‘Go back to L.A.’: Urban transplants threaten to price out locals in Southern California desert

MORONGO BASIN, Calif. — Along a dusty highway snaking through the Southern California desert, Eric Wilson rattles off a list of fruits and vegetables available from his nearby farm.

He has been selling locally grown kale, lettuce, tomatoes and other produce since April at the Morongo Valley Fruit Market, a small grocery store he and his wife took over earlier this year. 

Despite being located in what Wilson calls a “food desert” — the nearest grocery store is 15 minutes away in neighboring Yucca Valley — Wilson was initially dismissed as yet another outsider seeking to gentrify the quiet community.

Eric Wilson and his wife Garden Ramirez at their farm market.Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

“People assumed I’m from L.A.,” said Wilson, who grew up in Cathedral City, some 30 minutes away. “I was called a yuppie because of the organic prices.”

Once a hamlet for cowboys and homesteaders, the Morongo Basin is undergoing rapid change amid an influx of urbanites seeking to escape city life during the pandemic. They come to the sun-drenched desert in hopes of finding fresh air, cheap homes and Instagram-worthy backdrops.

But what is considered affordable for residents from Los Angeles, Silicon Valley or New York is out of reach for many longtime residents, who say transplants are pricing out locals and disrupting the fragile ecosystem.

“It’s a culture clash,” said Sarah Kennington, of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association. “Everybody loves [Joshua Tree National Park], everybody loves the desert, and if you were mellow, it was fine. But it’s not the place that it was decades ago.”

Located more than 100 miles outside Los Angeles, the Morongo Basin is tucked within the greater Mojave Desert. It borders Joshua Tree National Park and includes the communities of Morongo and Yucca valleys, Joshua Tree, Twentynine Palms, Pioneertown and others.

A view from Pappy and Harriet’s, a bar and restaurant in Pioneertown, in the Morongo Valley.Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

Visitors have long been lured to the remote region by spiky, twisty Joshua trees and an otherworldly landscape that has inspired countless artists and musicians throughout the decades. During the golden age of Westerns, film crews trekked from Hollywood to shoot movies in the rugged terrain, culminating with the founding of Pioneertown as a “living, breathing movie set” in 1946. 

For decades, the Morongo Basin remained largely untouched by city life. It was a place to relax and unwind for tourists, while longtime residents could afford to buy or rent several acres of land for nominally low prices. 

That started to change after the coronavirus pandemic shut down offices and ushered in a new era of working from home. Urban residents fled expensive, dense cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, gobbling up real estate and turning homes into short-term vacation rentals. 

In Yucca Valley, where the median income is below $45,000, home prices are now upward of $300,000, according to Zillow.

New construction in the Morongo Valley.Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

Some of the recent changes have improved daily life, according to Clint Stoker, a Yucca Valley planning commissioner. The town recently replaced aging septic tanks with a sewer system, new restaurants and cafés are popping up and roads are being repaired. 

Stoker, who was raised in Pioneertown, is among several Yucca Valley officials who own short-term vacation rentals in the area. During a planning commission hearing last week, Stoker and one other commissioner recused themselves from participating in discussions over the future of short-term vacation rentals because of conflicts of interest. That follows the recusal of two Yucca Valley Town Council members earlier this month for the same reason. 

“This place was a ghost town in the ‘80s. You had to drive all the way to Palm Springs to do some shopping,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot more to do. It’s been a positive thing for us.”

Laurie McVay, who runs the Pioneertown community Facebook page, in front of the Pioneertown Post Office. McVay moved to the Morongo Valley 15 years ago from Boston where she was a financial advisor. She says that “growth is bringing in a lot of money to a town that really needs the money.”Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

But the influx of outside money has also contributed to rising home prices in one of the last affordable parts of California. Now, luxury cars drive alongside vehicles brandishing stickers that read, “Go back to L.A.”

“We watched family members have to leave. We watched friends have to leave,” said Yucca Valley resident Breana Violanti. “We don’t care where you’re from. The biggest problem is that they’re not coming to stay here.”

Violanti, who grew up in Joshua Tree and lived there until earlier this month, said she was recently forced out of her home because the landlord wanted to turn it into a short-term vacation rental. 

The landlord initiated the process last year, around the same time Violanti and her husband were both laid off from their jobs because of the pandemic, she said. Violanti was able to remain in her rental for another year because of the state’s eviction moratorium, but that expired at the end of September. 

“I’m not a crier, but I cried that day,” she said. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’”

Joshua Tree, Calif., in the Morongo Valley.Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

Realtor Madelaine LaVoie estimated that home prices in the Morongo Basin have increased some 35 percent since the pandemic began. She recently sold a property for nearly $2 million that sits across 13 acres. Many of her clients are “big city transfers” looking for privacy and breathtaking views, she said.

Those views come with a high price beyond sticker shock, however. Joshua trees are candidates for the California Endangered Species Act, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and cannot be moved or cut without a permit. Failing to obtain one can lead to hefty fines.

Stoker, who is also a contractor, said many of the new properties popping up in the desert are built with an eye toward sustainability, incorporating solar panels and drought-resistant landscaping into construction plans. 

But some homeowners have run afoul of environmental laws that protect native and protected species. Earlier this year, a couple was fined $18,000 for bulldozing 36 Joshua trees.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit conservation organization that works to protect endangered species, found that while the most visible threat is the direct killing of Joshua trees by developers, climate change and fire are also responsible for pushing the species closer to extinction.

“They are an iconic species of the Mojave Desert. There’s no question about it,” said Ileene Anderson, deserts director and senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They don’t occur anywhere else in the world.”

Homes in the desert of Joshua Tree, Calif.Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

Joshua trees were the tallest things in the desert until humans introduced infrastructure to the remote region, Anderson said. The trees continue to provide important habitats for wildlife like Swainson’s hawk, a rare bird of prey that builds nests in the spiny limbs during long migrations between North and South America. Fallen trees also host desert night lizards, small reptiles that live in the trees.

The uniqueness of desert life also makes it especially fragile to outside disturbances, Anderson cautioned.

“It takes so long for the desert to heal if there’s an incursion,” she said.

Eric Wilson in his farm market in the Morongo Valley. Michael Rubenstein for NBC News

Working with the desert environment instead of against it is one of the reasons grocery store owner Eric Wilson chose the Morongo Basin to start a small farm. The Coachella Valley is “overrun” with big farms, he said, and Wilson wanted to avoid adding to an already large environmental footprint. 

He said as a resident, he sympathizes with concerns about gentrification, but as a business owner, change is inevitable.

“No matter what anyone thinks about the situation, it’s happening,” Wilson said.

Alicia Victoria Lozano is a California-based reporter for NBC News focusing on climate change, wildfires and the changing politics of drug laws.

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