking people out of their homes can only help.

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