People are fleeing California cities, despite pol pushes for ‘urban planning’

Since the 1970s, California policymakers have embarked on a land-use planning strategy designed to promote “urbanism” – the idea that we should all live in dense housing estates, that suburban sprawl should be limited by government restrictions on development and that rural land should be protected for agriculture and open space.

During his first term as governor, Jerry Brown oversaw a report titled “An Urban Strategy for California.” In it, the state detailed a policy that we saw unfold over the following decades. The aim was to “create a more compact urban environment” and curb “unnecessary urban sprawl” by concentrating new construction in “existing towns and suburbs”.

Like all central plans, this one had unintended consequences. In the year of this report, the median home price in California was around $70,000 and is now $834,000. In contrast, the national median price rose from $56,000 to $350,000. Recent state reports attribute soaring costs to a simple supply and demand issue – chronic underconstruction of new homes.

The state’s official planning strategy – blocking the construction of new suburban developments, tying up large tracts of undeveloped land as permanent open space, fitting most new construction into the existing urban footprint, and allowing environmental lawsuits against new projects – has made it too expensive for builders to meet growing demand.

Despite all the state government’s attention to the importance of cities, policy makers have done a horrible job of managing these cities. Despite their huge budgets, large, union-controlled bureaucratic school systems such as Los Angeles Unified, which spend more than $24,000 a year per student, have poorly educated their residents’ children.

The same progressives who claim to care most about public education seem the least willing to acknowledge the failures of these urban school systems or support policies (eg, charter schools) that can improve educational outcomes. More people would be willing to move into an urban environment if they could, you know, send their kids to decent schools.

They also seem indifferent to the growing crime problems in big cities. It’s true, as Jason McGahan recently wrote in Los Angeles Magazinethat the crime data doesn’t entirely match the conservative narrative blaming soft DAs for crime in liberal cities, but it’s a piece of cake for city dwellers feeling insecure as violent crime rates soar soaring and cheeky flash mobs looting stores in city centers.

And don’t get me started on the state’s failed urban transportation philosophy, which seems more interested in changing the way we get around than designing systems that let us get around the way we want to. How about this new idea for planners: spend more time improving creaky, dirty urban transit systems and less time coercing commuters out of their cars?

Is it any wonder, then, that Californians vote with their feet and shun the state’s biggest cities? The latest census data shows California cities have seen steep population declines during the COVID-19 pandemic. San Francisco lost 6.7% of its population, the second largest percentage drop after New York. Los Angeles County’s population only dropped by 1%, but given its size, that’s more than 184,000 people.

With soaring house prices, the new flexibility of working from home that allows people to live further away from their jobs, and the misery of draconian shutdowns in cities, it’s easy to see why COVID has pushed people to the hinterland. San Francisco is a fun and beautiful place, but why put up with its indignities when you can’t even leave your tiny apartment? But there’s more at work here than the pandemic.

As a state, California’s population has fallen for the first time in memory, but the most fascinating numbers are for intrastate movement. “Despite suggestions of an exodus from California to other states in recent months, most of those leaving this region do not travel far, although many counties in the Sierra have seen a large influx of migrants from San Francisco vs. 2019,” said the Los Angeles Times reported.

I live in Sacramento County and see these trends all around me as neighbors increasingly come from urbanized areas of the Bay Area. In Southern California, people are leaving Los Angeles and heading east. For example, while LA County lost enough people to populate an average-sized city, “the Inland Empire added 47,601 people in the year ending July 2021, the fifth-largest gain important among the 50 largest metropolitan areas”, according to news from mercury.

Despite a 50-year government campaign to urbanize our society, more Californians are choosing to live in smoggy, hot, unexciting, suburban inland areas away from the beach rather than endure the high prices, fraying of fabric social and congestion of our destination metropolises. Few of the fastest growing cities in the state are urban in the traditional sense.

I love cities, but if state policymakers want to promote urban planning, they need to look at their own failed policies and address the reasons why fewer people want to live there.

This column was first published in The Orange County Register.

Bernard P. Love