Tech workers have often been the bad guys in San Francisco: their massive influx drove rents up and locals worried about how they were changing the city’s character. But when COVID struck, those same citizens of Silicon Valley embarked on a privileged exodus from California cities to its mountains and lakes. Rachel Levin, a journalist who lives in San Fran, saw her city transform as the tech base left and began to wonder: where exactly have been all these people go? She found that many ended up within hours of driving in Lake Tahoe, a beautiful area that attracts a lot of tourists, even during a pandemic. Levin explored the area and a nearby town, Truckee, to see what these technicians did and how their new neighbors welcomed them– or not – for a story she published in Outside. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Levin about how Tahoe became home to “Zoom Cities” and the impact of the tech invasion. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: In your story, you introduce a local named Josh Lease. How did he react when this influx hit the city?
Rachel Levin: He said he was blown away and enraged. Tahoe has always been used to traffic, especially in the summer, but he said what they weren’t used to was the trash. He said that in his secret hiding places on the beach there were straws and bottles of Capri Sun water and broken flip flops. At one point he picked up a dirty diaper. He had lived there for 20 years and had never seen this sort of thing. People come with such disrespect for this beautiful place. He’s got unspoiled nature and wilderness, and looking at six-packs, Big Gulps, and burrito wrappers everywhere disgusted him. So he decided to broadcast it on Facebook and publish, Throw an unwelcoming party. He was joking a little, but the people around the lake kind of rallied and were into that idea.
You describe this leaflet which, I think, sums up what the community felt. Can you describe it?
There was this poster that someone designed – Lease came up with the idea – of a kid wearing a gas mask with a text saying “Stay out of Tahoe”. The gas mask was obviously a nod to COVID, like, don’t bring your virus or your trash here. I think it showed the feeling of a lot of locals, but a lot of locals also now tell me that they are so embarrassed how unwelcoming people were because it is a tourist town. Most of the community makes money and exists thanks to vacationers. You need the tourists up there, but you also want them to behave differently.
It was hard for me to tell if people were uniting around one thing. They didn’t want the technicians to come, but the reasons were different. Some people were clearly concerned about their safety, and some people had a different complaint, with signs saying: “Your right is void!”
There were strangers who may have been part of a separate set – not necessarily the same people who bought the houses. But they still came, and the protesting locals were against it. Whether they were worried about COVID, whether they were worried their beach would be destroyed – they didn’t like the luxury cars coming in. So I think they were decrying everything.
With people coming and staying, the number of real estate sales has skyrocketed, and the amount of money spent has also increased tremendously.
In 2020, nearly 2,400 homes sold collectively in the Tahoe Basin for $ 3.28 billion, up from $ 1.76 billion in sales the year before. Inventory was down, demand was up. Several people told me that they were going to knock on the door and that someone would offer them $ 2 million for their house. It was stuff that had happened in San Francisco that had never happened in Tahoe.
It’s easy to talk about the Bay Area techs coming into a rural area and playing the role, but you also talk about how there are elements of race and ethnicity involved in that. You wrote about a Korean American resident named Grace who returned to Tahoe, where she already had a home. What was his experience?
She had a long-standing second home that she only used on weekends. She never lived there full time. Her family stayed in Tahoe and she didn’t feel comfortable. She mentioned how when the pandemic started she would be in Safeway and people were sneezing her. In local Facebook groups there were racist comments. She didn’t feel safe there and didn’t feel like it was the happy place she had always thought it was for her. So the family came back to town. She wanted to be around a more diverse community.
In the town of Truckee, you met Deb Lee and her husband, Spencer, whose story reveals one of the real costs of overhauling beach resorts as what some call “zoom towns”.
Deb and Spencer were originally from New England and are almost 60 years old. They moved to Truckee in 2014 to be closer to their daughter, who had moved after college and decided to settle there: she is the general manager of a local restaurant and brewery. Deb and Spencer found jobs in the community and became a part of it and fell in love with the place. Then they returned home a day after one in August and there was an eviction notice on their door telling them to get out. They all had their belongings, with no storage units within 50 miles. They had nowhere to go with all their stuff: every Airbnb was booked, every house was rented or overpriced. Deb is immunocompromised and hadn’t worked for a while – she is a caterer – so she had felt discouraged. But they were lucky: she said she knocked down every door, called everyone she knew, posted some kind of plea on a local Facebook group, and a man with that little shack wanted to help a local and came to the rescue.
Is there any evidence that people are being kicked out of town because of what is going on?
I spoke to this guy named Colin Frohlich – he had made a ton of money at Lyft. He and his wife, Kai, started a business called Landing Locals, which basically tries to financially match second / third home owners whose homes would otherwise be empty, who don’t want to do business with Airbnb, and who want to rent to locals. and reinvest in the community. It’s a great idea, but it’s hard to implement. There was an apartment, through Landing Locals, that was renting for a good deal of $ 600, and it got 100 inquiries.
So people are hungry for it.
Yes. And they tried to help the locals find a place, and they couldn’t be helped, even if they had the money – there was no inventory. Affordable housing is disappearing. It remains to be seen whether the character of cities will change as well.
What did you end up thinking about what Tahoe said about how communities are going to change as a result of COVID?
The people already there are really worried. This guy said, before the COVID people walk down the street, stop and give you a hug. He fears that they will lose that connection with a small town, that courtesy and that love that unites these towns.
It remains to be seen whether the people who come and buy new homes are going to stay.
I spoke to a senior Google executive who moved into his second home with his family and was on Zooms nonstop, all day, back to back. She said, that’s not the reason I bought this house, to sit inside on my screen all day – she’s delighted to be returning to Sunnyvale as soon as her office opens. I think some people will leave like this and it will be their own problem, because what will happen to these houses when they are empty?
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