Census Depicts Aging, Urbanizing Population in California

 

The preliminary results of the 2010 U.S. Census are in, and so far they depict a California quite different from the one that the state’s localities have been planning for the past few decades. It is no longer a young, family-oriented state that lives in detached homes but rather an aging, childless state that is turning back towards the center cities. And, though California’s population – estimated at 37.2 million – is bigger than ever, its growth rate is a shadow of its former self. To sort out this preliminary data and offer an idea of the demographic trends planners  should be aware of, CP&DR spoke with Dowell Myers, professor of Urban Planning and Demography at the University of Southern California. 

What have we learned from the Census data? What surprises have you found? 

There are questions of how much growth there is. There’s a lot less growth than was expected by the Department of Finance. The DOF has been working with a much higher number. The final count came out pretty close to what the Census Bureau had been estimating. We were further off on the count than was any other state. It could be that this is the first census in 50 years that has come in a recession. The census has always come at the end of an economic expansion. Because it’s in a recession, it throws everything off. People aren’t moving the way they normally are. Construction is way down. To some extent, maybe that is why California's numbers are so low in the count. 

Has California’s growth slowed permanently? Or is this a blip because of the recession? 

The growth has not been constant over the last 40 years. Alternating, there have been big decades and small decades.  The 1970s were really low, then the 1980s boomed really big, then the 1990s were up a little bit.  

Normally, a big place grows more slowly, but in the ’80s we took off. That had to do with some odd things like the Cold War, Ronald Reagan being president and aerospace spending; it also had to do with the Rust Belt and the Texas oil collapse. A lot of growth was flushed in our direction for different reasons. We all thought the ’80s were normal. Maybe in the bigger picture, this last decade is more normal. I would expect in the next decade, it will go up again. 

The bigger picture is that the population is getting older, and it is transitioning from older whites to younger Latinos,Asians and others. The whites are down to 30% of the total population. Latinos are in the high 40s. They’re not a majority either; they won’t be a majority until 2040. 

You and your colleague Linda Liu wrote a brief on aging in Los Angeles County. What is the implication for cities? 

The shocker was that Los Angeles County lost 20 percent of its kids between ages 5-9. That’s about twice as much loss as we had foreseen. It changes the whole family character of the county. Meanwhile, you have the children of the baby boom – Generation Y, or the Millenials – moving into their early 20s. They are driving major development changes throughout the state. That means many more potential apartment occupants. 

In the ’90s we actually had a net loss of people in their 20s, and in that environment, no developer can float a new (urban) building.  Now it’s the opposite, with revitalization and changing attitudes towards the city. A lot more young people  want to live in cities. And their parents, who are getting older, are sitting in their houses and getting ready to sell. 

When they sell, it’s raising questions about, whom will they sell to? And where will they move to when they sell? That’s going to be answered towards the end of this decade. It’s going to be a very volatile decade: one of urban revitalization, one of declining suburbs, and fewer families with kids. 

Some research says that Latinos follow distinct urban patterns. Are those patterns going to become more mainstream or is there something new on the horizon? 

The state’s homeownership rate has dipped a little bit, but it’s stayed within a constant band of 55-59%. Latinos ages 35-44, are up to 41% homeowners. So they’re a little bit below, but not far below average.  As they get older, they’ll go higher. That’s a lot of homeowners when you multiply 41% times that many Latino young households. They’re going to dominate the housing market. They already account for 78% of the growth in homeowners over the last decade. Whites contributed a decline in homeownership: they lost 160,000 homeowners. Older whites sold and young whites couldn’t buy enough.  Young Latinos stepped up and took up the slack. 

That’s the future right there. Can these young Latino homebuyers pay the older whites the prices they expect for those homes in those nice suburban neighborhoods? We’re going to find out. It’s going to depend on how well educated they are, what kind of jobs they have, and what kind of mortgage they can quality for. That’s going to depend on what kind of taxes we pay for what kind of public education. There’s going to be a bit of a time lag – about 20 years – but the chickens are going to come home to roost. 

If you cut funding for higher education, you cut off your future supply of homebuyers. Or your homebuyers still show up but they’re only high school educated and can only pay you 2/3 the price you would have gotten if they were college-educated.  

Where is that going to hit hardest? 

It’s probably going to be in the least well-located counties. You drive until you qualify, so if you don’t drive, you don’t get out there. The only people out there are on very marginal incomes. They can’t afford to pay very much, so those houses stay vacant. Those houses that are best located haven’t dropped very much.  Along the coasts or better-located areas that are close to transit or hubs of economic activities are going to maintain their markets. 

The biggest policy driver of the next decade is arguably SB 375. How does that policy match up with the demographic trends you’re seeing? 

It looks to me like they line up pretty well. It seems like the demographics are really consistent with that. And that’s a miracle, isn’t it? It’s totally unplanned. The climate change stuff is totally unrelated to demographics. Knock on wood, this could work out. 

The other big trend of course is the hampering or even the demise of redevelopment and the affordable housing funds associated with redevelopment. Is there going to be a growing number of poor households that are going to be out of luck? 

That is an example where policy is at odds with demography. We have this client base for older cities and suburbs, living more densely, and we don’t have the public subsidies for that. Redevelopment was the main money for that. 

What would happen is that these people are going to have to find a way in the existing housing market and they’re going to scrounge out the neglected housing. I see a bit of a Palmdale scenario, where there’s an inordinate number of Section 8 families because they can get more apartment for their money farther out. They don’t need to be close to employment because they don’t have a job. You’ll have these outer settlements of people who desperately need cheaper housing and don’t have to worry about commutes to work. 

You’ll see more unpermitted subdivision of larger houses in the more remote locations. Some entrepreneurs will figure out they can subdivide them into three units and park pickup trucks on the lawn and then people can go to work from there. People are going to find ways to re-use the stock more efficiency. It just won’t be up to code. That’s going to cause problems with the neighbors. 

What advice do you have for urban planners who are trying to plan in anticipation of these numbers? 

You have to look very closely at the changes by age group in three different decades: the last decade, the current decade, and the decade after that. So often we don’t pay attention to these dynamics of change.

You can graph it out very easily and you can see what the changes are each decade and see what’s lining up in each decade. There is a very understandable sequence of shifts that are occurring. And we need to get the development lined up so it comes on line at the right time for the right age group. Each age group has different types of housing at each stage of life. 

Aging is predicable, and planners haven’t used that enough. We think in terms of race or income, but those are harder to predict and they’re also not as descriptive of the type of housing. Income tells you how expensive a house, but it doesn’t tell you what kind. And that’s more from age than anything else. Shrinkage in age groups is even worse. That’s what craters demand. This is California.  We should be able to ride the waves.  

Are we better equipped now to analyze this data and respond to it? 

Yes and no. We have a lot better data now because of the American Communities Survey, which comes out every fall. I’m not sure planners have better analytical skills, because we haven’t really kept up to speed. We’ve put a lot of attention on geographic information systems, but maps don’t measure change very well. We need to spend a lot more time learning how to use Excel and use it better to show the trends over time and put them into PowerPoints so we can share better with the citizens and get everybody on board.  All these changes shouldn’t be debated like political footballs. They’re just facts of life. 

Are there any major differences among the regions in California? 

There definitely are big differences between north and south. But inland is different from Coastal.  I’m amazed at how different it is everywhere.  The baby boomers are everywhere and baby bust is everywhere. But every county is different. Orange County is becoming a lot more like L.A. County now. It used to be a lot more like Ventura or Marin. It’s more diverse, it’s denser, and it has more jobs. It’s not a bedroom community and hasn’t been for 20 years. The big question will be the Inland Empire: how will they build community? Will they densify around core areas and develop employment centers? I think they will. It will have a unique character. It won’t look like Orange or L.A. It won’t look like Fresno either.