Census data shed light on California’s housing boom -- and bust

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We all know that California’s housing boom caused relatively levelheaded people to build, build and build again as easy financing artificially inflated the number of people who could buy homes. Now, we know just how much they built. The Census Bureau has released data for California that shed light on how many units are in the state now, where the boom was concentrated, and how it has played out in cities across the state that now host empty units and out-of-work Californians.

The number of housing units in California jumped 12% from 2000 to 2010, the Census Bureau said Tuesday, while the population grew just 10%. Places such as Lancaster, Palmdale and Irvine saw housing units jump by more than 24% over just 10 years, as the number of vacant units in each town also increased.

To be sure, the numbers cover a 10-year period that starts before the housing boom that saw prices skyrocket. But they still help show just how much housing the state has added. In just a decade, the state had added 1.5 million housing units, while it added 3.4 million people in the same time period -- many of them babies who probably weren’t buying housing units.

Much of the boom in housing came in relatively rural areas of the state that provided a cheap alternative to people willing to commute. Though the number of housing units in Los Angeles grew just 5%, they grew 37% in Riverside County and 16.3% in San Bernardino County. Tiny Imperial County, where the unemployment rate has hovered around 30% for months, saw its number of housing units grow 27.7%.


Other counties that saw a big increase in housing units over the decade include Calaveras (21.7%), El Dorado (23.7%), Kern (22.8%), Madera (21.7%), Merced (22.4%), Placer (42.3%) and Yolo (21.9%).

Cities that saw more than a 50% jump in the number of housing units include West Sacramento (54%), Yuba City (67%), Patterson (94%), Rio Vista (97%), San Marcos (52%), Victorville (63%), Murrieta (137%) and Dublin (60%). The city with the highest percentage of housing growth: Beaumont, in Riverside County, which saw the number of units jump 203%, to 12,444.

Of course, as we all know now, building all those housing units was not very good for the state’s economy, because people couldn’t afford them and had to move out. With no one to move in, many of those units are vacant or occupied by people who paid much less than the units were worth during the boom. The number of vacant units in the state jumped to 1.1 million in 2010 from about 700,000 in 2000 -- a 55% gain.

Vacant units aren’t necessarily linked to overbuilding, though. Santa Clara County more than doubled the number of vacant units it had between 2000 and 2010, although it increased the total number of units by only 9%. In fact, many counties saw the numbers of vacancies double between 2000 and 2010, including Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, San Mateo and Stanislaus.

Lesson to be learned? You can point a finger at lots of places for overbuilding, but in California, the housing market is troubled just about everywhere.

-- Alana Semuels