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Inland Empire Is True to Its Name

Times Staff Writers

Underscoring the surging population of the Inland Empire, Riverside County has replaced Los Angeles County as the state’s top destination for new residents, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday.

Riverside County added 89,128 people -- twice the population of Palm Springs -- while Los Angeles County added 77,357 in the year ending July 1, 2004. San Bernardino County showed the third-largest population increase in the state, adding 58,936 people.

The numbers represent a milestone in a decade of explosive growth in the Inland Empire, and highlight the challenges the region faces now -- and in years to come. Many roads and schools are packed beyond capacity, the air is smoggy, and even the region’s prime selling point -- its relative affordability -- is being undermined.

“Paradise is going to be pretty crowded,” said Redlands-based economist John Husing, noting that Orange County faced similar growing pains two decades ago.

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The census report, which looked at county population estimates nationwide, also showed a trend reversal in the San Francisco Bay Area, which had lost population in the wake of the dot-com bust.

In the early 1990s, as housing prices skyrocketed in Los Angeles and Orange counties, people in search of affordable housing arrived in droves in cities such as Moreno Valley, Corona, Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana.

But as demand for homes surged to new highs, so too did the prices of Inland Empire homes. The median home price in San Bernardino and Riverside counties hit a record high in March, according to DataQuick Information Systems, which tracks property values. The median home price in San Bernardino County jumped 35% from a year ago, to $298,000. In Riverside County, the median price rose 26%, to $379,000.

“Everywhere you look, all you see are tract housing developments. And country clubs and golf courses have proliferated beyond belief in places you never thought anyone would want to live,” said Lucie Gonzales, 41, who left her hometown of Indio 20 years ago and recently moved back into her mother’s home, unsure if she can afford one of her own.

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“In some ways, the area is becoming what people have moved out here to get away from,” she said. “There’s a lot more traffic. The cost of living has gone up sharply. The shopping centers down here look just like the shopping centers anywhere.”

Despite rising housing prices, the Inland Empire remains more affordable than the Southland as a whole, where the median home price is $439,000.

So people continue to arrive.

Sue Cobb and her husband, Allan, were living in a 2,800-square-foot home in Yorba Linda when they decided to move to Mockingbird Canyon near Riverside. Their new house has a whopping 4,000 square feet and sits on 1.5 acres. The couple, who own a medical supply business, paid $450,000.

“We couldn’t even re-buy our house for that in Yorba Linda,” said Sue Cobb, 56, as she shopped at a Home Depot.

Last year, Riverside was the county with the second-largest growth in the nation, trailing only Maricopa County in Arizona. Riverside County’s growth rate of 5% ranked first in California, and its population now stands at just under 1.9 million. San Bernardino County grew by 3.2% to more than 1.9 million, the fourth-highest growth rate in the state.

While Los Angeles remained the state’s -- and the nation’s -- most populous county with nearly 10 million people, experts said they expect the Inland Empire to continue to grow for two more decades as families trade extra commuting time for the promise of a home with a big backyard.

“It’s a combination of enormous opportunities -- and the infrastructure and congestion risks that go along with a very rapidly growing population,” Husing said.

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Topping the list of concerns is traffic. The Riverside Freeway, which carries commuters from Riverside County to jobs in Orange County and Los Angeles, is one of the most congested in the state.

Much of the new housing may be inland, but most of the jobs are still in the coastal counties, said Jeff Lustgarten, a spokesman for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. “The region needs a collective approach to land use,” he said. “We need a better balance of jobs and housing in each community.”

Traffic is also on the minds of people in the San Francisco Bay Area. Hammered by job losses from the dot-com collapse, the region lost population from 2001 to 2002 -- the only area in California to experience such an exodus in three decades. The numbers released Thursday show that has now turned around.

While San Francisco County posted the largest population decline statewide -- nearly 8,000 residents -- Santa Clara County gained more than 9,000 people.

Hans Johnson, a demographer with the San Francisco-based Public Policy Institute of California, said that, as in the Southland, growth in the Bay Area has been strongest inland as people move to eastern Contra Costa County and the northern San Joaquin Valley in search of more affordable housing.

“We are in fact developing our own Inland Empire, no matter what we call it, with pollution problems, long commutes and relatively affordable housing,” Johnson said.

The figures released Thursday were based on the 2000 census and estimates of net migration, births and deaths since then. The state added 430,000 people from 2003 to 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and its population stands at 36 million.

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Times staff writers Lee Romney and Rachana Rathi contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Growing counties

Between July 2003 and July 2004, Riverside County added more new residents than any other county in California.

Five counties with largest increases:

*--* Riverside 89,128 Los Angeles 77,357 San Bernardino 58,936 Orange 27,442 Sacramento 21,715 *--*

*Population estimates are based on 2000 census figures and estimates of net migration, birth rates and death rates.

Source: Census Bureau. Graphics reporting by Daniel Yi.


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