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Housing affordability brings newcomers to Kern River Valley, for better or worse

Word is getting out about the "undiscovered gem" of life in the southern Sierra Nevada as people fleeing big cities during the pandemic add new life — and money — to the Lake Isabella area.

Property values and economic activity are up significantly during the past year, bringing changes some worry will alter the area's small-town charm but which are nonetheless helping support local small businesses.

The area's median home sale price, already up more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2020 amid tight inventory, has continued to surge and is now up almost 16 percent percent above last year's level at $173,000, according to the local real estate association.

Lake Isabella hardware store owner Steve Spradlin said sales are up 30 percent to 50 percent year over year. Part of that can be attributed to government stimulus payments and an increase in recreational tourism during the pandemic, he said, but a lot of it came from newcomers with money to spend.

"They're happy to be here and they want to be part of town and they certainly have for the most part higher median incomes than we have here or have had here in a long time," he said. "It's been good for the community."

The area's relatively low housing costs have been a big factor in the recent migration. When Kern River Valley landlord and real estate agent Anna Stenzel posts a vacancy lately she gets calls from people who've never been to the area but are ready to move right in.

She recently leased a place to two men from the Bay Area who'd been paying $3,000 per month. Now one works remotely from Lake Isabella, the other commutes infrequently back to the San Francisco area and together they're happily paying just $1,000 per month.

It's a similar story with homebuyers, Stenzel said: A price some would consider high in the Lake Isabella area is seen as a bargain to outsiders.

"To people up here $400,000 is a lot of money," she said. "But to people in L.A., it don't mean squat."

Added Matt Freeman, vice president of the Kern River Valley Chamber of Commerce: "Where in California can you get two-bed, two-bathroom house, stick-built, for $150,000? You can here."

While many of the recent buyers now telecommute from their new home, Freeman said, others just want a weekend getaway with easy access to fishing, hiking and other forms of outdoor recreation.

"We're in a part of the southern Sierras that are kind of an undiscovered gem, so to speak," said Freeman, who also owns Freeman's Lakeside Realty.

The new residents are for some a mixed blessing.

The Kern River Valley's stock of mostly mobile homes has for decades attracted retirees more than young people. Freeman said that's suddenly changing and not everyone's happy about it.

"It's a mix of good and bad. The good is there's more money coming in here, which is going to mean more infrastructure in the long term," he said.

"The bad is," he continued, "we really want to stay a small town, of course."

Spradlin, the hardware store owner who also has a restaurant and other businesses that are doing well lately, said he hears concerns from longtime residents that things aren't like they used to be.

One impact of recent migration is that rents are rising, he said. Crowds are noticeably bigger, too, though some of that stems to an increase in tourism.

"There's people in the community that when they go to the lake for the weekend and it's covered up from people out of town and your place is occupied and you go to the grocery store and for the first time you have to wait in line to get checked out," he said.