Opinion

Opinion

FARHAD MANJOO: Everyone's moving to Texas. Here's why

Posted November 24, 2021 5:00 a.m. EST

FILE -- A child plays soccer near oil drilling rigs in West Odessa, Texas, Jan. 24, 2021. Even with its growing tech and health care industries, the Texas economy revolves around oil and gas. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Farhad Manjoo is a New York Times columnist . Before that, Manjoo wrote the State of the Art column. and is the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.”

The traumas of the past few years have rearranged all of our lives. Many Americans have new needs, new desires, new possibilities and new priorities. They’re looking for bigger homes, second homes or any home at all. They’re searching for work — or trying to escape work. Some fear encroaching heat, fire or flood. Others are repulsed by bitter local politics. Many simply hear the distant siren of a better life elsewhere.

We’re here to help. First, we gathered data for thousands of towns and cities on more than 30 metrics, such as school quality, crime rates and affordability. Then we used that data to make a quiz: Select the criteria you find important, and we’ll show you places that might work for you.

Here’s how I used it, and what I learned.

For more than 100 years, California was the state everyone wanted to move to. In 1900, California had about as many people as Kansas; by 2000, it had grown twentyfold and was by far the most populous and most prosperous state. In technology, in the arts, in science, in gastronomy — around the turn of the century, the Golden State from north to south seemed on the cusp of becoming a global capital. It felt like the best place in America to chart a new path, to float what foundered elsewhere, to sip from a cup runneth over.

I’ve lived in California nearly all my life, and it’s still more likely than not that I will remain here; reports of a sudden “exodus” from the state are frequently exaggerated. Still, there’s plenty going wrong — soaring housing costs, devastating poverty and inequality, and the cascading disasters brought about by a change in what was once our big selling point, the climate. Not a month goes by that I don’t wonder what I’m doing here. There’s got to be somewhere better, right?

Mine is certainly a privileged flight of fancy; if I left California, I’d be one of the hordes of remote-working elites fleeing local problems and driving up house prices in once-pleasant little towns around the country. It’s a phenomenon that is the topic of much media coverage nowadays — though, in fact, mobility in the United States is inversely related to income: People suffering economic hardship tend to move more often than wealthy people.

But anyway, everyone imagines greener pastures now and then. Our quiz provides a starting point for such reveries. By scoring cities and towns, we let you filter and rank locations according to affordability, the vibrancy of local job markets, exposure to climate hazards, political and racial diversity, reproductive and transgender rights, how long you can expect to spend commuting and whether a place has lots of mountains or trees.

As my colleagues explain in a methodology note, California does very well on many of these criteria. That’s the problem — California is so nice, nobody can afford to live there anymore. Most areas in and around Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and San Diego fall into our search tool’s most expensive category. We label that category $$$$, though it’s not as if life in, say, Irvine or Redwood City or Anaheim is very blingy. Compared to many other places in the country, some pricey California enclaves often offer mediocre schools, not a lot of space, relatively arduous commutes and a rough forecast under climate change.

As the Golden Gate shuts, the Lone Star beckons. If you’re looking for an affordable, economically vibrant city that is less likely to be damaged by climate change than many other American cities, our data shows why Texas is a new land of plenty. For the many hypothetical life scenarios I ran through our quiz, the suburbs around Dallas — places like Plano, McKinney, Garland, Euless and Allen — came up a lot. It’s clear why these are some of the fastest-growing areas in the country. They have relatively little crime and are teeming with jobs, housing, highly rated schools, good restaurants, clean air and racial and political diversity — all at a steep discount compared to the cost of living in America’s coastal metropolises.

This fall, I visited Dallas and its mushrooming suburbs on a scouting mission. Tens of thousands of Californians have moved to Texas every year of the last decade. Should I?

Texas has been growing explosively for two decades, so its strong showing in a ranking tool for deciding where to live is about as surprising as its strong showing in a list of rodeo championships. From 2010-20, the population of Texas grew by nearly 4 million; about 29 million people live there now. In the same period, California, which has nearly 40 million people, added just over 2 million.

About half of Texas’ growth in 2018-19, for example, was due to what demographers call “natural increase” — big Texans making little Texans. The rest was through migration from other parts of the country and the world. People from every state move to Texas, but California contributes an outsize number of new Texans. In 2019, Californians accounted for about 42% of Texas’ net domestic in-migration.

What do Texas cities have that other places don’t? In my searches, there were two preferences that, when combined with jobs, tended to guarantee results in Texas: racial diversity and lower climate risks.

There are lots of places in America with jobs and lower climate risks or jobs and racial diversity, but if you want all three, Texas will take care of you best.

Diversity is what Texas has over many cities in the Midwest or the West — places like Madison or Colorado Springs or Portland. Nearly all of Texas’ recent growth has been in populations of color, and its growth areas are as racially diverse as many places in California. Growth cities in Texas are not just racially diverse but also politically diverse, if you’re into that sort of thing. In Plano, a thriving suburb of Dallas, about 60% of voters are Democrats; in Menlo Park, a thriving suburb south of San Francisco, about 80% are — the difference between living among political allies and living in an echo chamber.

Then there are Texas’ climate risks. Houston will not do well on a warming planet — it is economically dependent on the oil and gas industry and is threatened by hurricanes and a surge in sea levels. But other big cities, including Dallas and Fort Worth, face more moderate risks, especially compared with many cities in California. Yes, Texas is very hot and likely to get hotter; but if a lot of other American cities also begin to get very hot, Texas cities might not feel as overheated by comparison. In addition to the risk of heat stress, Texas also faces the possibility of water shortages, but that will be true across much of the West, including California’s population centers.

What Texans will not have to worry about as much are wildfires, the scourge of so much of California, and the attendant air pollution, though experts predict increases in wildfires in Texas. It’s true that Texas’ less extreme fire risk is related to something precious about California that Texas lacks — abundant trees and mountains in major metro areas, or really any of California’s striking natural beauty. But nobody said living through climate change would be pretty.

You might argue that it’s too speculative to take into account something as broad and complex as climate change when deciding where to live. And more important, there’s no real escape from a long-term planetary disaster — even if you move to some place with lovely weather, your life is bound to be altered in significant ways as habitability shifts elsewhere on the globe.

Still, living through California’s tinderbox years has convinced me to keep an eye on climate dangers; while forecasts on climate risk are inexact, making some effort to anticipate its danger when deciding where to live feels more responsible than ignoring it. And when people in California are paying a million dollars above asking price for homes in areas of high and increasing wildfire risk, isn’t that something like ignoring it?

There is a concept in behavioral economics known as a “Minsky moment,” which describes when a bull market suddenly wises up to its own unsustainability, causing a collapse in prices. Jesse Keenan, an associate professor at the Tulane University School of Architecture who studies how climate change affects housing markets, told me that a Minsky moment could be coming for high-priced homes in at-risk coastal cities. As home lenders, insurance companies and other players in the real estate business begin to better understand their exposure to climate risks, they may raise premiums or force disclosure requirements that could lower home values.

At the moment, buying a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, looks like a safe investment. But lately I have begun to obsess about the uncertainty built into the changing weather. What if three fire seasons from now proves to be one fire season too many — and, in a blink, the housing market into which we’ve invested so much of our future implodes? “In a way, climate change could begin to look like a foreclosure crisis,” Keenan told me.

A Californian will feel right at home in Dallas even before touching the ground. Like the suburbs around Los Angeles, San Diego and across the Bay Area, Dallas and other Texas metros are built on the certainty of cars and infinite sprawl; from the air, as I landed, I could see the familiar landscape of endless blocks of strip malls and single-family houses, all connected by a circulatory system of freeways.

I rented a sweet pickup truck to get around Dallas, but that was the extent of my taste of local flavor. Texas has barbecue and California has burritos, but the American urban landscape has grown stultifyingly homogeneous over the past few decades, and perhaps one reason so many Californians are comfortable moving to Texas is that, on the ground, in the drive-through line at Starbucks or the colossal parking lot at Target, daily life is more similar than it is different.

My guide through the Dallas suburbs was Marie Bailey, a real estate agent who runs Move to Texas From California!, a Facebook group that helps disillusioned Californians find their way to the promised land. Bailey is herself a Californian. She and her family moved in 2017 from El Segundo, a beach city next to Los Angeles International Airport, to Prosper, a landlocked oasis of new housing developments north of Dallas. In El Segundo, the median home list price is $1.3 million; in Prosper, it’s less than half that.

And in Prosper, the houses are palatial, many of them part of sprawling new developments that brim with amenities unheard-of in California. “It’s like living in a country club,” Bailey told me, which sounded like hyperbole until she showed me the 5-acre lagoon and white sand beach in the development where she and her husband purchased a home. Their house is 5,000 square feet. They bought it for about the same price for which they sold a home they owned in Orange County, which was 1,500 square feet.

Bailey’s move gets to the heart of the great California-Texas migration: housing. As she drove me around Dallas’ suburbs, Bailey would point out cute house after cute house now occupied by a Californian. I had been talking about the idea of choosing between California and Texas, but for many people moving here, Bailey suggested, there really was not much choice at all — it was simply that, economically, they could not make their lives work in California, and in Texas, they could.

I visited Dallas two weeks after Texas’ bounty-hunter abortion law went into effect, and a week after Greg Abbott, the governor, signed a bill that severely restricts voting access. Attractive as Texas’ real estate might be, I was beginning to regret this whole idea: Twitter was alive with calls to boycott Texas and here I was — a lefty New York Times columnist — preparing to laud the livability of a state that seemed to be lurching to the fringe right.

I suspect that politics isn’t a primary factor in most people’s moving decisions, but politics is never far below the surface of any discussion comparing California to Texas. In the news media, the gulf between California’s politics and Texas’ politics is usually described as so profound as to be unbridgeable. And it’s true that there are certain issues on which there is little room for compromise.

If you select transgender rights or reproductive rights as important to you in our quiz, Texas will plummet in your results. No one in my family is transgender nor likely to be in need of an abortion soon, but could I live in a state that maintains restrictions with which I profoundly disagree? Could I live in a state where the governor tried to ban mask mandates?

For many, though, the political calculus can be more complicated. For one thing, rapid growth is rapidly altering Texas’ politics. As people pour in, Texas keeps getting more diverse, younger and more liberal. One reason Republicans may be rushing to limit voting access is out of fear of being overrun. “Don’t California My Texas!” is a popular refrain.

There is an added nuance, which is that actually living in a place is different from observing its politics from afar. On an electoral map, Texas looks inhospitable to anyone on the left. But its biggest cities and suburbs largely voted blue in 2020, and as a practical matter they may feel no less welcoming to people on the left than some of the most liberal of coastal metropolises.

My hotel in downtown Dallas was within a short walk of several gay bars; sex shops selling packers, which are often used by trans men; smoothie shops; and purveyors of CBD remedies of all kinds. Black Lives Matter signs dotted front yards. Not everyone was wearing a mask, but lots of people were — many more than I was expecting, and certainly enough that I never felt out of place donning one.

Bill Fulton, director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and a former Californian, told me that rather than hot-button political issues, a more salient problem for Californians moving to Texas is the paltriness of government services. Texas spends far less on welfare benefits than California, and it did not expand Medicaid under "Obamacare." “Californians are used to a high level of public services, and Texas is a lower-amenity state,” Fulton said.

The poor services and reactionary state politics bother me greatly, but I can see how, for a lot of people, low taxes and more living space could be inducement enough to overlook Texas’ apparent downsides.

As I toured houses in Dallas, I knew that I wouldn’t be moving to Texas anytime soon — but mainly because I’m not in a place in life where I have to. If I were 10 years younger, if my kids weren’t settled at their schools and my wife wasn’t tied to a job in California, I’d feel a lot differently.

Texas, now, feels a bit like California did when I first moved here in the late 1980s — a thriving, dynamic place where it doesn’t take a lot to establish a good life. For many people, that’s more than enough.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Capitol Broadcasting Company's Opinion Section seeks a broad range of comments and letters to the editor. Our Comments beside each opinion column offer the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about this article.

In addition, we invite you to write a letter to the editor about this or any other opinion articles. Here are some tips on submissions >> SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR