The Great California Exodus

Why Californians are Moving

Manhattan Institute For Policy Research Study names density from “smart growth” as a leading cause of net population loss in Los Angeles.

The Density Factor

As California saw its economy struggle, it was also becoming a more crowded state. At some point late in the last century, people moving to California could no longer assume that they would have more living space and less congestion. Despite stereotypes about suburban sprawl, California’s development since at least the 1980s has followed the “smart growth” model of closely packed residential clusters separated by open space. As a result, California had the densest urbanized areas in the nation by 2010. According to the Census, the Los Angeles and Orange County region had a population density of 6,999.3 per square mile—well ahead of famously dense metro areas such as New York and Chicago. In fact, the Los Angeles and Orange County area was first in density among the 200 largest urban areas in the United States.

This crowding takes its toll. California’s great coastal cities may still be exciting places to live, but they are no longer convenient—at least not by the standards of the 1960s and 1970s, when the freeways were new and not yet clogged. The crowding of coastal California was well under way by 1990, reflected not just in housing costs but also by a major migration within the state to roomier (if hotter) inland counties.

Among the state’s larger counties, those with the highest out-migration rates (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Monterey, and Orange) are all on or near the coast. Large inland counties such as Kern, Riverside, and Placer had double-digit rates of net in-migration. The same factors that drive this eastward movement, such as the desire for more space and affordable homes, might also be driving much of the migration from California to more spacious neighboring states.