How and why Southern California’s population grew so much in one year

Workers work on some of the new homes near Newport Road and Murphy Ranch Road in Menifee Thursday, February 22, 2018. FRANK BELLINO, For THE PRESS-ENTERPRISE/SCNG
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If it feels a little more crowded in Southern California, you’re not imagining things.

Over 82,000 more people were living in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties in 2017 than 2016, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The biggest growth, not surprisingly, was in the two Inland counties, where housing is cheaper and home construction is feverishly trying to keep up with demand.

Riverside County alone added almost 37,000 new residents – the third-biggest population growth of any county in the nation. San Bernardino County added another 20,000 new residents, coming in at No. 18.

Los Angeles and Orange counties also grew by close to 13,000 residents each, enough to put both of them in the top 40 on a list of 3,220 counties, including Puerto Rico’s municipios.

Because all four Southern California counties are so huge already — Los Angeles County is the most populous in the U.S., and all four are in the top 15 — their growth wasn’t so remarkable percentage-wise.

Riverside County’s increase came out to 1.54 percent, or 389th in the nation. Los Angeles County’s increase was only 0.13 percent for a rank of 1,638.

With the exception of Riverside County, the biggest factor in population growth wasn’t more people moving in than out, but births outpacing deaths, census demographer Molly Cromwell said. In the two coastal counties, more people moved away during that year than moved in, but the natural increase was enough to offset the migration losses.

California as a whole grew by 0.61 percent to an estimated population of 39.5 million, with all but six counties adding residents.

Inland counties are booming

Riverside County’s population growth is mostly due to people moving in, Cromwell said. San Bernardino County also had positive net migration, but natural growth was a bigger factor in the population increase.

Housing is a major reason people move to the Inland Empire.

The median home price was $710,000 in Orange County and $580,000 in Los Angeles County in February, according to CoreLogic. Compare that to $375,000 in Riverside County and $336,500 in San Bernardino County. Inland apartment rents are also lower.

“Riverside and San Bernardino counties both have plenty of housing that is not available in Los Angeles and Orange counties,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director for the Southern California Association of Governments.

Permits were issued last year to build about 6,000 single-family houses in Riverside County, 5,000 of which were in the western portion of the county, and almost 7,000 single-family homes and mulit-family housing units in San Bernardino County, with the Chino-Ontario area being a construction hot spot, Building Industry Association officials said.

A significant number of new jobs created now that the region has rebounded from the recession also is a factor, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean for the UC Riverside School of Public Policy.

Ramakrishnan cautioned that as high housing prices push more people out of Los Angeles and Orange counties, the population shift will drive Inland prices up.

Coastal counties see higher housing costs

Orange and Los Angeles counties are being hit especially hard by the statewide housing crisis as the population keeps growing — if not as fast as in years past — and construction doesn’t keep pace, which pushes up home prices and apartment rents.

Orange County in 2017 saw its first negative migration rate since 2007, with more people moving out than in, said Cromwell, the Census Bureau demographer.

International migration rates are still in the black for both coastal counties, but the overall migration rate is negative because locals are moving to other counties and states.

As young families favor the relatively affordable Inland Empire over more expensive coastal living, the populations in Los Angeles and Orange counties gradually will become older, said Susan K. Brown, a professor of sociology at UC Irvine who studies demographic trends.

“That will probably affect the human situation in the short run,” she said; with fewer children, schools in those counties could see dwindling enrollment.

The high housing costs aren’t just driving away residents, said Ikhrata with the Southern California Association of Governments.

“Employers who want to move to L.A. and Orange County are thinking twice now because of housing,” Ikhrata said.

He said that could even affect, for example, Amazon’s location decision for a second headquarters.

Couple moves Inland for more

Byron and Jean Grace, who are in their 60s and semi-retired, moved from Laguna Niguel to Menifee in April, mostly because of the more affordable Inland housing.

Byron Grace said the couple had been renting a 1,700-square-foot home in the hills of Laguna Niguel, with a sliver of an ocean view. They wanted to buy, but prospects weren’t promising in Orange County.

“When I saw what I could get out here (in Menifee), I was hooked,” he said.

The couple chose a two-story, 3,000-square-foot lakefront house off Newport Road and paid $425,000 for it.

“That house in Laguna Niguel would probably be more than $2 million — not counting the lake, just the house,” he said.

Oh sure, they miss the restaurants, the beach and the year-round balmy coastal climate, but the couple has fallen in love with Menifee.

“I love the area and all the newness,” Byron Grace said. “You come out here and everything is fresh and clean and blue skies.”

How to deal with growth

Southern California is an attractive place to live for a variety of reasons: famously sunny weather, proximity to ocean surf and snowy mountains, a robust job market and world-class universities, Ikhrata said.

That contributes to why 850,000 more people live in those four counties than in 2010. And the population is expected to keep rising for decades — whether people want it to or not.

“I think we need to get ready for it,” Ikhrata said.

That calls for confronting tough regional issues.

“More than ever we need policies that deal with transportation, with water, with housing,” Ikhrata said.

Ramakrishnan said policy leaders must encourage more homes to be built, in a variety of housing styles that cater to a wide range of ability to make a mortgage payment.

High-density housing has to be in the mix, Ramakrishnan said, to build communities where people walk to stores, for example, and don’t drive far to work – and even take transit to the office.

He said such compact development also would extend limited water supplies because yards generally would be smaller and families would share landscapes.

Ramakrishnan said this approach could ease the strain on the region’s transportation system, too, by reducing the length of commutes.

What does the future hold?

There is an eventual end in sight to population growth in the coastal counties.

The California Department of Finance predicts that Los Angeles County will hit a ceiling in 2052 at 11,279,077 residents.

Orange County should peak in 2055 at a population of 3,621,879, according to the Finance Department, whose estimates and methodologies differ from those of the U.S. Census Bureau.

Riverside and San Bernardino counties are on track to grow every year through at least 2060, the farthest into the future that the state forecasts. Riverside County could start that decade with at least 3.6 million residents; San Bernardino County, with at least 3.2 million.

California stands out as one of the few states that has been taking in high rates of people with four-year degrees or higher while losing people with lower level of education, said Brown, the UC Irvine professor.

That could be a problem for businesses that run on service workers — jobs that don’t require a college degree.

“You need a mix of people at all skill levels to have an economy that hums well,” Brown said.

And if Southern California becomes so unaffordable that low-paying jobs aren’t worth commuting to, “You’ll have jobs begging for employees,” she said.

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