Bay Area residents seek the California dream — in Sacramento

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SACRAMENTO — They laugh at it now — the conversation that set in motion their move to a city that neither of them had ever seen.

“What about Sacramento?” Cat Perez asked her wife, Aja Blue. “What about Sacramento?” Blue responded.

After a decade of renting in San Francisco and a brief stint in Los Angeles, Blue and Perez became part of a great migration to one of the last affordable urban areas in the state. Drawn by lower housing prices, Bay Area residents are pouring into California’s capital and its surrounding areas, trading a temperate climate for triple-digit summers; hustle-and-bustle for a slower pace of life; and redwood hiking trails for expansive fields and distant, snow-capped mountains.

The region has become the top destination in the country — ahead of trendy Seattle and Portland — for those looking to flee the jammed roads and high costs of the tech-dominated Bay Area, according to new migration data from Redfin, a popular real estate site. Each year, nearly 20,000 Bay Area residents are resettling in cities stretching from Davis to Sacramento and further east to the Sierra foothills, according to census data analyzed by the Greater Sacramento Economic Council.

“It’s becoming a place for the next generation to live,” said Sacramento’s mayor, Darrell Steinberg.

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Pedestrians walk near the State Capitol in Sacramento on Nov. 7, 2017. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

So many Sacramento-area residents have jobs based in the Bay Area — roughly 120,000 as of the council’s last estimate — that business leaders tout a burgeoning “megaregion” encompassing both Silicon Valley and the capital. Many workers make the long commute, at least occasionally. But some Bay Area employers — like the health care enrollment startup that Perez co-founded, HealthSherpa, and the mobile video platform developer Fantag — have opened offices in Sacramento, offering employees (and themselves) a cheaper place to live, without the long trek.

Sacramento was the fastest-growing big city in the state last year, a growth spurt largely caused by the Bay Area exodus. Roughly 75 percent of Redfin users moving into the greater Sacramento region come from the Bay Area, said the site’s chief economist, Taylor Marr.

Talk to anyone who has made the move, and you will inevitably hear the word “affordable.” The median home price in the city of Sacramento is now about $300,000, less than half of what it is in Oakland and about a third of what it costs to buy in San Jose, according to Trulia. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Sacramento was $1,525 in August, compared to more than $2,700 in San Jose and Oakland and $4,000 in San Francisco.

Last year Blue and Perez bought a three-bedroom, mid-century ranch house on the outskirts of Sacramento for $307,000. The affordability and ease of living, Blue said, has caused her stress levels to drop to zero.

“I love it here,” Blue said, “and I was actually shocked to find myself saying that so fast.”

The Bay Area migration has helped fuel interest and investment in Sacramento’s once notoriously dead downtown, now home to fancy condos, a new sports arena and an emerging restaurant scene. The stylized, hipster vibe that is so ubiquitous in other big cities is now unmistakable in parts of Sacramento as Bay Area chefs and restaurateurs — including Tom Schnetz, owner of the popular Oakland restaurants Flora, Doña Tomas and Xolo — open up shop.

But Sacramento and the Bay Area are a study in contrasts, which can be unnerving for those making the leap.

Schools, parks, bicycles, and grandparents — and the chance to buy a home — were enough for Judy Wong-Chen to trade her family’s rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco for Davis, a college town west of Sacramento.

Still, she dreads saying goodbye to the intangibles, like watching the waves crash on the beach with her 3-year-old daughter after picking her up from day care. After they move at the end of the month, her husband will be commuting to Oakland for work, more than an hour away by car or train.

“Truly, I love my life now, and it’s really hard to think about consciously choosing to leave it,” Wong-Chen said. “I predict this is going to be a tough transition.”

Bouts of homesickness hit 27-year-old Michael McDaniel after he moved in February from a $1,500 studio in his native San Jose to a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow in leafy East Sacramento that he shares with a roommate, paying $550 per month. But, he said, he is now enjoying the city and finds it easy to go back to visit. McDaniel is studying communications and business at Sacramento State and Sacramento City College — schools he chose mainly because of the capital’s low cost of living — while working at a combination bar and barber shop downtown and occasionally waiting tables.

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Portrait: Michael McDaniel, 27, moved from San Jose to Sacramento in February so he could go to college in a more affordable city. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

Before the move, he had an entry level receptionist’s position at Google. To keep a roof over his head and food in the fridge, he said, he also juggled a part-time job and occasionally drove for Uber.

“I was doing what I could to survive,” he said. “But it was this constant struggle.”

The owners of San Francisco’s playful, Japanese-inspired seafood restaurant Skool, Andy Mirabell and his wife, Olia Kedick-Mirabell, said they spent years scouring Marin County and the East Bay for places to open a second restaurant — and to move their young family — before they realized they were overlooking Sacramento, where Mirabell grew up. They moved two years ago into what Mirabell called the “home of our dreams.”

“Sacramento is so affordable,” Kedick-Mirabell said. “It just all made so much sense for us to come over here.”

Paradoxically, the intense draw of Sacramento’s affordability is making it more expensive — and harder to find a place to live in an area that not long ago had an oversupply of housing.

Home prices have risen 68 percent across the region since 2011, according to Redfin, and they have more than doubled downtown. Over the past year, Sacramento renters were walloped with some of the largest price hikes in the nation: a 9.6 percent increase from the previous year, the highest among the nation’s 30 largest metro areas, according to an August analysis by the real-estate firm Yardi-Matrix.

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A bicyclist rides near a housing construction project on Nov. 7, 2017, in Sacramento. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

“Everybody I know is flocking to Sacramento, and that’s driving the prices up,” said Ava Nadal, who was born and raised in Oakland and moved from the East Bay to Sacramento decades ago with husband, Fernando Nadal.

The Nadals, both in their 60s and coping with serious health problems, lost their home during the Great Recession. They were evicted this year from a gated-community rental in a dispute with the homeowners association, they said, and now rent a small house in a crime-ridden Sacramento neighborhood — the only available place they could afford.

Months after they moved in, the house was sold to a new owner who — for now — has allowed them to stay. But the threat of eviction looms.

A Bay Area backlash — the kind of fierce resentment that has long greeted newcomers from California to Portland — has yet to manifest in laid-back Sacramento. But in September, a Sacramento Bee columnist noted with alarm the rising costs. She compared some Bay Area refugees to “drunk millionaires in a dollar store” and implored them to do their due diligence before overpaying for an apartment.

“I remember the days – you know, back in July – when I was truly grateful we had so many transplants here,” quipped Erika Smith, a Bee editorial writer. “Without them, the capital city wouldn’t have such a demand for – and, therefore, such a supply of – excellent restaurants, excellent coffee and excellent bars.

“But now,” she wrote, “it seems Sacramento is cruising at top-speed toward peak San Franciscification.”

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