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Middle-Class Flight From San Fernando Valley 

Will taxpayers who are leaving “America's suburb” behind doom L.A.?

Wednesday, Jan 28 2009
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With new data suggesting that a net 50,000 to 100,000 people left Los Angeles County last fiscal year, the San Fernando Valley is emerging as the poster child for middle-class flight — even as L.A. politicians try to spin an almost opposite tale.

The Valley was once America’s suburb, the nation’s most firmly rooted bastion of families holding jobs sufficient to pay for homes, cars, leisure and college tuition. Its more than 1 million people poured such a wealth of taxes into downtown’s municipal treasury — subsidizing other areas — that Valley secession was seen as an attack on L.A.’s fiscal health.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa recently claimed that people are moving here. But, in fact, an L.A. Weekly analysis based on U.S. Census data clearly shows that for the middle class, the opposite is true.

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L.A. grew in 2007-2008 due to high birth rates among the poor and working class, mostly Latinos, and due to illegal immigration. But since 2001, on the key measure of an area’s ability to attract the middle class, 901,426 more citizens have fled the county for other states than arrived from other states, and last year, they continued that flight.

One of the starkest changes is the collapse of the Valley’s middle class. U.S. Census figures we analyzed show that in 1970, 60 percent of Valley families could afford an average house and college costs, far outpacing other urban areas recently evaluated for the same era by the Pew Research Center. Even before the recession hit in late 2007, the Valley had lost a huge swath of middle-class workers, with just 43 percent of families by 2006 earning $50,000 to $149,000 — the identical income group, corrected for inflation, that made up 60 percent in 1970.

Says California State University Northridge geography professor Eugene Turner, “It means exactly what we think it means: a growing population that’s not in that great middle class.”

Turner says the exodus accelerated in the 1990s as skilled, private-manufacturing jobs were replaced in L.A. with low-paying and increasingly unskilled work.

At the current rate, within 60 years, the Valley will have no discernible middle class. That’s not because the middle class is shrinking in the U.S. Instead, it’s relocating, fleeing in 2008 to the Carolinas, the Mountain West and Pacific Northwest, Texas and the South, and rejecting California, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois. In March, more detailed Census data are expected to show that L.A. took much of California’s 2008 out-migration hit.

With City Hall focused heavily on building luxury condos and entertainment venues downtown, and dense multistory apartments on streets with bus or rail stops, Villaraigosa, City Council President Eric Garcetti and their economic advisers seem not to grasp the intense competition that’s under way among U.S. cities to keep or woo technology, biomedical and other private-sector employers who draw in well-paid workers.

Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University, says today’s L.A. political leaders dismiss the middle class, don’t nurture private entrepreneurship, and do little to retain private industries as diverse as high-tech and the processing of specialty Latino foods.

L.A. “exists for the rich and for the poor. Its policies have gotten more that way since 2000,” says Kotkin, now completing a study of New York’s fleeing middle class.

The Valley’s iconographic standing as America’s biggest and most racially diverse suburb makes it a testing ground for the Obama administration’s promise to support the middle class. Daniel Flaming, president of the downtown Economic Roundtable, calls L.A.’s middle class “very thin,” adding, “what we’ve seen mostly is public-relations gestures and lack of ownership, lack of any strategic notion of how to address [the flight].”

Villaraigosa has touted the middle class as “the strength of the town” but spends almost none of his time trying to lure, or create incentives for, private-sector employers, as L.A. Weekly discovered in reviewing 10 weeks of his personal schedule. In fact, city policies may be hastening middle-class flight.

In 1970, more than half the Valley’s neighborhoods, or 152 Census tracts, were healthy. Three of four Valley families living in those enclaves owned their homes, and middle-class families comprised 600,000 of the Valley’s 1 million residents. By 2000, such enclaves were anachronisms, containing just 97,691 of the Valley’s 1.5 million residents.

Thirty years ago, Reseda, cultural home of the “Karate Kid” and Tom Petty’s hit “Free Falling,” was 74 percent middle class. Almost everyone was a homeowner. But Reseda was targeted for a massive remaking, pushed by City Hall, that forcefully transformed it into a cluttered minicity of apartment complexes hampered by crime and gangs. The middle class bolted, by 2000 making up 41 percent of Reseda.

Reseda’s story was repeated, as planners wiped out Valley neighborhoods, approving a near-doubling in rental-housing construction from 1970 to 2000, from 130,000 to 240,000 apartment units. While every mayor from Tom Bradley to Villaraigosa has claimed that such remaking improves L.A.’s quality of life, each such mantra has backfired, worsening quality of life. Good jobs have fled — as have waves of white, black and Latino middle-class residents.

David R. Henderson, an economist and research fellow with Stanford’s Hoover Institution, says glitzy taxpayer-subsidized projects like L.A.’s convention center and adjacent luxury hotel also start to take precedence over policies that might benefit stable neighborhoods. The “fatal flaw” comes when planners believe they “know better than people on the ground .than the rubes out there,” he says.

Today, L.A., with its litter-strewn, billboard-cluttered boulevards, its business-unfriendly reputation, its lack of green space and its congestion — even on residential streets now jammed with development — is driving out many who can vote with their feet. And the data show that L.A. excels at drawing in the poor.

“It’s not a matter of moving out to Lancaster, they’re moving out of California altogether,” Turner says of the multicultural, middle-class flight to Phoenix, Las Vegas, Seattle and beyond. It’s “having a huge impact on Southern California.”

Paul Taylor, Pew Research Center’s executive vice president and lead author of “Inside the Middle Class: Bad Times Hit the Good Life,” says the Valley has undergone a fundamental “compositional change in the population itself.” It is increasingly made up of generally lower-skilled Latinos who are much poorer than those moving out. More than 40 percent of Valley residents were born outside the U.S.

In Panorama City, as aeronautic and other industries fled in the 1990s to places like Texas and Georgia in search of educated workers, cheaper land and livable neighborhoods, a domino effect ensued in which highly skilled residents fled, too. Today, block upon block of apartment complexes approved by City Hall tell the story: Where apartments predominate, the poverty rate can reach about 33 percent.

Only 24 middle-class neighborhoods survive in the Valley, characterized by strong home-ownership patterns, high levels of racial diversity — and a powerful, critics say NIMBY, resistance to City Hall’s urban planners. In one Granada Hills community, 90 percent own their homes in a neighborhood that has transitioned from heavily white to about 25 percent Hispanic and more than 10 percent Asian.

Neighborhood councils in Granada Hills, West Hills, Woodland Hills and other strong pockets are vociferous critics of City Hall, which they say feeds the congestion, crushing development and poor air quality eroding neighborhoods.

Wayde Hunter, of the Granada Hills North Neighborhood Council, says Valley taxpayers have long subsidized costs for “the trash, the power, the water, all the gas, all the infrastructure that makes the damn thing run — and [City Hall] wants Staples, Grand Avenue and things like that, to make them look good.”

Woodland Hills, West Hills and Granada Hills attract home buyers who increasingly are Latino, black or Asian — including East Indians who have inspired Fallbrook Mall’s Laemmle Theatres to offer fare from Bollywood.

Joyce Pearson, chairwoman of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council, says new and old residents take it upon themselves to strengthen the area. “Everything is watched . there is incredible participation, it’s amazing how many people shoulder the burden in Woodland Hills.”

Recently, City Hall posted higher speeds on its family-oriented streets, oblivious to the fact that, “We want to create greater community in Woodland Hills. People should want to walk, but it’s not safe to walk when everyone drives so fast.”

J.J. Popowich, whose Winnetka Neighborhood Council represents the most ethnically diverse middle-class area of the Valley, says simply, “If they don’t stabilize the middle class, the city will collapse.”

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