In California, the ZIP codes with the fastest average growth in typical home values during the pandemic were in the south state’s High Desert — by an overwhelming margin. That’s according to a Chronicle analysis of data from real estate listings company Zillow.
In the No. 1 spot in the region — which is not formally defined but runs from northern Los Angeles County through the Mojave Desert basin to the east, including parts of San Bernardino, Kern and Inyo counties — was the community of Landers, where home values soared 84% over the past two years. Joshua Tree, which saw home values grow 69% during the pandemic, was in second place, followed by Twentynine Palms at 63%.
Bob Armstrong, a broker associate at Green Real Estate Group who has lived in the High Desert area for 42 years, said the growth is almost “overwhelming.”
While homeowners have benefited from the boom, both locals and transplants acknowledge the rapid transition is already sparking concerns seen in other high-growth areas like Tahoe, especially around future housing affordability — and raising questions about what happens next for the region.
Who is buying in the High Desert?
In 2016, Britt Nelson and Kyle Johnson set out from San Francisco for their first, fateful trip together to Joshua Tree.
Despite the chilly January weather — to their surprise, it had snowed at the national park in the Southern California desert a week before — the couple soaked in the rugged, beautiful landscape.
Nelson, 40, and Johnson, 35, were both working for tech companies at the time, and they soon found themselves considering an investment property. For Nelson, the idea of having a place closer to her Southern California relatives was appealing, and she wanted to sell her San Francisco place with a pricey mortgage.
She and Johnson consulted with an acquaintance who’d owned a home in Yucca Valley, about 27 miles north of Palm Springs, and they soon put in an offer sight unseen on a fixer-upper there. The couple renovated the property and turned it into an Airbnb rental. Now, they live full time in the desert and are in the process of purchasing their third High Desert home.
Lynee LaVoie, a real estate agent with Cherie Miller Associates in Yucca Valley, said the majority of her clients are people like Nelson and Johnson: buyers looking for a vacation property, many coming from Los Angeles, Orange County and the Bay Area to take advantage of the lower home prices and sprawling desert environment.
A good portion of them are Millennials looking for midcentury homes with “character.” They fix them up, stay there now and then, and rent them out the rest of the time, using that money to pay for the mortgage and as passive income, she said.
Though interest in the area appears to have accelerated in the past two years, it predates the pandemic, stemming from the rising popularity of Joshua Tree National Park. In 2015, attendance exceeded 2 million for the first time. After a dip in 2020 due to pandemic closures, attendance surged again last year, surpassing 3 million.
Some parts of the High Desert come with a heavy dose of quirkiness that makes them stand out from other more established California destinations. Landers, for instance, is a magnet for UFO aficionados, featuring the Integratron dome built by ufologist George Van Tassel.
LaVoie said the area near Joshua Tree still doesn’t have enough services, including lodgings and restaurants, to support so many tourists. So besides camping and a handful of hotels, rental homes are the main option for visitors.
A 2019 birthday trip to the desert inspired Shelby Lemson, 48, then a Bay Area resident, to consider the slower pace of life. She and her husband, Darren, 55, started looking at High Desert homes soon after and closed on a three-bedroom, two-bathroom property with a guest house on 2.5 acres in Landers in January 2020.
Soon after, Darren got sick and subsequently learned he had COVID-19. The disease wreaked havoc on his lungs, and he had to stop working.
Darren’s doctor recommended they move to Landers, so they rented out their Brentwood and Bethel Island houses and started a new life in the desert.
“It’s just a different way of life, it’s simpler, it’s a slower pace,” Shelby said. “It makes you be a little bit more aware of what matters in life. … Everybody just comes as they are.”
Affordable no more?
For many people coming from big cities, home prices in the High Desert are especially attractive. A fixer-upper on 3 acres can go for $200,000 to $400,000, which is a steal compared to homes in Los Angeles County, where the median home price was $795,000 last November.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the ZIP codes including Landers, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms have a dramatically lower median household income than the overall figure for California — ranging from $32,000 to $43,000, versus the California median of about $75,000. Anywhere from 25% to 32% of residents live below the poverty line in these three ZIP codes, compared to 11.5% across California.
LaVoie, a High Desert native, said the growth in home values is having a negative impact on residents who live there year-round.
“There are local people who can’t afford to buy a house here now,” she said. “For people coming from cities, the market is extremely affordable. But for people who live in our area, $400,000 to $500,000 … is not conducive to their income.”
Armstrong said he believes locals are split on the issue, with some donning “Go back to L.A.” stickers on their cars.
“Our community is going through change, and not minor change, it’s a significant change,” he said. “There are locals being priced out of the market, and I think locals are unhappy that there’s more traffic.”
He said while the growth has increased, the need for workers tied to the vacation rental business, it hasn’t necessarily created new jobs, but rather different types of jobs. And no major employers have come out to the area to give a needed boost to the economy.
“I hope we can be respectful of the desert and keep its uniqueness,” Shelby Lemson said. “I’d hate to see new developers come in and build huge neighborhoods.”
Alexander Aquino-Kaljakin, 37, moved from Los Angeles to Yucca Valley a year ago with his wife and two children. They wanted to buy a home in the Los Angeles area, but it was out of their price range.
“We were struggling to find a place that we loved in an area that we wanted to live in,” he said.
His wife presented the idea of buying in the High Desert, and they reached out to LaVoie. Aquino-Kaljakin said they quickly saw their money could go much further in the High Desert.
They found a two-bedroom midcentury modern home in a suburban community, with “nice views of open land” and Joshua trees on the property. The list price was $259,000, and the final sale was $275,000.
Aquino-Kaljakin said since moving the family has made a strong network of friends, and they love the “small-town charm” and access to nature.
He said they receive regular Zillow emails showing their home value has “gone up a lot.” A number of new homes are under construction in their neighborhood, and he said one just sold for over $1 million.
He, like many other newer High Desert homeowners, have noticed the mixed feelings among longtime residents about people with money coming from big cities — as well as wealthy investors buying up properties, fixing them up and renting them out, or selling them for twice or more what they paid for them.
“We are the gentrifiers,” he said. “I can’t be a critic of that because we are those people. We recognize that, but we mean no harm by it by any stretch.”
But he acknowledged that “the area is changing,” and that he believes the real estate boom is “generating a lot of work and money people need in those areas.”
‘Not for the faint of heart’
The challenges of desert living and renovating fixer-uppers are not for everyone. Homeowners warn that you need to know what you’re getting into before you buy.
When the pandemic hit, Nelson and Johnson’s jobs went remote, and they realized they had an empty house down south that they could start remodeling with the goal of hosting their wedding there. So they decided to stay for a month — but that turned into eight months.
“We lived for six months without indoor running water,” Johnson said. “We thought many times about going back up to San Francisco.”
But they kept moving forward, and the benefits of being in an environment they loved, with plenty of space and privacy, outweighed the hard parts of desert living.
Lemson said prospective homebuyers should know the High Desert doesn’t offer the luxuries of city living. Internet connection can be spotty, and Landers does not yet have recycling services.
“It’s about learning to appreciate the simpler life,” she said. “There’s value in that, but people should know that when they come here.”
There are many cheap plots of land for sale in the High Desert, but building homes on the parcels is “not for the faint of heart,” LaVoie said. The iconic Joshua trees that dot the landscape are protected, so they can’t be removed.
Some newer homeowners are dedicated to sticking it out, to living in harmony with the desert, to ingratiating themselves with locals and giving back to the community.
Nelson left her tech job and is now pursuing home design and architecture in the High Desert. Aquino-Kaljakin and his wife don’t plan on selling anytime soon and want to raise their kids in Yucca Valley, where they have easy access to hiking and nature.
Lemson and a friend started a healing practice called Methods + Rituals Spa Wellness, doing treatments out of the guest house, and her husband is a local handyman for Airbnb. When visitors rent out the main home, the Lemsons live in a trailer on the property. They’ve met visitors from all over the world, from China to England.
“It’s just an amazing place,” she said. “It’s brought a sense of peace and calmness we’ve been looking for for years.”
Kellie Hwang is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @KellieHwang