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When COVID-19 sent Americans looking for cheaper and bigger living space, Republican-leaning states found themselves with a real-estate advantage – and conservatives found a new home

Bill Schmidt, 73, moved from California to a church in Idaho County because he says he was tired of the 'Communist government' of the Golden State.Photography Catrina Rioux/The Globe and Mail


Bill Schmidt ambles outside the Baptist church that he bought as a house, smiling under a Make America Great Again ballcap. Roosters crow as he looks across the Idaho prairie that is his new home.

“I got tired of the Communist government in California. And so we moved up here,” he says.

In other places, it might be tough to get permission to take up residence in a church. Not here. Idaho County has no building code nor zoning rules. The owner of a structure can decide what to do with it.

So Mr. Schmidt, 73, left his home in Milpitas, Calif., and the politics of a state where government takes a more active role in personal lives. Idaho County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, and the area has long drawn conservatives. “The politics make Idaho free,” he said. “And I wanted to be some place free.”

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Living in a church is much easier in Idaho County than in other U.S. communities because it has no zoning rules.

Across North America, the pandemic has caused people to rethink where they live. The flight from city centres to suburbs and rural communities has upended property markets across the continent as people have sought more personal space and cheaper housing.

Across the U.S., the pandemic has seen movement from liberal areas to conservative regions, a migration that follows real estate prices – Republican-leaning states tend to have cheaper housing. But it also comes at a time when Americans are, in ways not seen before, letting politics guide where they choose to reside. U.S. census estimates show states that voted for Mr. Trump in the last presidential election saw their populations grow, on average, nearly 10 times faster between April 1 and July 1 of 2020 than those that voted for Joe Biden.

United Van Lines conducts an annual survey documenting inbound and outbound moves by state. In 2020, of the top 10 states with the highest percentage of people leaving, only three voted for Mr. Trump. High on the outbound list were Democratic strongholds such as New York and California.

Of the 10 states that saw the greatest percentage of inbound moves, eight voted for Trump. At the top of the list: Idaho, followed by South Carolina.

Idaho County has tripled the size of its mapping department as it works through a surge in applications from property owners splitting parcels of land to make way for new homes. Last year, the county issued 167 new addresses. So far this year, it has issued 202.

Skip Brandt, who chairs the Idaho County Commissioners, the area’s elected officials, calls the new arrivals “refugees” seeking a conservative haven from liberal politics, in particular during the pandemic. “We’re just getting inundated by people that are escaping that world,” he said.

In Idaho Country, 'we’re just getting inundated by people that are escaping' more liberal states, says Skip Brandt, chair of the area's body of elected officials.

A Trump figurine sits by Mr. Brandt's nameplate. Idaho hasn't supported a Democrat for president since 1964.

What’s happening in Idaho County is happening across the country.

The pandemic arrived amid longer-term changes in how people move in the U.S. Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Southern California are midway through a project that is examining the role of politics in domestic migration.

The preliminary finding: “People are moving more to places that are politically similar to where they’re coming from,” said Gregor Schubert, who studies housing and labour economics at UCLA.

That preference may not be enough to outweigh other factors, such as housing prices, in determining the exact neighbourhoods where people choose to live. But “I find it plausible that people are increasingly sorting into places that are politically homogeneous,” Prof. Schubert said.

People tend to move primarily for jobs, family and the natural environment, such as proximity to mountains or better weather, scholars say. And the political orientation of states may also matter for other reasons.

“There’s a high correlation between a red” – or Republican – “voting record of a particular state and housing affordability,” said Stuart Gabriel, director of the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate. “In other words, red states tend to be more affordable.”

Grangeville, seat of Idaho County, is home to about 3,200 people, about 92 per cent of whom are white. In 2020's election, Donald Trump got 81.5 per cent support here.

But the data also point to people moving into communities politically similar to those they left – so a liberal person from California moving to a more liberal neighbourhood in Texas.

“You tend to move to places that are politically like-minded to you,” said Gary Painter, a public policy scholar at the University of Southern California, who is part of the study on politics and mobility. “The fact that pattern exists at all is new. And it didn’t exist decades ago in the same way.”

As political liberals – including university graduates seeking first jobs – chase cheaper real estate in conservative areas, there is also evidence that they are weakening the conservative hold on some states.

“The average migrant coming out of the big cities in California is more likely to be a Democrat than whatever Texas city they’re moving into,” said Prof. Schubert. The result: “Some counties in Texas turning blue or purple.”

Much remains unknown, including how new the trend is and what exactly is causing it. The research is based on pre-pandemic data. But it portends a future of more uncertain state politics and more polarized local politics, with “even more homogeneity as it relates to who is on school boards and who is on city councils,” said Prof. Painter.

Indeed, Idaho’s Republican areas aren’t the only ones experiencing growth. Blaine County, a Democratic stronghold that voted 67 per cent for Mr. Biden, has seen a near doubling in the number of applications this year for new homeowner exemptions to people coming from out of state. The exemptions are tax discounts available for primary residences, and new issuances are an indication of people moving into the area.

Bernadette Edwards is a former teacher turned real-estate agent in Idaho County.

In Idaho County, meanwhile, the least-vaccinated county in one of the least-vaccinated states in the U.S. has welcomed new arrivals who chafed under pandemic measures imposed elsewhere.

“Last summer, we had clients coming in like crazy. They were like, ‘Oh my God, this is an oasis from what we’ve been dealing with,’” said Bernadette Edwards, a former teacher who is now a real estate agent in the area. In Grangeville, the county seat, they could walk the streets and enter the coffee shops without masks. “It was just this freedom oasis, and we had a lot of them move here because of it,” she said.

“People are coming here for freedom and the fresh air,” adds her husband, Cody Edwards, a fellow real estate agent.

Cody Edwards volunteers as a football coach at a Grangeville elementary and middle school.

Among the new arrivals is Josh Burnson, 40, who moved in May from Port Orchard, a Democratic enclave west of Seattle. In his former home in Washington state, “there just wasn’t a critical mass of people who could see that what was happening was tyranny, when churches and businesses were shut down because the governor said so,” he said.

In Idaho, he found a place with land he can farm, a house where he can homeschool his children and fellow residents who share his Christian faith and political views. He started looking to buy property in Idaho last April, after Washington issued its first COVID-19 stay-at-home order.

“And there are no building codes here, which says something about the way people view how far governments should get into the personal lives of people. I liked that,” he said.

Moving to Idaho, he said, is a chance to be “part of a community where there were people who were like-minded – who were concerned about the same things.”


In charts: Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccine vacuum

Idaho County is one of the least vaccinated areas in one of the least vaccinated U.S. states. When The Globe and Mail’s Nathan VanderKlippe visited the county seat of Grangeville, he met health-care officials who were worried a vaccine mandate would backfire if essential workers quit their jobs rather than taking their shots.

COVID-19 vaccination rates in Idaho, by county

Per cent of population fully vaccinated, as of Sept. 30

30

40

50

60%

B.C.

ALBERTA

0

200

KM

WASH.

MONTANA

Idaho County

25.3%

OREGON

Payette

25.9%

IDAHO

Owyhee

25.9%

NEVADA

UTAH

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: CDC.GOV

COVID-19 vaccination rates in Idaho, by county

Per cent of population fully vaccinated, as of Sept. 30

30

40

50

60%

B.C.

ALBERTA

0

200

KM

WASH.

MONTANA

Idaho County

25.3%

OREGON

Payette

25.9%

IDAHO

WYO.

Owyhee

25.9%

NEVADA

UTAH

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: CDC.GOV

COVID-19 vaccination rates in Idaho, by county

Per cent of population fully vaccinated, as of Sept. 30

BRITISH COLUMBIA

30

40

50

60%

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

Idaho County

25.3%

Payette

25.9%

OREGON

IDAHO

WYOMING

Owyhee

25.9%

0

100

NEVADA

UTAH

KM

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CDC.GOV

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