Tenants Opt for Space, Lower Rents in Inland Empire
After shelter-in-place orders forced the Branchcomb family to study and work from home, their 2,000-square-foot rental house in Cerritos felt more like a tiny box.
“Everyone else came home and took my piece of paradise,” said Prophetess Branchcomb, a finance director for a Hollywood entertainment company. “We needed more space.”
On Nov. 21, Branchcomb and her family of five moved to a house that’s twice as big and rents for just $150 more per month. But to find that deal, the family had to cross county lines and move 40 miles east to Riverside. A similar-sized house rents for at least $1,000 more in Cerritos.
The Branchcombs are part of an apparent tenant migration to the Inland Empire in the aftermath of a pandemic that robbed L.A. and Orange County residents of urban amenities such as restaurants, bars and museums and frees them from the need to commute to an office.
Rents Drop in LA, Rise in Inland Empire
Numbers from four leading apartment trackers show rents have been dropping for Los Angeles and Orange County apartments since the pandemic hit, but are rising in the Inland Empire.
“There’s a movement that we’re calling a flight to affordability,” said Greg Willett, chief economist for RealPage, a real estate data firm.
“We’ve lessened the relationship between where people live and where they work,” Willet said. “So many are taking advantage of the opportunity to save on housing costs.”
Similar trends are occurring across the country, with rents dropping in big cities since the pandemic hit and rising in neighboring suburbs, according to a RealPage analysis of seven major coastal markets.
Urbanites, the analysis said, are no longer getting the same big city experience after local nightlife shut down. Since more employees are working from home, many are moving to areas with lower rent.
But the Inland Empire, “is the most dramatic example,” wrote RealPage Market Analytics Manager Carl Whitaker. “Rents are about $500 to $600 more affordable than Los Angeles and (Orange County).”
A two-bedroom unit in Riverside rents for $300 less than a one-bedroom apartment in L.A.
“More square footage is particularly attractive for many who are needing home office space while working from home,” said Whitaker.
Large multifamily firms and property managers are seeing the trend as well.
Demand has been high for Inland Empire rentals for years, with 30-40 applications within a day of putting a property up for rent, said Nathan Fransen, owner/broker for Signature Sales Property and Management in Corona.
But Fransen noticed more applicants are coming from beach cities than before the pandemic, with the trend becoming apparent over the summer.
Cheaper rent, larger homes and more amenities are the key reasons outsiders give for migrating inland. Whereas applicants used to ask about a home’s proximity to freeway onramps, prospective tenants now are asking more questions about schools. Pool houses also are in greater demand.
An online Southern California News Group survey of recent L.A. transplants to the Inland Empire found many are drawn for the same reasons as pre-COVID-19 migrants: Cheaper housing, more space, less crime and fewer homeless people.
“It’s nice to be someplace that’s really clean,” said Theresa Watson, 61, a lifelong resident of South Los Angeles who moved to Moreno Valley on Sept. 1 to be near her best friend.
But Watson’s reasons for moving to an area “that feels like a different state” also included her fear of COVID-19.
“I have a lot of grandchildren, and they have a lot of friends,” Watson said. “I wanted to get away from so many people. L.A. is so crowded, I didn’t trust it.”
When his job transformed from in-person meetings to online research, Silicon Valley worker Ronald Lopez decided to move back to his native San Bernardino last June to live with family.
“COVID allowed me to do my job remotely,” said Lopez, 32, a web applications researcher. “I needed to move out and save money to build up a larger nest egg.” Lopez used to pay $3,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment near San Jose. He now pays $550 for a room in his sister’s four-bedroom house that he shares with his dog.
More Room, Lower Rent
Branchcomb expected the moving van to arrive at her new home in Riverside just before Thanksgiving.
The new house has five bedrooms and four bathrooms, enough space for her three children, ages 3-12, and her husband, who works with learning disabled children.
Their rent is $3,150 a month, compared to $4,200 a month for similar-sized houses in Cerritos.
There were just six houses for rent in Cerritos when Branchcomb went house hunting in July. She looked in Orange County, then in Chino, but didn’t find anything.
Because her sister and brother-in-law are longtime Riverside residents, she decided to check it out, even though she was reluctant at first to move so far. But after finding a home with good schools, the Branchcombs rented it.
“It was really just the cost of living, the value and the size of the house you get,” Branchcomb said. “Even though my rent’s gone up, the price per square foot is a lot better in Riverside.”