‘I'm Not as Stressed Out’: During the Pandemic, Angelenos Tried Living Elsewhere. Many Aren’t Moving Back
Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior reporter, covering venture capital. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks. Follow him on Twitter.
Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series. Yesterday: Why New Yorkers and San Francisco tech workers have been moving to L.A. during the pandemic.
In late February, Aja Signor relocated from San Francisco to Venice Beach to start a new job as design director at an early-stage startup, Robin Games. She rented a one-bedroom apartment for $3,100 a month that was a pleasant 15-minute stroll to the beach one direction and 15 minutes to her office on Abbot Kinney the other way.
Three weeks later, everything changed. Robin Games abruptly closed its doors and the CEO said employees could work remotely as long as they wanted.
Signor started to hate everything about where she was living: the cramped elevator she had to ride up to her apartment, the neighbor who picked up smoking to "deal with the pandemic" and the hordes of tourists descending on Venice. "My neighborhood was packed with people not wearing masks and not doing social distancing," she said.
At the urging of her sister, Signor decided to go live with her family in Las Vegas for what she thought would be a temporary stay. She ended up liking it so much she broke her lease and plans to never live in L.A. again. In fact, in July, she did something she never would have been able to do in L.A. unless the startup she worked at had a lucrative exit and her stock options ballooned in value – she bought a roomy house.
"I had lived in California so long that I had given up owning a place of my own," Signor said. "But in Vegas the property is so cheap."
Instead of shelling out over $3,000 a month to rent a cramped apartment, Signor is now paying a mortgage costing a thousand dollars less for a four-bedroom home on a half acre of land with her own pool and hot tub.
"I can have a karaoke room, a dance room and a guest room," Signor marveled. "This could never happen in L.A."
Even as a tech worker at the top of her field, Signor always felt financially stretched in California, but in Nevada — on top of much cheaper housing costs — there is no state income tax. "That's like giving yourself a raise," she added.
Signor is part of a wave of L.A. residents in the tech and startup world who have left during the pandemic, accelerating a yearslong trend of migration to cheaper inland cities like Las Vegas, Sacramento and Phoenix. While people abandoning New York and San Francisco get most of the headlines, L.A. is also experiencing an exodus of residents.
Real Estate service Redfin estimates 12,405 departed in July alone and, according to an unscientific survey of hundreds of tech workers conducted this month by the employment service Blind, 35% have moved from L.A, a much higher percentage than New York or San Francisco.
dot.LA spoke to more than a half a dozen former Angelenos who departed during the pandemic. Like Signor, suddenly able to work from anywhere, they were attracted to other cities because of cheaper housing costs, lower taxes and, in many cases, closer proximity to family.
"We will pay 30 percent of the rent we were paying before," said Emily Best, founder and CEO of Seed&Spark. She, her husband and their two young kids used to live in downtown L.A., a short walk away from her office. But, reached via telephone, she said they were in the midst of driving across the country to live in a cabin in rural New York near relatives.
"We were in a rat race in L.A., trying to make enough money to live," Best said. "Every year it felt farther out of reach. We started having conversations about how to get off that hamster wheel and this pushed off over the edge. It's been really nice not to be so stressed out about money."
Best says her company will never go back to the sunlit and brick exposed corner workspace she opened two years ago downtown.
"That was the most painful for me: giving up the office," said Best. "That was our first real office."
Putting sentimentality aside, she is permanently taking her company fully remote. "We've already proven that everything can be done virtually," she said. "We are never going back to L.A. I don't see why we would come back."
For people like Best and Signor, COVID-19 was a life altering event that suddenly made them want to leave L.A. For others, like Jenn and Justin Welsh, the pandemic was the catalyst for a move they were already considering. Both left high-profile Santa Monica startups in recent years to start their own consulting practices. Realizing they could work from anywhere, they wondered why they were still paying L.A. housing prices.
"We wanted to make a dramatic change to our financial situation," said Jenn Welsh. "The kind of house we wanted in L.A. would be $3 million."
There were also other considerations. The Welsh's, who lived in Leimert Park, grew tired of spending hours in traffic just to have dinner with friends. (Though roadways have been more empty during the pandemic, a study last year by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute found L.A. has the worst traffic in the country, with commuters wasting an average of 119 hours in traffic a year.)
"One of my best friends lives in Pasadena," Jenn Welsh said. "She had to spend the night when she would visit. The traffic was debilitating."
Over the summer, the Welsh's sold their home in Leimert Park and bought a place in Nashville, where the median house goes for $299,838, compared to $764,528 in L.A., according to Zillow.
"We doubled the size of our house and reduced our mortgage by half," said Justin Welsh.
They say they've been impressed by Nashville's "warm hospitality" and have already made friends who are only a quick 15-minute drive away. They miss parts of L.A. – the weather, sushi and Mexican food – but have no regrets.
"L.A. is L.A.," said Justin Welsh. "It's paradise. It has access to everything you could want. I miss our friends. But I certainly don't miss the cost."
The Welsh's say they can always visit L.A. when the pandemic is over and others, like Signor, the design director who moved from Venice to Las Vegas, plan to return more frequently to maintain connections to their company and professional networks.
"I'd be dumb not to worry about that," Signor says, of living away from the tech scene. That is why she worked out an arrangement with her boss to spend one week a month back in Los Angeles, staying in an Airbnb once her office reopens.
"I'm not giving up on L.A.," she said. "But I think I'm doing some of my best work of my career right now because I don't have to spend time commuting and I'm not spending as much money so I'm not as stressed out."
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Minutes into filling out my absentee ballot last week, I was momentarily distracted by my dog Seamus. A moment later, I realized in horror that I was filling in the wrong bubble — accidentally voting "no" on a ballot measure that I meant to vote "yes" on.
It was only a few ink marks, but it was noticeable enough. Trying to fix my mistake, I darkly and fully filled in the correct circle and then, as if testifying to an error on a check, put my initials next to the one I wanted.
Then I worried. As a reporter who has previously covered election security for years, I went on a mini-quest trying to understand how a small mistake can have larger repercussions.
As Los Angeles County's 5.6 million registered voters all receive ballots at home for the first time, I knew my experience could not be unique. But I wondered, would my vote count? Or would my entire ballot now be discarded?
My distractingly sweet dog, Seamus.
Photo by Tami Abdollah
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