Michel Cicero has hardly taken a day off work since July 7, 2020. On that day she was paddleboarding at Big Bear Lake with friends but had to leave early because her phone was ringing off the hook, she said. “It hasn’t stopped since.”

Cicero is a real estate agent in Landers, California, which borders the community of Joshua Tree, adjacent to the national park. She has seen firsthand the disruption the pandemic has created in the real estate market. The length of her selling season doubled. In an area where single-offer home sales were the norm, multiple buyers started making offers—often of the all-cash variety—on each sale, raising prices and severely depleting housing stock.

 “Traditionally in the spring we have about 80 houses for sale in Joshua Tree. Earlier this spring we only had 19,” she said.

Michel Cicero (Photo courtesy of Michel Cicero)

The unincorporated community of Joshua Tree, population 7,000, sits in the Morongo Basin—a segment of the Mojave Desert that is home to parts of Joshua Tree National Park and the Marine Corps’ largest domestic base, Twentynine Palms. 

The Morongo Basin is in San Bernardino County, which is technically metropolitan. But the county’s 2.2 million residents live primarily on the west side of the county, which abuts Los Angeles and Orange counties. With a land area roughly the size of West Virginia, San Bernardino County’s eastern areas contain uninhabited public land, small towns, and villages.

The national housing market is highly competitive due to high building costs and low interest rates, but the Joshua Tree area is being hit particularly hard because of its proximity to Los Angeles and its limited housing stock. Residents say that rising housing costs are making Joshua Tree unaffordable, all the while AirBnB guests are making it unlivable. 

Pre-pandemic, Joshua Tree, California, was a desert haven for city-dwellers trying to escape Los Angeles rent. “It was thought of as an affordable place to live,” says Cicero. “Before, you could rent a two bedroom house for $800 a month.”

Now, Realtor.com is advertising only three properties for rent in the community, each of which is priced between $1,800 and $4,000 per month. 

Unincorporated areas like Joshua Tree and Landers lack city regulatory bodies, relying instead on the county government for zoning measures. 

The number of short-term rentals in Joshua Tree has nearly doubled since 2018, according to AirDNA. (Daily Yonder/AirDNA data)

A third of 4,000 housing units the Census says exist in Joshua Tree are currently listed for short-term rental via Airbnb or VRBO, according to AirDNA, a private sector short-term rental mapping site. As recently as January of 2019, less than 20% of housing stock was listed on these sites. For comparison, the city of Barcelona stopped issuing new tourism housing licenses when the percentage of homes listed as short-term rentals in its historic Old Town reached 10%.

Lifelong Joshua Tree resident Breana Violanti said finding a long-term rental in town has become nearly impossible. “You can have money saved up, you can have all sorts of stuff ready like a normal person would in order to move,” she said. “There’s not one rental. There’s nothing.”

Landers resident Katrina Hercules says that the red-hot housing market of the past year has been characterized by two types of purchases: people buying properties to turn into short-term rentals, or people with extraordinarily high incomes moving into the community. 

The economic incentives for owning a home in Joshua Tree are clear: AirDNA reports average daily rates for short-term rentals in Joshua Tree were up 69% (or about $140) from April 2019 to April 2021. AirDNA also considers the Joshua Tree area a “supply constrained market,” which means they expect prices to continue rising through the rest of 2021.

And if a buyer owns property elsewhere in California, it is likely that even with surging home prices in the Morongo Basin—the median home price in Joshua Tree itself is up 264.3% year-over-year, and $200,000 from May of 2019—selling a home in Los Angeles or San Francisco will translate to more buying power in the desert. 

AirDNA lists Joshua Tree, California, as a “Supply Constrained Market.”

A growing tourism-based economy can pose many predictable problems for a rural community, though they are problems many small towns and remote areas would love to face, said Lance George, research and information director at the Housing Assistance Council, a national rural-housing nonprofit. 

“One major theme is rural communities have a dearth of good quality rental housing to start with,” said George. In rural areas, the rental housing that does exist is likely to be less dense, consisting of single-family homes rather than multi-family complexes. 

“And when you cut into that market at any time, then you’re probably going to inhibit choices for lower income residents. Economics is all about choices: someone has a choice to pay higher and others might not have those choices.”

Even before the pandemic, the United States was facing a housing affordability crisis, where renters were the most vulnerable, George said. Combine a tight rental market with high lumber prices, which mean that only high-end construction is profitable, “and no one’s going to build anything, especially in the rental market,” he said. “You add all of those dynamics together and you could get a really accelerated housing crisis among low- and moderate-income households that don’t have the money to buy homes.”

Though the tourism sector can have harmful effects, George finds potential solutions in federal housing investment, rather than limiting tourism’s growth. “It really hurts the lower income rental stock and lower income households,” he said. “But the larger problem in rural America over the last two to three to five decades has been a hemorrhaging of people.”

Hercules, who is outspoken on issues of housing affordability in the Morongo Basin, agrees. When it comes to long-term community sustainability, she said “I feel very strongly that it’s not a question of ‘Is it possible?’ as much as ‘Is it prioritized?’”

Regarding short-term rentals, the problem is not their existence, “It’s the mix,” said Hercules. “Proportionately there are just too many of them compared to [long-term] housing.”

Vacation rentals also change the character of local life, say long-term residents. 

“It’s like someone’s having a big birthday party every weekend,” said Kim Stringfellow, artist and Joshua Tree resident. In her eight-home neighborhood, Stringfellow believes there are three short-term-rentals. 

Detail of map of Joshua Tree just south of Twentynine Palms Highway showing vacation rentals. (AirDNA image)

The volume of complaints about short-term rentals is so large, the county created a 24/7 vacation rental complaint line. The line saw a 5,300% increase in calls from 2019 to 2020, according to the Desert Sun newspaper. The county does a good job responding, said Stringfellow, but it’s still too little too late. Because there are no sound buffers in the desert landscape, “I can hear people whispering from 600 feet away from me,” she said. 

That’s not to mention the recent group of rowdy tourists, four or five people over-occupancy, who off-loaded their ATVs and spent the weekend illegally riding around the neighborhood. According to Stringfellow, the activity continued even after the group was chastised by the sheriff. 

The county’s board of supervisors recently upped its short-term rental oversight capacity, and increased fines for violations of its vacation rental rules, according the Desert Sun

Several residents mentioned that the tourism takeover has its perks: “Do I like that I can get a nice cup of coffee in Joshua Tree now? Or get something to eat? Yeah that’s great,” said Cicero. But at the same time, the area loses some of its appeal when people move in from cities and put up huge fences and outdoor lighting, she said. 

Several residents suspected that tourists have replaced petty criminals and drug users in town. Cicero said that some of these changes are positive. “But at the same time now there’s lights all night and I hear music and that’s just sort of part of the new landscape.”

Others were less enthused by such demographic churn. Chris Clarke, who works for the National Parks Conservation Association, moved to Twentynine Palms when Joshua Tree became unaffordable for him. 

“The community is being displaced by people of a higher economic class,” said Clarke. “It accentuates the class differences. You have people that might have been able to afford rental in a mobile home park 10 years ago, and that mobile home park has got airstreams in it now that are renting for $100 a night, or it was sold and somebody’s fancy Airbnb went in, or whatever the reason, that option isn’t available to people, and they find themselves in even more difficult circumstances.”

Hercules said authorities aren’t responding to the housing crisis quickly enough. “There isn’t a sense of urgency, and that is where we’re gonna get toppled,” she said. For her, the problems circle back to a lack of local governance. She has big questions for the county: “Where are [short-term-rental] tax dollars going? And how are they directly helping our local community? Do they just go into a San Bernardino bucket?”

The office of San Bernardino’s Third District County Supervisor, Dawn Rowe, did not respond to the Daily Yonder’s requests for comment.

“There’s just a huge kind of divide between the locals and what’s happening to our community,” said Hercules. “Is it happening to us? Or do we have any agency?”