Is The California Dream Dying? Another Family Calls it Quits on the Golden State

5 min
Anna and Evan Colby sharing a moment while packing their apartment. Downtown Los Angeles is visible through the window. (John Corley)

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It’s 65 degrees and sunny on a Saturday afternoon in the trendy Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. Many families are enjoying walks in Griffith Park, or eating lunch at outdoor cafés. But not Anna and Evan Colby. They're packing up their apartment in a mad dash to move to Lansing, Michigan.

They're among many Californians fleeing soaring housing prices, smog and increasingly-frequent wildfires and mudslides. Demographers have been noting a trend in out-migration: more people are leaving California than moving here from other states. 

The Colbys will miss walks up to Griffith Park and adventures to places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree. But most of all, they will miss L.A.’s culinary scene. Los Feliz is one of the city's hip food corridors.

“There are probably a dozen restaurants in our neighborhood that are walkable, better than anything we’ll find [in Michigan],” Evan says.

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They'll also miss their Los Feliz apartment, with its view of downtown L.A. But having a new baby has shifted their priorities. They just can't squeeze into a one-bedroom anymore.

“Really once we decided to have a family, at that point it was like, 'Alright, we’ve had our fun, now it’s time to find a place we can actually afford to live,' " Evan adds.

Anna and Evan Colby's apartment in Los Feliz occupied the upper-left half of the building. (John Corley)

According to Zillow, the average price for a house in Los Feliz is $1.6 million.

That puts the dream of home ownership out of reach for the Colbys, even though they are both college graduates with full-time jobs: Anna is a public policy advocate and research associate with two master's degrees from the University of Southern California, and Evan is a director at a healthcare data firm, with a bachelor's degree from Central Michigan University.

Like so many people living in Los Angeles, Evan and Anna are from somewhere else. They grew up in the Midwest, but moved so Anna could attend graduate school at USC seven years ago.

Evan says buying a house in L.A. is "ridiculous," and "a waste of money." They also have concerns about L.A.’s notorious smog, especially for their baby. They've always had one indoor air purifier, but were forced to get a second one when fires hit the area last December.

“We actually could see ash coming down one day, and we thought we better get a more powerful [purifier],” Anna recalls.

Evan filled his Prius to the brim for his cross-country journey to Michigan. (John Corley)

On moving day, Evan stuffs his Prius to the brim with all the belongings that couldn’t fit in the moving truck. Before heading off, he has to fuel up on coffee one last time. He orders an Americano from a café just two blocks from his apartment, one of those hipster shops where they finish off their lattes with artistic designs. Sipping his coffee, he starts getting nostalgic for L.A.

Evan getting caffeinated with an Americano at Bru Coffeebar, one of many cafés and restaurants he and Anna enjoyed during their time in Los Angeles. (John Corley)

“Just the food in this city is so amazing. The San Gabriel [Mountains] are right there,” Evan says. “Those hikes we used to do every other weekend before the baby. Those are some of the best memories I have of being in California.”

"It’s been a good run,” he says. “I’m going to miss it for sure. But, I’m going to go buy a house.”

The sound of Evan driving off in his Prius is hardly noticeable as his "California Dream" ends. The Colbys are simply one more California family lost to a land of cheaper living.

Evan during his final moments living in Los Angeles in an almost empty apartment. (John Corley)

I check back in with Anna and Evan a few weeks later as they're getting settled into their new life in Lansing, Michigan.

“It’s kind of weird,” Evan says. “It’s obviously saving us a lot of money, but it’s also like we’re already missing a lot of things from California or from L.A. Access to everything, food, that kind of stuff. Pretty much everything other than the expense.”

Meanwhile Anna says that there have been positive things: in L.A. they paid more than $2,000 for a one-bedroom apartment, in Lansing they are now in a three-bedroom townhouse for around $1,300. Plus she says she is sleeping better because they have another room for the baby.

The Colbys are among many families who've thought about giving up on the California Dream. And now that they have done it, they are having lingering doubts.

“We’ve looked at each other a couple of times and said, ‘Where are we?’ ” Evan says.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever know if it’s the right decision,” Anna says.

This story was produced in collaboration with an advanced reporting class at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Students spent a semester examining what the California Dream means to Angelenos from different walks of life.