In The Great California Exodus: A Closer Look, the Manhattan Institute has chronicled California’s fall from “the state with more jobs, more space, more sunlight, and more opportunity” to, well, the state with more sunlight.
In documenting the 3.4 million people who left the state in recent years — that’s just about enough to double the population of Oregon — the study identifies three reasons why California has been transformed from a “pull in” state to a “push out” state. Of course, one reason is the state’s pathologically unfriendly treatment of business. The second is the related collapse of its state and municipal finances. The third reason is less familiar to most, and shows just how good California has become at inflicting economic wounds upon itself.
It’s the state’s high density. While less than 6 percent of the state’s landmass is developed — about 50 percent is government-owned and about 45 percent is agricultural — to most Californians, it feels like a very crowded state.
In my home of Orange County and neighboring Los Angeles County, the density is hovering just below 7,000 people per square mile. That makes the LA/OC megalopolis the most densely populated metro area in the country. San Francisco/Oakland is second, and San Jose is third. New York City is fourth, with a meager 5,319 people per square mile. Chicago is 25th. Of the 50 densest metro areas in the country, 20 are in California.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, when places get too crowded, people (including business owners) move if they have the chance. In the late 19th century, America’s largest cities had densities of 50,000 or even 100,000 people per square mile. When streetcars and trains, then cars, opened the door to suburbia, urban densities plummeted. Philadelphia is a case in point; its density fell from 56,000 people per square mile to 12,000 during those years.
As California’s expensive coastal counties started getting uncomfortably crowded in the 1990s, many moved one or two counties to the east to get more room for less. Of course, those are the very areas that were the hardest hit by the housing and job market collapse. So now they are the California counties losing the most people to other states.
What is progressive California doing about this? It should come as a surprise to no one that it’s doing exactly what it shouldn’t be doing: Crusading Sacramento bureaucrats are forcing higher density on everyone.
The tool of this latest round of madness is 2008’s California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, or SB 375, authored by Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, now the Senate president pro-tem. SB 375 stepped up California’s regulatory game from just controlling every aspect of how houses are built to dictating where they can be built.
The law mandates regional sustainable growth plans, and definitely doesn’t include suburbia in the “sustainable” column. The Brown administration is using it like a hammer in its Quixotic campaign to single-handedly free the world of global warming. For example, Attorney General Kamala Harris recently sued San Diego under SB 375 because its long-range plan did too much for highways, the transportation system that supports suburbia, and not enough for mass transit.
More to the administration’s liking is the Bay Area’s “Initial Vision Scenario for 2035,” which proclaims that, by 2035, the Bay Area’s population will grow by 2 million people, yet there will be fewer cars there than there are today. That will only happen if yards, tree-lined streets and a car commute to work are traded in for lofts by the train station.
But, as the Manhattan Institute study illustrates, when faced with a choice between already too-dense cities and less dense (demographically and politically) places like Arizona, Texas, Oregon or Utah, more and more Californians are opting out of the craziness.
A number of years ago, New Republic senior editor Gregg Easterbook wrote, “Sprawl is caused by affluence and population growth, and which of these, exactly, do we propose to prohibit?” California’s Progressive leadership has apparently chosen both, firing one more shot into its suffering economy in the process.