Middle-Class Flight From San Fernando Valley

Beth Barrett, LA Weely, January 28, 2009

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.

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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.

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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].”

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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.

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