Three months into the Coronavirus shut down, my husband and I knew we wanted out of San Francisco. Our two bedroom, one bath house in Bernal Heights seemed smaller than ever, with our then-nine year old son doing school from the kitchen table, and my husband trying to start his own company from our garage. He’d be on a Zoom call as our son bounced a basketball directly over his head. Not ideal.
We’d gotten lucky buying our San Francisco home during the depths of the housing slump. But now places smaller than ours cost well over a million dollars, and we couldn’t afford to level up. Moving to a new city had always seemed like a bad move, because my husband worked in tech, and most of his career had been tethered to downtown San Francisco. Now, with COVID enabling remote work, we realized it was our chance to make a break.
The twin cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City seemed to check all the boxes: Good schools, not too far from our aging parents in the Bay Area, affordable, and surrounded by natural beauty.
But perhaps most importantly, they appeared to possess a funkiness that San Francisco had lost. The San Francisco I’d loved as a young person in the 1990s was one of dive bars, bike messengers, and apartment shares in rambling Victorians. By the time I left, it seemed like the entire city had been transformed into a dorky giant Apple store: gray on gray, big panels of glass everywhere. People wore body armor: hoodies, earphones, and sunglasses, to shield themselves from interaction. They were always staring at their phones. It had always been a chilly city, weather-wise, now the whole place was turning cold.
We sold our house and bought a larger house in Nevada City at a fraction of what it would have cost in San Francisco. The lifestyle upgrade was immediate. Friendly neighbors introduced themselves and brought us Christmas cookies. I could run to hiking trails a mile from our door. My son spontaneously ambled over to the neighbors’ houses to play without me having to schedule play dates a week in advance. The smell of trees replaced the stench of diesel fumes from the city busses.
But one person’s Shangri-la may be another’s hellscape. Since the pandemic hit, Nevada County has experienced a deluge of Bay Area folks like me, looking for an affordable dream house in a quaint country setting. We’ve come in droves, with deep pockets, priced out locals, and put the screws on the already-tight local rental market.
According to research from the University of California that tracked consumer credit data, the number of arrivals from the Bay Area to Nevada County increased 100 percent from 2019 to 2020. The county had the highest percentage increase, along with El Dorado and Trinity Counties, of any other county in the state.
“Pretty much all my buyers are Bay Area,” says Grass Valley realtor, Rebecca Mooers.
According to the Nevada County Association of Realtors, average home prices in the county rose 31 percent from 2019 to 2021, to $593,684. Pre-COVID, local real estate would typically rise a third as much in the same amount of time.
“It’s the busiest I have ever seen it in my thirty-six years doing real estate in Nevada County,” says Nevada City realtor Mimi Simmons.
We Bay Area expats have created a housing frenzy in Nevada County. But in what other ways will our presence alter what was here before? Politically, culturally, economically, and maybe even racially – what will our community look like as we emerge from COVID and meet as neighbors?
Now There’s No Housing
Grass Valley realtor Britica Pratt recalls a 1300 square foot house down a dirt road in rural Nevada City with no cell service, much less reliable internet.
Her clients, a couple born and raised in Nevada County, offered $15,000 over asking within days of it going on MLS. They lost to a Bay Area buyer who offered $200,000 over asking.
“My clients were hardworking, but they had wages that were good by the standards of here, not Bay Area wages,” says Pratt. According to US Census Data from 2019, per capita income in Nevada County was $39,233. San Francisco County, by contrast, was $68,883.
Multiple offers on a house the first week (sometimes the first day), overbids, and all-cash offers are now common, whereas they were not before the pandemic.
Rentals have always been scarce in Nevada County. Now, they’re nearly impossible to find, as priced-out buyers fall back on renting. To make matters worse, some landlords have decided to cash in by selling their properties, taking even more rentals out of the pool.
“There isn’t really any place to go,” says Nevada City renter Kris Stevenson, whose landlord told her he was selling the house she lives in. “It was already hard before. Now there’s no housing.”
Local apartment complexes with zero vacancies are getting ten calls a day for people looking for rentals. At Berryhill Apartments in Grass Valley, the waitlist for one and two bedroom units is twelve people deep, and no one’s budging.
Besides Cashins’ Fields, a 56-unit affordable apartment complex on Ridge Road in Nevada City that’s close to breaking ground, there is little near-term relief in sight.
“We need to figure out ways in which people can build or add on to their property more easily,” says Grass Valley City Councilperson, Tom Ivey.
Changing zoning laws to encourage density is also something Ivey, and some others, are interested in. However, like most communities, density is a controversial topic. It typically evokes fears of congestion, blocked views, traffic, and general modernity. This community is no exception.
“There is a…mentality of wanting to preserve the ‘quiet’ life in the foothills,” says Eric Robbins, chair of the Nevada County Democrats. “This means there is a natural antipathy to building denser housing. People want to preserve the small town feel at all cost.”
A Demographic Shift
So, who are my fellow invaders? What other cultural impacts can we expect from the Bay Area influx? We don’t know for sure, but we can take some educated guesses.
In the last nine years, the county flipped from Republican to Democrat. It’s not unreasonable to expect that more Bay Area people will hasten this trend, which is unwelcome news for nearly 40 percent of the voters in Nevada County.
“This used to be a place where there were cowboys and rednecks and hippies, and they all got along,” says realtor Britica Pratt, who describes herself as independent.
But then came COVID, with mask mandates and government shutdowns, which Pratt opposed. She recounts the angry comments she got for choosing not to wear a mask in public, and people’s condemnation of local restaurants that defied government orders to shutter indoor dining. “I saw an ugliness I’d never seen before,” she says.
Now Pratt’s moving to Tennessee, where there is “less government control.” But for those who stay here, politely navigating political differences will be crucial.
Shruti Keerti and her husband, Sam, recently moved from San Francisco and bought a house in Grass Valley. They are originally from India. At first they were worried about being “the only brown people” in town, but soon found that fear was unfounded. “People have been really nice,” she says.
She sees a bigger challenge in politics. Keerti recently started a Facebook thread for Bay Area newcomers, and was dismayed when someone on the thread made a derisive comment about local “Trumpers”, and another member privately messaged her imploring her not to stir up political divisiveness.
“As an immigrant, I’m very aware of the need to integrate,” says Keerti. “The Bay Area is not politically diverse. It’s ‘What shade of blue are you?’ If you’re just doing things the same way you were there, you won’t integrate. People will feel that you aren’t being respectful.”
Besides being probably liberal, anecdotal evidence suggests that Bay Area transplants are also on the younger side.
In recent decades, Western Nevada County has predominantly attracted retirees. According to online government data aggregator, Data USA, the median age of a person living in Grass Valley is 46, a decade older than the median age for the state of California. In Nevada City, it’s even older, at 54.
But interviews with local realtors suggest this new shift involves a lower age bracket.
“Since COVID, the younger generation has learned how to work from home and teach their kids from home, and has decided to move up to the country,” says realtor Mimi Simmons.
Carrie Criss-Harvey, her husband, and two kids, moved to Nevada City during the pandemic in order to be closer to nature and get something bigger. With the money they made on the sale of their San Jose home, they were able to pay off all their debt and make the downpayment on a roomy three bedroom house on Banner Mountain. Switching their kids from private school to the area’s good public schools saved them even more money. For the first time in recent memory, they were able to start adding to their savings account.
“Before, we never felt we could get ahead, let alone save,” says Criss-Harvey. “We were digging ourselves into a hole.”
Criss-Harvey was able to get a job in a local elementary school, and her husband began selling solar panels. It seemed like it all just fell into place.
“Before COVID really burst and changed everybody’s life, we would come up here and say ‘Maybe this is where we need to be,’” says Criss-Harvey. “But if we weren’t in lock down just the four of us, if I had talked to a lot of people about it, I would have strayed away from it. I’m extremely risk averse.”
Breaking the Cycle of Extraction
The current Bay Area invasion is just the latest in many waves of migration to Western Nevada County. First it was the Gold Rush, which, with all its contributions, was also an elimination and extraction process: both upon the local native population, the Nisenan, and the environment.
The area had a mini tech boom in the early 1960s, with the rise of the Grass Valley Group, an early producer of broadcast and television equipment started by a former Stanford grad. The company put Western Nevada County on the map as a place of business and innovation, allowing it to attract scientists and engineers, many from the Bay Area.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw back-to-the-landers settle in the area and set up craft and artisan shops downtown. David Osborn and Charles Woods, a gay couple from San Francisco, moved to Nevada City and bought and refurbished several historic buildings including the Miners Foundry. They helped resuscitate the Nevada Theatre, which was being used as a storage shed for the forest service, and started KVMR Community Radio. Their efforts reinforced Nevada City as a cultural center.
“I thought it was rather impressive that a mining/logging town welcomed these two gay men,” says Paul Matson, former Nevada City mayor and Council Member. “But Nevada City people have always had a welcoming attitude.”
The welcoming attitude has even extended to the more recent boom in large-scale cannabis cultivation and the “trimmigrants” who come to trim the buds, bringing with them their own counter-cultural spirit.
There is a collective realization among many in the area that these waves, although sometimes challenging, make the region the dynamic place that it is.
“For a healthy community we need diversity. A diversity of ages, of ethnicity, of cultures,” says Jonathan Collier, co-founder of Live Work Thrive Nevada County, an advocacy group working for more housing and economic opportunity for the younger generations. “We need more perspective, more talent, more creativity to address the issues we face.”
How about the wave that I’m a part of? Will there suddenly be fancy coffee shops everywhere, selling twelve dollar avocado toast? Or will it have contributed to energetic and intelligent community engagement? Maybe neither. Maybe both?
Jonathan Collier had a few pieces of advice for me and my fellow transplants: “Be respectful, get to know your neighbors, listen to as many sides of the story as possible, and find solutions that leave everyone better off than before.”
Bay Area expats may have a cross to bear in Nevada County because of the housing crisis. But we also have an opportunity to do things right, by contributing rather than extracting. We didn’t move to a quaint country setting out of a Thomas Kinkaid painting, we moved to a politically, culturally-diverse community with a dynamic history. And it’s not too late to be on the right side of that history.
With additional reporting by Joseph Hudson.