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Why L.A. is becoming the new Iowa

Why L.A. is becoming the new Iowa
A no vacancy sign in Tujunga. (Los Angeles Times)

Last weekend, Los Angeles Mayor and presidential hopeful Eric Garcetti stood in a Des Moines bar and told the small group of gathered Democrats, "I think that Iowa and Los Angeles have a ton in common."

As an Iowa-born Angeleno, I had to laugh. That's the sort of thing that can only be said with a straight face by a person who's lived in only one of those two places.

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A few days after Garcetti's attempt to bond with Iowa Democrats, UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs released a survey showing that Los Angeles residents — especially those younger than 30 — are increasingly dissatisfied with their quality of life. The culprit? The cost of living here, particularly skyrocketing rents and home prices.

This won't come as news if you've spoken to anyone under 30 recently. They are hustling to get their careers off the ground and, in the meantime, making ends meet with a patchwork of underpaid gigs. Succeeding in the big city has always been tough, but it's only gotten tougher now that so many entry-level jobs are low-wage, low-skill and temporary — with no discernible path to stability.

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"L.A. has always been a place of optimism — that's what makes this place a magnet," UCLA lecturer and former L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who led the survey, told The Times. Yet his survey and anecdotal evidence show L.A.'s magnetism is waning. From 2010 to 2015, the Los Angeles suburbs saw their millennial population grow by 8.1%, whereas the city has drawn only a 1.8% increase. Other extremely expensive cities like New York and London are in similar positions: They still attract college graduates, but thanks to astronomical housing costs and stagnant wages, they're having trouble getting them to stick around.

How long until major cities realize they need to work harder to convince young people — and immigrants — not just to move there, but to stay?


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This is the inverse of a problem that has long plagued the small towns of America's Rust Belt and rural Midwest. My home state of Iowa has had a "brain-drain" for decades, losing college graduates to larger cities and the coasts. The state is able to coax some former residents back when they're ready to raise a family, or decades later when they've retired. In the meantime, immigrants have become increasingly important as the state struggles to maintain its population. Immigration has accounted for 40% of the state's growth since 2010.

How long until major cities realize they need to work harder to convince young people — and immigrants — not just to move there, but to stay? Dowell Myers, a professor of demography and urban planning at the University of Southern California, published a paper declaring that American cities reached "peak millennial" in 2015. Although Los Angeles County is still home to the nation's largest foreign-born population, most of these immigrants are long-settled — not new arrivals. Without an actionable plan to curb the cost of living, America's pricey cities — not just Los Angeles and New York, but also San Francisco; Washington, D.C; Boston; Seattle; Miami — are quickly going to lose the very populations that make urban life appealingly vibrant.

California now tends to draw people who've already built their careers elsewhere. According to a 2016 report by the organization Next 10, "Individuals coming to California are primarily concentrated in high-wage occupations." The effect is palpable in many L.A. neighborhoods, where longtime residents are in a pitched battle with newcomers over gentrification. Artistic communities that historically thrived in cities are starting to dissipate, too. Los Angeles artists are fanning out as far as the Antelope Valley. New York City now has a "mayor of nightlife" tasked with preserving independent clubs and music venues. The web-driven real estate agency Redfin reported that the three cities with the biggest "outflow" in 2017 — those searching for homes outside their own metro area — were New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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Brain-drain states have long recognized that a failure to attract young people has economic consequences. But perhaps cities won't know what they're losing until it's gone. In the same UCLA survey that revealed how dissatisfied young Angelenos are with Los Angeles, the factor they were most satisfied with was "relations between people of different races, ethnicities and religions." Diversity is now one of cities' strongest remaining selling points. If high housing costs diminish that attribute, it's hard to imagine how big urban areas will continue to draw young people and immigrants.

Last summer, Time magazine compiled the top cities attracting millennials. Those seeing the biggest relative growth were Virginia Beach and Richmond, Va.; San Bernardino; Memphis; and New Orleans. Los Angeles wasn't on the list, and neither was Des Moines. Perhaps they do have a ton in common after all.

Ann Friedman is a contributing writer to Opinion.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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