Love, cost of living, adventure: Why Californians moved out

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Andrea Bautista

The COVID pandemic drove some Californians out of the state or gave them newfound flexibility. Others couldn’t keep up with the astronomical cost of living or taxes here. Photo by Shutterstock.

Half a million people left California between April 2020 and July 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For some, the pandemic drove them out or gave them newfound flexibility. Others couldn’t keep up with the state’s astronomical cost of living or taxes. Or they found our blue state politics off-putting. 

Over the past few weeks, KCRW spoke with four former Californians to find out why they left, and if they would ever come back.

Alec Dye was born and raised in California. Over the years, he jumped from job to job, looking for a career that would provide financial independence and stability. Pre-pandemic, he tried his hand at teaching — but without an education degree, he settled for working as a substitute. It wasn’t a great fit. Later, he tried coding, which he thought would give way to a salary job. No dice. 

So he took a chance: “I decided: Let's just do something wild. Let's just go out there, worst case scenario that happens, you end up with your family back here in Los Angeles.”

Dye settled on applying to a park ranger position at Zion National Park and he didn’t look back: “I took it and that started me on the path that eventually took me from Utah, and then all the way up to Alaska as a park ranger Glacier Bay National Park over the summer. And then I just fell in love with the area and decided to stick around a little bit.” 

Alec Dye left Los Angeles for Utah and eventually landed in Alaska. Photo courtesy of Alec Dye. 

Alaska, Dye says, has been quite the experience — a mix of fun and absurdity: “Everything's put on a barge in Seattle. And they bring it up, and then you hope that the grapes are not three times what you're used to paying. … And you have to fly down to Seattle for a doctor's appointment.”

And while he misses LA sometimes, Dye says his future is still undecided.

“I don't know if Juneau is my forever home. But I'm gonna give it a little bit of a shot and see if I could warm up to it some more.”

Nico Marques left California due to its high cost of living, and he moved to Porto, Portugal. But he quickly realized the grass isn’t always greener, even along the Mediterranean coast.

“There's a much bigger foreign population here. The prices have gone up substantially. So it's almost ironic to see that some of the issues that we had in LA, for example, this discrepancy of income and a stark contrast between social levels, is now getting exported here. The gentrification that is so talked about in LA has been exported to Portugal as well. Not completely, but by a lot of foreign money influx.” 

Despite the challenges, Marques says there are perks to being in Portugal. 

“It's a slower-paced lifestyle, which is what we're looking for. There's plenty to explore. There's wonderful food selection. The seafood here is just marvelous. LA cannot compete on that.” 

But Marques hasn’t ruled out going back to LA. 

“My son, of course, would want me to say, ‘Oh, no, we're definitely coming back to LA.’ I don't think our plans are set in stone at this point. I could really see us staying here for a little while longer. I could see us coming back there. So it's two good choices in the future.” 

David Burlison used to live in San Diego, and he planned to retire in the Southern California city and work part-time as a substitute teacher. But he soon realized that plan was ill-fated.

“Everywhere on the West Coast, including inland, rent had gone quite a bit higher than the last time I looked. My income at retirement is $1,200. And the garage I looked at in Lakeside [is] $700. That's more than half my income.”

So he moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where his brother lives. 

“I looked closer to home — Phoenix, Las Vegas, even up the coast. Everything is too expensive. This side of the Mississippi is the only place I could find a place where I could afford to live.” 

The midwestern college town, despite being affordable, has not been a place where he’s felt welcomed as a gay man. 

“There's no community here. We’re the only liberal county in Indiana. One of the few Democratic counties in Indiana and people are very reticent. People are just concerned that if you say hi to someone, if you make eye contact in public, like on a bike path.” 

He recalls one situation where a neighbor hurled a slur at him:
“One neighbor was talking to the other neighbor. And I opened the door and made eye contact. One of them whispered to the other one: faggot. I was seven feet away. And they both laughed. I went and told my property manager. And he said, ‘‘Well hold your head up and be proud.’ I said, ‘Excuse me, that's not what I'm telling you. I'm telling you that I'm being hate speeched.’”

He adds, “The fact that my manager knows that about me — has shook him. You see it in his body language. … They are as if they're in the presence of an alien. They don't know how to act and they're disconcerted. It's isolating.” 

Burlison recently applied to Section 8 housing, which he hopes he qualifies for with his low income. Then, he can start looking for a new home back in California.

Autumn Hickman was born in East LA, grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and eventually found her way to the Bay Area. But she knew it wasn’t her forever home. For her 35th birthday, Hickman went on a cruise, where she stumbled upon a fairytale romance.

“My sister was a performer. She was playing the fairy godmother on a Disney cruise ship. I met Cinderella and we fell in love.”

The two moved to New York, where her partner could pursue a career on Broadway, which didn’t work out. Then, the duo made their way to Utah and eventually landed in Texas.

Autumn Hickman left California for love, but eventually moved back six months ago. Photo courtesy of Autumn Hickman. 

Their romance didn’t last however and Hickman decided to move back to California: “One night I was like, ‘I have to get out of here. I have to get back to California.’ It was a very determined moment in my life after surviving the ice storm of Texas, after surviving the politics.”

She adds, “After seeing shirts that said ‘Don't California, my Texas’ … seeing hostility, which I experienced almost everywhere I lived, I was like, ‘Well, I know the best state is California. And I'm just gonna get back there now.’” 




Marisa Lagos