Tech workers have often been the bad guys of San Francisco: Their mass influx drove up rents, and residents worried about how they were changing the character of the city. But when COVID hit, these same Silicon Valley citizens embarked on a privileged exodus from California’s 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 started to wonder: Where exactly were all these people going? She found that many ended up a few hours away, in Lake Tahoe, a gorgeous area that attracts lots of tourists, even during a pandemic. Levin explored the area and a neighboring town, Truckee, to see what these techies were up to and how their new neighbors were welcoming 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 towns” and what the impact of the tech invasion has been. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: In your story, you introduce one local named Josh Lease. How did he respond when this influx descended on the town?
Rachel Levin: He said he was blown away and enraged. Tahoe’s always been used to traffic, especially in the summer, but he said what they weren’t used to was the trash. He was saying that in his secret hideouts at the beach, there were Capri Sun straws and water bottles and busted flip-flops. At one point, he picked up a dirty diaper. He’d lived there for 20 years and never seen this kind of thing. People come with such disrespect for this beautiful place. It’s got pristine nature and wilderness, and looking at six-packs and Big Gulps and burrito wrappers everywhere was bumming him out. So he decided to vent it on Facebook and post, Let’s throw an unwelcoming party. He was kind of joking, but people around the lake kind of rallied and were into that idea.
You describe this flyer that I think encapsulates how the community felt. Can you describe it?
There was this poster someone designed—Lease proposed the idea—of a a kid wearing a gas mask with text that said “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 sentiment from a lot of locals,—but a lot of locals also tell me now they’re so embarrassed at how people were being unwelcoming, because it is a tourist town. Most of the community earns it money and exists because of vacationers. You need the tourists up there, but you also want them to behave differently.
It was hard for me to tell whether folks were coalescing around one thing. They wanted the techies not to come but the reasons why were different. Some people were clearly concerned for their safety, and some people had a different complaint, with signs that said, “Your Entitlement Sucks!”
There were outsiders who were maybe part of separate set—not necessarily the same people who were buying up the homes. But they were still coming, and the protesting locals were against it all. Whether they’re worried about COVID, whether they’re worried about their beach being destroyed—they didn’t like the fancy cars coming in. So I think they were decrying it all.
With people coming and staying, the number of real estate sales shot up, and the amount of money being spent also went up a huge amount.
In 2020, almost 2,400 homes sold collectively across the Tahoe Basin for $3.28 billion, up from $1.76 billion in sales the previous year. Inventory was way down, demand was way up. Multiple people told me they would get a knock on the door and someone would offer them $2 million their house. This was stuff that had gone on in San Francisco that had never gone on in Tahoe.
It’s easy to talk about Bay Area techies coming into a rural area and acting entitled, but you also talk about how there are elements of race and ethnicity involved in this. You wrote about a Korean American resident named Grace who came back to Tahoe, where she already had a home. What was her experience?
She’d had a longtime second home that she’d only used on weekends. She never lived there full time. Her family stayed in Tahoe and she did not feel comfortable. She mentioned how, early in the pandemic, she’d be at Safeway and people would fake-sneeze on 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’d always thought it was for her. So the family came back to the city. She wanted to be around a more diverse community.
In the town Truckee, you met Deb Lee and her husband, Spencer, whose story reveals one of the real costs of resort towns remaking themselves as what some people are calling “Zoom towns.”
Deb and Spencer were from New England and are almost 60. 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 got jobs in the community and became a part of it and fell in love with the place. Then they came home one day after a in August and there was an eviction notice on their door telling them to get out. They had all their belongings, with no storage units within 50 miles. They had nowhere to go with all their things: Every Airbnb was booked, every house was rented or too expensive. Deb is immunocompromised and hadn’t worked in a while—she’s a caterer—so she’d felt despondent. But they lucked out: She said she pounded every door, called everyone she knew, posted a kind of a plea on a local Facebook group, and a man with this tiny cabin wanted to help a local and came to the rescue.
Is there evidence that there are people being driven out of the town because of what’s 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 company called Landing Locals, which basically is trying to financially match second-/third-home owners whose homes would otherwise be empty, who don’t want to deal with Airbnb, and who want to rent to locals and invest back in the community. It’s a really good 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 landed 100 inquiries.
So people are hungry for these.
Yes. And they’ve tried to help locals find a place, and they couldn’t be helped, even though they had the money—there was no inventory. Affordable housing is getting pushed out. It remains to be seen whether the character of the towns will also change.
What did you end up thinking about what Tahoe says about the way communities are going to be changed in the wake of COVID?
The people already there are really worried. This one guy said, before COVID people would walk down the street and stop and give you a hug. He’s worried that they’re going to lose that small-town connection, that civility and love that binds that towns.
It remains to be seen whether the people coming and buying new homes are going to stay.
I talked to a top Google executive who moved into her second home with her family and has been on nonstop Zooms, all day, back to back. She said, this isn’t why I bought this house, to sit inside on my screen all day—she’s excited to go back to Sunnyvale as soon as her office opens. I think some people will leave like that and then that’ll be its own issue, because what’s going to happen to these homes when they’re empty?
Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts
Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.