Housing crisis, pandemic reshaping Southern California population
Alexa David and her husband, Josh, had never planned on staying in Los Angeles forever.
They’d moved to L.A. after he got accepted to grad school at USC in 2018 and figured they might stay a few years after he graduated, both working in the tech industry, but would have to leave eventually “because the cost of living was so out of control,” she said.
Then came the pandemic, and L.A. tech companies largely stopped hiring, David said.
“When COVID-19 hit, we decided to leave sooner, and move somewhere we felt like we could still have access to the outdoors, but with a better cost of living,” she said.
They decided on Denver and bought a house in the ‘burbs — and became two of more than 175,000 people who left Los Angeles County, not to be replaced by someone else moving in, during the first year of the pandemic, according to new census data.
Demographers and policy experts say the pandemic supercharged many of the trends that have been reshaping California’s population for years: rising death rates, declining birth rates and, most dramatically, mass moves out of coastal counties and into inland counties and other states, whether by necessity to escape unaffordable housing costs or by choice with newfound work-from-home freedom.
In Southern California, all of those factors combined to shrink the populations of L.A. and Orange counties by a total of 176,000 people from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021, while Riverside and San Bernardino counties grew by almost 48,000 people — the fifth-highest increase of large metro areas in the U.S. They surpassed the San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley metro area to become the country’s 12th largest.
Here’s a look at the situation in those four counties and California as a whole.
Los Angeles County
- July 1, 2020 population: 9,989,165
- Over the next year: 99,716 births, 82,350 deaths, net loss of 179,757 to other places in the U.S., net gain of 4,023 people from foreign countries, for a total decline of 159,621 (-1.6%)
- July 1, 2021 population: 9,829,544
- How it ranks: LA County still has almost twice as many people as any other county in the U.S., but its loss of 159,621 residents was also the largest in the U.S., and the 1.6% decline was among the largest (although several Bay Area counties had even higher declines by percent).
Los Angeles County’s population has been declining for the past few years, but this most recent drop was the largest yet.
“We’ve heard a lot about people leaving California because of affordability issues, so that’s part of it, but with the emergence of working from home, there’s a new angle to that process,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at UC Irvine who’s been researching the work-from-home phenomenon. “In particular, people can leave high-housing-cost areas and keep their jobs. They can move to Texas and work remotely in Los Angeles or San Francisco.”
Not that everybody leaving is keeping their job, of course, but for those who do, it makes relocation less disruptive, he said.
Brueckner sees L.A. County’s population loss during the pandemic as “a sign, but not catastrophic.” In fact, he said, there could be some positives if it takes a little pressure off the housing market or improves traffic
While there could be some short-term positives, “in the long run it’s going to hurt our economy” if housing costs stay so high that they put artificial constraints on the population, said Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA.
“We’re robbing ourselves from growing in a positive way,” Ong said. “It’s not a desirable outcome.”
- July 1, 2020 population: 3,184,101
- Over the next year: 32,347 births, 25,108 deaths, net loss of 25,019 to other places in the U.S., net gain of 1,214 from foreign countries, for a total decline of 16,292 (-0.5%)
- July 1, 2021 population: 3,167,809
- How it ranks: Orange County remains the third-largest county in California and the sixth-largest in the nation. Its loss of 16,292 people was the 18th-largest in the country.
Orange County is facing similar challenges as Los Angeles: very high housing costs and a lot of workers in jobs that can be done remotely.
“It’s possible somebody living in Orange County, and finding it unaffordable, could keep their job and move to Riverside County, and not have to make that terrible commute on the 91 as often as they did,” Brueckner said.
Dowell Myers, a professor of policy, planning and demography at USC, is alarmed that Orange County especially is becoming so expensive that too many of its younger residents and service providers will be forced to leave to find housing, leaving it top-heavy with older residents, a situation he said can lead to “total chaos.”
“There are fewer and fewer people to support the elderly who are retired, and who need all these support services,” he said. “It’s going to be on the backs of fewer and fewer working taxpayers.”
Eduardo Garcia is among those residents feeling that pressure. The 34-year-old moved from Orange County to the Bay Area in November 2019, excited to start a new job at a nonprofit, the Latino Community Foundation.
But within a year, he decided to move back. After the pandemic hit, he was working from home in Oakland, and so were the two other people he shared a house with. It was too small, too stressful, too expensive, and he thought he could help his family by moving back in with them in Buena Park. Just like everywhere else, their rent had gone up, and his mom was putting in long hours as an essential worker at a nursing home.
He’s still working remotely for the foundation.
“I feel lucky to have the flexibility and ability to choose where I wanted to work. I wish that could be the same for all workers,” Garcia said, noting that only about 1 in 5 Latinos is able to work remotely because so many are employed in essential industries.
He doesn’t plan to return to the Bay Area, but he’s not sure he can stay in Orange County either. He’d like to own a home at some point, but the market is just so far out of reach right now.
“Even for workers like myself that are college-educated, that have jobs that pay well, homeownership is out of reach for so many of us,” Garcia said. “… My family has lived in Orange County for almost 30 years. We don’t want to leave. And I am concerned that because of how expensive it’s getting, that in a few years we might have to look elsewhere if we want to realize the dream of homeownership.”
- July 1, 2020 population: 2,422,764
- Over the next year: 27,110 births, 22,167 deaths, net gain of 31,251 from other places in the U.S., net loss of 508 to foreign countries, for a total increase of 35,631 (1.5%)
- July 1, 2021 population: 2,458,395
- How it ranks: Riverside County is the fourth-largest in the state and 10th-largest in the nation — and it’s gaining on a couple of counties just above it. Its increase of 35,631 residents ranked third among all counties, after Maricopa County, Arizona (home to Phoenix) and Collin County, Texas (north of Dallas). Its net gain of 30,743 people through domestic migration was the second-largest in the U.S. — but it also lost more residents to foreign countries than any other county.
Long before the pandemic hit, many people eyeing more affordable housing markets turned their sights to the Inland Empire.
“What the pandemic did was, it accelerated those trends,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor for public policy at UC Riverside. People needed more room to work from home, and families wanted space for their kids to play outside.
Riverside County especially benefited: Its growth rate from domestic migration in 2021 was double what it was the previous two years, census data shows.
The rise of remote working has been a game-changer, said Paul Granillo, president and CEO of the Inland Empire Economic Partnership, especially considering that one of the IE’s biggest challenges has been that 20% of its residents have commuted out to jobs in other counties.
That doesn’t mean growth is without its downsides.
“Counties on the receiving end of that growth are going to see pressure on housing prices and traffic, stuff like that,” Brueckner said. “On the other hand, those places become more vibrant and richer” as a result of the new additions.
Granillo said Riverside especially is having a renaissance, noting the impending opening of the Cheech Marin Center For Chicano Art & Culture.
San Bernardino County
- July 1, 2020 population: 2,182,740
- Over the next year: 27,178 births, 18,941 deaths, net gain of 3,608 from other places in the U.S., net loss of 365 to foreign countries, for a total increase of 11,970 (0.5%)
- July 1, 2021 population: 2,194,710
- How it ranks: San Bernardino County’s population ranks fifth in California and 14th in the U.S. Its growth of 11,970 residents was the second-largest in the state and 22nd-largest in the nation. However, it was second nationwide only to Riverside County in losing residents to foreign countries.
Both Riverside and San Bernardino counties grew significantly during the first year of the pandemic, but for different reasons.
For Riverside County, the dominant factor by far was people moving in — it had almost 10 times more net migration than San Bernardino County had.
San Bernardino County had almost three times the natural increase — births minus deaths — as Riverside County. Its higher birth rate and lower death rate are probably attributable, at least in part, to having a younger population.
In massive San Bernardino County, the nation’s largest by area, it may seem odd to talk about land scarcity, but much of the northern and eastern portions are the harsh Mojave Desert.
“One of the big questions both counties need to think about, but especially San Bernardino County, is the extent to which warehousing is taking up land that might be used for housing,” Ramakrishnan said. “We’ve always thought about land as being plentiful, but especially in western San Bernardino County, land is more scarce than it used to be.”
He worries that could put undue pressure on the housing market, driving more development north and east.
As Granillo pointed out, however, “People need a job if they’re going to buy a house. The logistics industry is one of the most important employers.”
- July 1, 2020 population: 3,9499,738
- Over the next year: 424,333 births, 332,337 deaths, net loss of 367,299 to other places in the U.S., net gain of 14,339 from foreign countries, for a total decline of 261,902 (-0.7%)
- July 1, 2021 population: 39,237,836
- How it ranks: California remains the nation’s most populous state, with almost 10 million more residents than Texas, but its loss was the second-largest by number and fourth-largest by percent.
To most who study California’s population declines, the reason is clear: ever-increasing housing prices.
“If California is ever going to see the same growth (it once had), it has to solve its housing problem, no question about it,” said Ramakrishnan, who, in addition to teaching at UCR, is executive director of California 100, a statewide initiative whose goal is to shape a strategy for the state’s next century.
What isn’t clear is whether the factors that accelerated the declines in the first year of the pandemic will go back to normal or stick around.
Brueckner said there’s plenty of evidence that people will keep working from home to some extent, allowing people to keep living outside typical commuting distance or even working fully remotely. “But it’s hard to say how much exactly.”
While Myers thinks the talk of a California exodus is overblown, “the spike of housing prices in a pandemic is a very worrisome trend. … The housing barrier could put a real long-lasting dent in California’s population.”
If younger people in search of their first homes have to leave the state, California’s population will only keep getting older, meaning the birth rate would keep dropping and the death rate would keep rising.
“I think patterns we’ve seen are a warning to us,” Ong said, “highlighting structural problems that existed in California before the pandemic — deep problems we need to solve.”