When it comes to smart economic development, Ventura Mayor Bill Fulton’s focus on attracting knowledge workers and creating quality housing for them is on the right track. But even the best efforts of Fulton and the rest of the Ventura City Council are unlikely to bend the demographic destiny of the California coast.
In a recent blog post, Fulton pointed out a troubling trend: Family-friendly Ventura has fewer and fewer families every year. Both the population of school-age children and their parents declined by more than 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the over-50 bracket rose 30 percent.
But Fulton finds hope in that the number of people between 20 and 29 in Ventura climbed 16 percent. His guess — and he is candid that his theory is only a guess — is that young people are staying to attend CSU Channel Islands and to work in the growing number of creative and high-tech jobs in the city. He calls it a “wonderful twist on the longstanding trend of kids from Ventura going away to college and never coming back.”
To retain these young folks and reverse the coming gray wave, Fulton reasons, Ventura must promote private-sector growth in clean and well-paying industries and focus aggressively on entry-level housing. He’s even realistic enough to concede this housing will mean high-end condos and townhomes for young families rather than single-family homes.
Fulton says Ventura “seems affordable” because prices have come down to a median of $327,000. But he frets that they are still higher than the $252,000 range seen in Bakersfield and Las Vegas.
But Fulton is missing the heart of the problem. It’s not that a house in Ventura costs 30 percent more than house in Bakersfield — in fact, that figure seems like a fair “beach premium” given Ventura’s better weather and ocean views. The problem is that a house in Bakersfield is more expensive than in Austin, Texas, a university-creative-class kind of place where median home prices are $194,000.
In short, the least desirable locales in California cost a full third more than the nicest ones in Texas. To rub salt into the cost-differential wound, Texas has no personal income taxes — a pertinent distinction to the would-be tech entrepreneur who structures her business as a pass-through LLC to avoid double taxation of business profits.
Fulton may be right that 20-somethings are coming to Ventura for tech jobs, but making them permanent residents, the kind who will actually stick around through their 30s and 40s, will be far more difficult.
Joel Kotkin, a professor of urban development at Chapman University in Orange County, has pointed to a growing body of evidence that 20-somethings are waiting until their 30s to start families. When the 20-somethings who took up cramped apartments in urban cores to launch their careers get married and have children, they tend to migrate to places where homes are larger and much more affordable.
With its mountains and beaches and sunshine and mild weather, California’s coast is the most beautiful place to live in the United States. It will always be more expensive than other parts of the country, and rightfully so.
But there is a limit to how much California can leverage its geography and climate. Plan B for Ventura might involve an aggressive home building strategy that could suppress housing prices for a while. But lower home prices could also attract retirees and defeat the purpose of family-friendly policies.
The fact that even a forward-thinking city’s economic development plan may be no match for the state’s structural problems highlights the need for change.