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Housing and Homelessness

California's Largest Cities Saw Significant Population Decline During 1st Full Year Of COVID

Image of the cars on the highway driving towards the Downtown LA city skyline at sunset. The sky is a hazy blue above and yellowish pink below, with gray wispy clouds sitting above the horizon.
A recent U.S. Census report finds that around 160,000 people left Los Angeles County, resulting in a population decline of 1%. USC Professor Marcus Pastor says rising housing costs are a factor.
(Alborz Kamalizad
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California's largest cities saw a significant population drop in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Los Angeles County lost almost 160,000 residents — almost 1% of its population — while the San Francisco Bay Area followed closely behind, losing more than 116,000 residents.

Those losses breakdown into some key categories:

  • The Census cites the pandemic as exacerbating existing patterns of "fewer births, an aging population, and increased mortality."
  • More immigrants left than moved into California — one of the hardest hit states by this measure — creating a net international migration loss of 41.4%.

One of the most urgent reasons for the net migration loss has been the lack of affordable housing. The exodus of California natives and immigrants can be attributed to rising housing costs in both major cities, according to Manuel Pastor, a USC Professor of Sociology.

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“What we're losing both in the domestic population and in the immigrant population is people who have less education, are more working middle class but have aspirations to be able to not see all of their paychecks go into housing costs,” Pastor recently told our newsroom's public affairs program, AirTalk.

Income Hasn't Kept Pace With Housing Costs

In 2020, the median home price for Los Angeles County was $660,000, according to data from the California Association of Realtors. Compare that with the median income for Los Angeles County, which the Census Bureau puts at $71,358 in 2020 dollars.

“We're going to have to make sure that the wages at the bottom of our labor market continue to be pushed upward by things like raising the minimum wage, unionization, etc," Pastor said, "but also that we're delivering on the promise of affordable housing."

Pastor noted that some affordable housing measures are already under way, citing state Senate Bill 9, which was signed into law in September 2021 and will allow up to four properties to be built on a single-family lot.

Where They Are Going

A map of U.S. counties shows patterns of population loss and gains. One the West Coast L.A. County and the San Francisco Bay are are deep purple, indicating a loss of 1.6% or more of the population.
Population losses and gains in U.S. counties from 2020 to 2021.
(Courtesy US Census)

Some of the people migrating out of L.A. and San Francisco are moving out of state entirely, including to the Sunbelt states of Texas and Arizona. But others are staying in California, just moving away from the large urban centers to places like Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

“Families that can no longer afford to live in the Bay Area or in the coastal regions like Los Angeles and Orange County [are] resettling into the Inland Empire and central California, and that's where our youth population is for the future, and that's where the affordable housing is,” Pastor said.

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Riverside County saw the third-highest population gain in the country, with 36,000 new residents. The median home price in the Inland Empire that year: $450,000.

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