California cities face new challenges as their populations age

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California, and much of the rest of America, will not be prepared for the onrushing age shock, which will create new pressures on our transportation, healthcare and social-service systems, as well as our mostly suburban development patterns. The state’s regulatory environment and high prices make it less likely that developers can quickly adapt the housing stock to these changes.

Back in 1990 I wrote several editorials in the Orange County Register criticizing Sen. Bob Dole’s Americans With Disabilities Act. I still think it was a bad idea that violated property rights and federalism. But now, dealing with arthritic knees at age 68, I’m using the amenities the ADA mandates installed, such as wider doors and sidewalk ramps when I walk my Pomeranian.

With almost all the giant Baby Boom cohort now over 60, once again we’re impacting American life in a big way. Instead of Hula Hoops and Beatles records – Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! – it’s new, costly burdens on cities. This especially is hitting California’s burgs, as youngsters flee to other states to avoid the high cost of existing.

Headlined the San Jose Mercury News, “Every Bay Area county is aging faster than the U.S.” According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2022 the median age in Marin County was 48.2 years, up 2.9 since 2012. It’s 40.5 years, up 1.9, in San Francisco County, whose most famous residents are Sen. Dianne Feinstein, age 90 and barely able to function, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, age 83. In Los Angeles County, it’s 38.2 years, largely due to the large influx of immigrants with relatively high birth rates, but still up 2.9 years. Orange County, where I live, is 39.4 years, up 2.6.

“When counties have a significantly older population, it can strain local resources,” the Mercury News noted. “Seniors are less likely to work fulltime and therefore contribute less to income tax revenue, experts say. But at the same time, they rely heavily on public services, such as access to good health care.”

The situation involves two categories. First, as with so many things, in California it comes down largely to housing. Second, everything else.

In August Bloomberg reported, “Only 16% of Californians can afford to buy a home as mortgage rates rise. Buyers of a single-family house with the median California price needed at least $208,000 in annual income to qualify.” Despite the Legislature passing several good bills in recent years, with more to come this year, the housing squeeze just keeps getting tighter.

“Basically, no starter homes have been built for the past 30 or 40 years,” Nolan Gray told me; he’s the research director for Sacramento-based California YIMBY, which stands for Yes In My Back Yard. “The seniors essentially have their existing housing stock, and that is not turning over. Aging homeowners are essentially just remaining in place. Then the existing housing stock family sizes are decreasing as kids move away. The root cause here is housing. If you’re not building housing for young families, they have to leave.”

California has the new phenomenon in America of children still living with their parents well into their twenties and even thirties, he added. Another problem is the high cost of living makes child care more expensive than in other states. “We’ve created a perfect storm where the most rational thing to do is leave. The only people who are staying in California are people who are the beneficiaries of intergenerational wealth.”

Which brings up a painful subject: Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that limited taxes on property to 1% of assessed value, with 2% increases maximum per year. Although I’m from Michigan, in that year I was in the U.S. Army learning Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. My friends from the city were worried they would lose their homes because taxes were rising so high due to the 1970s inflation. No wonder it passed, 63% to 37%. It’s not going anywhere, despite the consternation of progressives.

And there’s Proposition 58 from 1986, which allowed Prop. 13’s limits to be passed on to spouses and children. And Proposition 193 from 1996 extended that to grandchildren. All three propositions discourage homeowners from selling, for example to “downsize” once the kids are gone.

A 2005 study for the National Bureau of Economic research by Nada Wasi and Michelle J. White found, from 1970 to 2000, in coastal cities homeowners’ “average tenure length increased by 2 to 3 years.” It would have been better if they had use 1978 as the starting year, as the inflation of 1970-78 caused its own massive dislocations. But that shows the initiatives discourage the circulation of property.

What can be done? Basically, nothing. Those initiatives aren’t going to be repealed. Ideally, Prop. 13’s 2% tax-increase limit would be passed on to all new owners, loosening the market. But that won’t happen either. Many people, including myself, have proposed reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and Project Labor Agreements. The latter mandates high union wages for non-union construction, including for low-income housing. But it looks like that won’t happen, either, even though a new initiative campaign takes on CEQA and developer fees.

The second situation is everything non-housing. Such aging “presents healthcare challenges we are unprepared to meet,” said Janeen Hill, dean of the Crean College of Health Sciences at Chapman University, speaking specifically of Orange County. “Although some people age healthily, most develop at least one significant disease as aging moves beyond 65. Additionally, with aging comes an increased incidence of dementia, stroke, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. These are conditions with high demand for healthcare professionals specializing in geriatric care. Thus as a county, we must grapple with comprehensive planning to address the emerging needs of an aging population.”

A 2020 report by the University of California looked at how “a deluge of older adults in urban areas might reshape transportation, home design and human connection.” Said Caroline Cicero, associate professor of gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School and director of the USC Age-Friendly University Initiative, “There is an assumption that older people are going to move out and move into retirement communities. But most people want to stay in their own houses.” That will mean adapting more homes to such things as wheelchairs, such as by widening doorways and installing ramps, which also means they’ll stay put longer.

As to renters such as yours truly, basically we are, to use a technical sociological term, screwed. According to USC report, “The number of low-income senior rental buildings is declining in Southern California, and the Los Angeles Aging Advocacy Coalition estimated that 200,000 older adults were at risk of falling into homelessness – even before the pandemic.”

A summary of the 2015 “Aging in Cities” report on 29 countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development provided one good idea. The Lauttasaari Customer-Oriented Service Network project in Helsinki, Finland “is the site of a pilot project for a customer-oriented, home-based care service network for older people. It provides flexible home-based care services through personal budgeting that gives them individual discretion.”

Unfortunately, the main recommendations revolve around “sustainability,” walkable cities and always more “planning.” In California’s context, all those things only would make housing even more expensive.

In sum, California, and much of the rest of America, will not be prepared for the onrushing age shock, which will create new pressures on our transportation, healthcare and social-service systems, as well as our mostly suburban development patterns. The state’s regulatory environment and high prices make it less likely that developers can quickly adapt the housing stock to these changes.

Combine these problems with the financial crunches advancing for Social Security and Medicare, and for most, especially the post-Boomers, the Golden Years in Golden State cities are going to be made of pyrite.

John Seiler is on the Editorial Board of the Southern California News Group. Write to him at [email protected]

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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