Since the 1970s, California policymakers have embarked on a land-use strategy designed to promote “urbanism”—the idea that we all ought to live in dense housing developments, that suburban sprawl should be limited by government planning restrictions, and rural land should be protected for farming and open space.
During his first stint as governor, Jerry Brown oversaw a report called, “An Urban Strategy for California.” The state outlined a policy that has been implemented over the past decades. It was designed to create a compact urban environment and reduce “wasteful urban sprawl”, by placing new construction in existing cities and suburban areas.
As with all central plans this has led to unexpected results. California’s median home value was $834,000. In the year 2000, it stood at $70,000. Contrary to this, the median national price increased by $350,000 from $56,000 down to $350,000. Recent state reports blame soaring costs on a simple supply and demand issue—the chronic underbuilding of new homes.
The official state urbanism strategy—blocking the construction of new suburban developments, tying up vast tracts of undeveloped land as permanent open space, shoehorning most new construction into the existing urban footprint, and enabling environmental lawsuits against new projects—has made it too costly for builders to meet burgeoning demand.
While the state government has placed great emphasis on cities’ importance, the policymakers did a terrible job of actually managing those cities. Despite their enormous budgets, big and bureaucratic, union-controlled schools systems—such as Los Angeles Unified, which spends more than $24,000 a year per student—have done poorly educated their residents’ children.
The same progressives who claim to care the most about public education, seem least willing to acknowledge these urban school systems’ failures—or to support policies (e.g., charter schools) that can boost education outcomes. People would move to urban environments if they were able to educate their children in decent schools.
They are also not moved by the increasing crime problem in major cities. It’s true, as Jason McGahan wrote recently in Los Angeles Magazine, that the crime data doesn’t entirely fit the conservative narrative blaming soft-on-crime DAs in liberal cities—but that’s thin gruel for urban dwellers who feel unsafe as violent crime rates soar and brazen flash mobs loot stores in downtown areas.
And don’t get me started about the failure of the state’s urban transportation philosophy, which seems more interested in changing the way we get around than designing systems that allow us to get around as we choose. How about this novel idea for planners—spend more time improving the creaking, dirty urban transit systems and less time coercing suburbanites into abandoning their cars?
It is not surprising, therefore, that Californians vote with their feet, fleeing its largest cities. The latest Census data show that California cities saw large drops in population during the COVID-19 pandemic. San Francisco saw a staggering 6.7 percent drop in its population. This is the second largest percentage decline after New York. Los Angeles County’s population dropped by only 1 percent—but given its size that’s more than 184,000 people.
With soaring home prices, new work-at-home flexibility that allows people to live farther from their jobs, and the misery of draconian shutdowns in cities, it’s easy to see why COVID had driven people to the hinterlands. San Francisco can be a charming and lovely place. But why should you have to endure its miseries when it’s impossible even to leave your small apartment? There’s much more to this pandemic than just the pandemic.
California is now the state with the lowest population in its history. However, the surprising numbers involve intrastate movements. “Despite recent speculations of California’s exodus from California to other states, many who move out of the region don’t travel far. However, there was a significant influx of immigrants from San Francisco in Sierra counties compared to 2019.” Los Angeles Times reported.
Sacramento County is where I reside. These trends are all around me as my neighbors move from more urbanized areas of the Bay Area. Los Angeles is losing people and more are heading east in Southern California. For instance, as LA County lost enough residents to populate a mid-sized city, “the Inland Empire added 47,601 people in the year ended July 2021, the fifth-biggest gain among the 50 largest metro areas,” according to The Mercury News.
Californians prefer to reside in hot, unexciting and smoggy areas far away from the beaches, despite the 50-year-old government campaign to urbanize the state. Few of the state’s fastest-growing cities are urban in the traditional sense.
I love cities, but if the state’s policymakers want to promote urbanism, they need to look at their own failed policies and grapple with the reasons fewer people want to live in them.
This column appeared in The Orange County Register for the first time.