Why Idahoans miss the mark by blaming Californians for our housing crisis

What changed in Idaho? We ran out of housing.

April 1, 2021 4:30 am
A house for sale in the North End of Boise on March 21, 2021.

A house for sale in the North End of Boise on March 21, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

I remember the sign on a forested highway near my parents’ home. The thing was massive – probably 25 feet wide — with a message sloppily spray-painted on plywood: “Go home California m**********ers.”

That was in Western Washington, three decades ago. Maybe some wealthy Californians moved in, threatening our woodsy values. As the sign was about halfway between Deming (1990 population: 2,100) and Acme (500), perhaps a few Californians weren’t a problem.

That memory sprang to mind last fall when a vandal spray-painted “Idaho hates Californians” on a concrete barrier on Bogus Basin Road — one of several acts of vandalism with anti-Californian sentiments saying similar or worse. 

Just like in my home county, this vitriol says more about the locals than about the newcomers. They came for the same reasons, such as the desire to escape from bigger markets, (relatively) cheaper housing, preference for right-leaning politics and access to the gorgeous outdoors that once attracted or now keep many of us in Idaho. 

We have a worsening housing affordability crisis, but blaming out-of-staters fails to account for other factors driving up costs. 

Worse, it lets us off of the hook from doing any real work to fix it.

The legitimate gripe

Incoming Californians competing for housing is only one issue hurting affordability, but it is an issue, so I’ll state the obvious before moving into new territory.

Of course out-of-state movers contribute to dramatic price increases. Incoming homebuyers shop for homes in Boise with an average budget of $738,000 while locals average under $500,000, according to a study published by Redfin. The median home price in Ada County more than doubled over a decade to $392,000 in 2020. Boise led the nation in rent increases last year, with median rents topping $1,000. With house and apartment hunters competing for record-low inventories in an increasingly desperate real world game of musical chairs, listing prices continue their stunning climb. 

But Californians are hardly the only new arrivals competing for homes. 

Go back to California, and … Oklahoma?

The narrative that Californians recently started moving here in droves in recent years is false. 

Granted, nearly 18,000 Californians moved to Idaho in 2019, according to the most recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau. But only one out of four people moving here are from California.

That’s right. Nearly 79,000 people moved here in 2019, including 13,500 from Washington, more than 7,000 from both Oregon and Utah as well as 5,000 from Arizona. More surprising (to me, at least), about 2,000 moved here from both Virginia and Oklahoma. 

If there are “droves” of Californians “swarming” Idaho, as articles dramatically suggest, then it’s also fair to say that Idaho is experiencing diaspora. It turns out that thousands of people also move away from Idaho — 54,000 in 2019, or roughly the population of Caldwell. For every three people who moved here, two moved away. That’s a difference, but it’s not a landslide.

Also, in 2019, 4,300 Idahoans moved to California.

The Great Recession myth

I suspect that most Idahoans believe, like I did, that the Great Recession spurred Californians to Idaho. It makes sense: The housing bubble burst, and millions of homeowners were forced into foreclosures or short sales. Those fleeing expensive California markets came to cheap and quaint Idaho to best stretch quarters into dollars. Since then, California housing prices have rocketed into absurdity. Homeowners there cashed out and live here like royalty. 

That’s what I assumed, anyway. I was wrong. The same census data shows that more than 13,000 Californians moved here in 2006 before the recession struck, but nobody was publicly suggesting to erect a wall around Boise back then. 

What changed in Idaho?

We ran out of housing.

In May 2006, the first month recorded by the Intermountain Multiple Listings Service, nearly 3,200 homes were listed for sale in Ada County. 

In February 2020, there were 300.

Those two sentences should be two books tackling a dozen factors already exhaustively covered. They would conclude that any salve for the housing crisis must prioritize adding housing, including rentals. Anything less is a Band-Aid on a wound needing stitches.

Be part of the housing solution

Those blaming Californians are tattling on their own laziness. Worse, they are being mean. Do we really believe that Americans shouldn’t have the freedom to move wherever they choose? Is it fair to blame incoming buyers plopping small fortunes on homes, but not the homeowners profiting? Of course not, but blaming them doesn’t do any good, either.

Instead, read up on affordable housing concepts. Be open to new ideas, even if they include adding housing to your neighborhood. Display a 25-foot plywood sign trumpeting “Add m*********ing housing.” Embrace that your city will change and that, by getting involved, you can steer it in a positive direction. 

While you’re at it, encourage your new neighbors from Oklahoma to get involved, too. 

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Zach Kyle
Zach Kyle

Zach Kyle moved to Idaho in 2007 and reported for newspapers in Burley, Idaho Falls and Boise. He lives in Boise and works outside of journalism as a freelance writer. Kyle is part of a rotating group and occasional guest writers contributing to the Idaho Capital Sun’s monthly column on Idaho housing and affordability issues.