Business is booming at the Roadrunner Grab’n’Go deli outside Joshua Tree national park. Demand for sandwiches, mezze boxes and local vegan cheese has remained high through the summer, even as temperatures soar in a desert landscape that now attracts more than three million visitors each year.
But the shop’s co-owner, Merilee Kuchon, has a problem. Her employees, many of whom grew up here, are struggling to afford to stay. Over the past year, she’s lost at least a dozen staff, driven out by local rental prices that have soared during the pandemic. Now, she’s worried about hiring enough employees to keep the shop going when even more tourists return in the fall.
Gentrification is nothing new in Joshua Tree. For years, this small desert town, located a two-hour drive from Los Angeles, has attracted bohemians, dropouts and artists in search of a comparatively affordable life and proximity to nature. The national park and its famous landscapes have steadily drawn more visitors every year.
But the pandemic sent this process into overdrive. Tourists and home-buyers from bigger cities came in droves, making Joshua Tree and the surrounding towns the hottest housing markets in California.
The boom has been a gift to some businesses and homeowners who cashed in. On the flip side, the housing crunch has left local workers with dwindling options. Young people who grew up in Joshua Tree say that moving into a place of their own now feels like a fantasy. Longtime residents feel out of place in their own community as the streets around them fill with Airbnbs and transient vacationers.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” says Kuchon. “You just feel powerless.”
‘We don’t know who’s in the house next door’
When Alejandra Escobar first moved to the high desert in 2017, the cheap rents appealed to the young musician, who had grown up nearby in the Coachella Valley. Escobar and a roommate could split $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom house. She found work at a Palm Springs crystal shop and had time to devote to songwriting, herbalism and ecology.
Then, last year, the small house she lived in with her partner went up for sale. They spent seven months trying to find a new apartment, and when they finally did, their rent doubled.
House prices in the area known as the “high desert” hit new peaks during the first two years of the pandemic. In Joshua Tree, the median price jumped 82% between March 2020 and the spring of 2022; in Twentynine Palms it went up 70%, and in nearby Landers it jumped 94% – the biggest increase of any area in California, according to data from the real estate company Zillow.
The proliferation of Airbnb and other short-term rentals has been a huge part of the problem, residents say.
Since the start of the pandemic, rental listings in Joshua Tree and its neighboring towns has increased by more than 1,000, according to data from AirDNA, an analytics company that tracks Airbnb and HomeAway rentals, mirroring a 70% surge in demand for short-term desert rentals since 2019. Airbnb cautioned that data from outside companies can be inaccurate, but local government data shows a similar trend: San Bernardino county approved an average of at least one new short-term rental permit per day in Joshua Tree alone in 2021 and early 2022
The crush of newcomers and tourists has squeezed not just the housing market but other infrastructure, too, in a town of just 6,500 people that was not built to accommodate big crowds. Local residents say the traffic on the few main roads has become intense, and the grocery stores are packed. Some say they now see trash from Airbnbs and building sites dumped at random in the desert.
“It was so quick that it was very unorganized,” says Kerrie Bradsford, who has lived in her home in Joshua Tree for more than 25 years, of the growth. “It really was just an instant smack, just kind of a kaboom.”
Longtime residents who have chosen to stay say they feel disoriented by the constant stream of visitors.
“Our neighborhood isn’t a neighborhood any more,” said Bradsford, 43. “Literally we do not know who could be in the house next door tonight, or tomorrow night.”
And it’s more than just housing, people like Bradsford say. Many fear the quirky spirit of the community is being extinguished. Even just five or 10 years ago, Joshua Tree still felt like a place where you could come to do something different, or find yourself as an artist.
For Escobar, that’s underscored her sense that Joshua Tree now feels like a place for people who have already made it. “The cowboy hats that I see now, they look brand new. They don’t look worn-in,” said Escobar. “That’s the best way I can put it: this town used to feel worn-in, and now it feels sparkling new.”
‘Nothing is unique’
Longtime residents say it used to be possible to rent an apartment in the Joshua Tree area for as little as $500 per month – just a little more the what a house now goes for nightly on average on Airbnb or other platforms, according to AirDNA. At the extreme end, deluxe offerings can cost $6,500 or more per night.
For those behind the registers of the stores selling local art and souvenirs on the road into the national park, the housing market is a constant anxiety. That’s especially true for young locals, some of whom are struggling to afford an apartment of their own while working multiple jobs. Others worry the affordable housing they have found could disappear overnight.
“It keeps me up at night – it stresses me out so much,” said Kelsey Al-Ghetta, 28. Al-Ghetta, who works in an art gallery and store at the center of town, says the home her grandfather built in the 1970s is now an Airbnb. “It’s very hard to see.”
Last year, Kaylee Bradsford, 22, Kerrie Bradsford’s daughter, decided that she was ready to move out of her parents’ home in Joshua Tree and in with her fiance. The couple spent six months looking for something in their price range without luck, before deciding to move to a town more than 30 minutes away.
Kaylee, who is pregnant with her first child, was one of the workers who left her job at Roadrunner Grab’n’Go due to a lack of nearby housing. “It’s kind of ridiculous,” she says.
Early in the pandemic, Kimberly May, 44, Roadrunner’s kitchen manager, lived in a mobile home for months during the heat of summer after being unable to find affordable housing.
She grew up in the desert and, after a long stint in LA, returned in 2018 to be closer to her elderly mother.
“It’s kind of funny: people want to come here because it’s different, yet they make it the same,” May said of the transformation. “They open the same kind of coffee shops. Every one of these Airbnbs has the same desert getaway feel, with a picture of a cactus and an old dirty couch. Nothing is unique.”
Tiffany Hopkins, 39, also grew up in the desert and works in the restaurant industry. She estimates that she knows at least half a dozen local residents whose former homes have been turned into Airbnbs. “It’s out of control,” she said.
Hopkins, a single mother with an autistic child, lost the apartment she was renting last year when it was sold to a Los Angeles couple who wanted to turn it into an Airbnb.
She said she was one of the lucky ones: her former landlady heard about Hopkins’ situation and offered her another rental, allowing her to pay the deposit on the new place in installments.
It’s that kind of community spirit, Hopkins and others said, that has defined the people who spent years in remote places like this.
“When my husband passed, I got an envelope [of cash] from people in my community. When people go through hard times, I do the same thing for them,” Hopkins said. “That’s the kind of thing we have here, and we don’t want to lose it.”
‘So many Airbnbs’
The influx of new residents – and new money – has real benefits, as even the more skeptical residents will admit. Booming real estate and tourism has been “fantastic” for many businesses, said Rachael Buettell, owner of Black Luck Vintage, who has lived in the area for 42 years.
While she is concerned about the housing crisis and the pressures of rapid growth, “the influx of people coming in pays my bills, and it’s allowing my business to grow much more than it would have.”
In a rural area where good-paying jobs are hard to find, Airbnbs and other short-term rentals can also be a decent source of income.
One resident, who did not want her name published in order to protect her job prospects, said she had worked for more than two years as a host and housekeeper for multiple Airbnbs around Joshua Tree, and made good money.
But many guests seemed to think they were actually renting out a resident’s home, she said. “They don’t really understand that these are just investment [properties].”
And housekeepers often got only a fraction of the money listed on the Airbnb website as a home’s “cleaning fee”, she said; for instance if a fee were $160, she would get $80, with the owner pocketing the rest.
In a statement, Airbnb said that hosts set their own cleaning fees, and that the company “suggests they aim to use the cleaning fee to cover the expense of cleaning – not to make additional money”.
Some Joshua Tree residents are now advocating for a legal cap on the number of Airbnbs, arguing that short-term rentals should be limited to only 10% of the area’s available housing units. At local government meetings, residents who own Airbnbs have defended the industry and the support it provides.
“This just started as a supplement and now it’s my income, it’s how I survive,” said Hilary Sloane, 73, who rents out a tiny cabin on the property where she lives.
When she first bought a home in the high desert in 2009, the area was struggling, as it still does, with high rates of poverty and a lack of jobs. “What Airbnb did was bring options,” Sloane said.
In response to residents’ concerns, San Bernardino county officials have recently taken steps including a temporary emergency pause on new short-term-rental permits, as well as raising the cost of new permits and limiting how many people can get. The county has also indicated it will study the effects of short-term rentals on housing across the region.
For its part, Airbnb says that the real solution to the region’s housing crisis is “to prioritize building more affordable housing for people”, not to crack down on the short-term rental market, as John Choi, an Airbnb public policy manager, said in a statement.
“Home sharing creates economic opportunity for residents and enables them to welcome visitors whose spending supports the High Desert’s small businesses and local jobs,” Choi said. “Airbnb is committed to being a good partner and working with local officials on efforts to help support housing solutions.”
It’s not clear how quickly new regulations might arrive, or how much they would help. In the meantime, some simply hope the market will come tumbling down on its own.
“A lot of the locals are waiting for a market crash,” said Escobar. After a few years in the desert, she said, “people are going to get bored”, and wealthy newcomers may move back to the city or on to the next popular spot.
What attracted people to Joshua Tree in the first place – funky vibes, quiet, space, and the clarity of the night sky – is precisely what the current housing boom is destroying, Hopkins said.
“There’s so many Airbnbs that have string lights in their backyards, you can’t even see the stars any more.”