October 10, 2011 - From the October, 2011 issue

Larry Kaplan: Redistricting Reflects The State’s Demographic and Economic New Realities

The redistricting debate that has occupied congress, states, and local government this year says less about politicians and more about the shifting socio/demographic complextion of the United States, according to management consultant Larry Kaplan. Gentrification and dedensification in cities will shift political power to the outer suburbs where growth has been most drastic in recent decades. These changes eventually are reflected in who sits in our halls of power. 


"...Legislators in slow growth areas find their districts looking quite different, or even pull out from under them, while there are new opportunities for new legislative candidates in quickly growing areas." -Larry Kaplan

Now that redistricting season is over, the focus is on the possible results—usually in the context of the partisan horse race:  how many seats will the Democrats and Republicans end up with in both houses of the Legislature and in California’s Congressional delegation in Washington?  Who loses their seats in the high stakes game of musical chairs?  Berman or Sherman? Osborne or Butler? It’s all part of the decennial ritual for political junkies across America and here in Southern California.

Locally, the County of Los Angeles just went through a contentious redistricting process that is likely not over, with a lawsuit in the wings.  And the City of Los Angeles, along with other local cities that have councilmembers elected by district, is gearing up its own effort for the 2013 election cycle.

But there is a story behind the numbers that is much more profound than the tally of political winners and losers.  It goes to the heart of the U.S. Census and how it reflects the dramatically changing socio-economic demographics of American society, especially in rapidly changing California.  And in a case of being victimized by your own success, it’s a story about how the revitalization and gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods, which involves de-densification, and the dramatic growth in the outlying exurbs, may ironically diminish the political clout of voters and political leaders in such traditionally powerful places as Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco.

It’s the basic job of the Census to conduct an “enumeration” every ten years, as spelled out in the Constitution.  From that count, Congress, the 50 state legislatures and thousands of local jurisdictions determine the populations and configurations of districts.  The process of redrawing district lines every ten years has evolved into a highly political process—everyone has heard of gerrymandering, although the voters in California elected to place the responsibility for redrawing those new lines in the hands of a bi-partisan commission, rather than the State Legislature, in order to avoid that.  That commission presented its maps this past summer, with lines dramatically different from the status quo.  Most impartial observers say they did a pretty fair job of it.

But, the Census has become much more complicated and comprehensive in the 220 years since the first one was completed.  The U.S. Bureau of the Census counts all sorts of things nowadays, including race and ethnicity, household incomes, housing stock and educational levels.  Race and ethnicity in particular play a direct role in the drawing of district lines by law—district configurations must ensure that representatives reflect and include America’s diversity, and adhere to the Voting Rights Act.

All of the factors measured by the Census illustrate the continuous evolution of American (especially California) society, and this change is ultimately reflected in the new political boundaries that are drawn up and the types of people who will be elected in these new districts.  To students of sociology and urban planning, that’s the part that’s much more interesting than whether or not the new lines change the balance of power in Sacramento or Washington.

In short, the changes in American society that the Census numbers show will eventually be reflected in the halls of Congress, on the floor of the State Legislature and at City Hall.  Sometimes this change leads to dramatic reconfiguration of districts and unfamiliar new faces elected to public office.

Followers of the redistricting process know quite well that the dramatic growth in the inland portions of California significantly outpaced the slow growth in the coastal regions over the past two decades.  Because of that, legislative districts in places like Los Angeles County and the San Francisco Bay Area have fewer residents than they should have, while districts in places like the Inland Empire and Central Valley have more—the redistricting folks call that “undercount” and “over-count” respectively.  

In California, each Congressional district is supposed to have 700,000 people (the State’s population of 37.8 million divided by its delegation of 54); if a district doesn’t, it has to be reconfigured, either expanding or contracting geographically to gain or lose population.  That results in fewer districts in slow, or negative, growth areas of the State and more districts in rapidly growing areas.  That means legislators in slow growth areas find their districts looking quite different, or even pulled out from under them, while there are new opportunities for new legislative candidates in quickly growing areas.

One of the most interesting examples, particularly for Southern Californians:  the Census Bureau reported that in Los Angeles County, the Congressional district with the biggest undercount was the old 31st, represented by Xavier Becerra.  According to the current census, it had 611,000 residents, or 89,000 under what it should have had (it had 640,000 in the 2000 Census).  The State Senate district with the biggest undercount was the old 22nd, represented by Kevin de Leon; it had less than 845,000 residents instead of the 930,000 it should have had, about 85,000 under.  The Assembly district with the biggest undercount was the old 45th, represented by Gil Cedillo; it had 406,000 (down from 423,000) residents, or nearly 60,000 under its target size of 465,000.

A few weeks after these numbers were released in the spring, the City of Los Angeles released its population numbers for its upcoming redistricting process.  That report showed that the 13th Council District, represented by Council President Eric Garcetti, had 225,000 residents, or nearly 30,000 under its target of 253,000.  Now, all four of these districts had three things in common:  one, they were represented by Democrats, which is not really relevant; two, they were all between 8 and 13% under their targeted populations.

And three, they all shared these six neighborhoods, in whole or in part:  East Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Atwater, Glassell Park and Mount Washington.  Anyone who follows real estate trends, or is a student of L.A.’s development patterns, or who reads the Planning Report regularly, knows that these are some of the most dramatically—one could even say aggressively—gentrifying neighborhoods in all of Southern California.

So what happened between 1990, 2000 and 2010?  Large working-class, mostly Latino, families moved out and small upscale households moved in, as property values and housing costs skyrocketed with the real estate bubble.  Instead of multi-generational families with several children, you saw hipster and gay or lesbian couples, or empty nesters as mom and dad stayed while the kids set up their own family households in other parts of the region (many of those offspring went to the Inland Empire, which saw large increases in its overall population and in the number of Latinos).   As one observer wryly observed, “there are cars in all those garages again.”

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Echo Park saw the most dramatic gentrification and lost 10% of its population.  Many other demographic indicators in Echo Park changed, as well:  the median household income rose along with the number of college degrees, while households with children under 18 plummeted.  At the same time, housing densities did not increase, as they did in the Inland Empire, probably due to more restrictive community plans, particularly in residential hillside neighborhoods.

Needless to say, the newly numbered districts representing those communities look quite different today.  But, while the changes were most apparent in those neighborhoods north and west of Downtown L.A., gentrification had impacts on legislative seats all over L.A. County:

• Those districts representing the Mid-Cities area of Los Angeles clustered around the Santa Monica Freeway.  This is home to such dramatically gentrifying neighborhoods as historic West Adams and portions of the Miracle Mile south of Wilshire Blvd.

• The districts representing Pasadena and the western San Gabriel Valley.  Pasadena has been obviously gentrifying, while many towns in the west San Gabriel Valley, such as Alhambra and Monterey Park, have transitioned from being largely working-class Latino with large families to middle-class Asian with smaller families living in larger homes.

• Districts in southeast L.A. County, covering such communities as Whittier, Cerritos and parts of Long Beach, also saw undercounts, albeit not as dramatic as others.  These areas gentrified in the more generic sense (the dictionary definition of gentrification is the “socio-cultural displacement that results when wealthier people acquire property in low income and working class communities”); in southeast L.A. County, it was the case of more established, assimilated and smaller middle-class Latino and Asian families replacing first generation immigrants.

This pattern has been repeated all over California, from the San Francisco Peninsula, Oakland and the East Bay to San Diego and Orange County—as all these coastal communities have become more expensive and more exclusive, population growth slowed and stabilized, while people moved out to inland areas of the State.  In L.A. County alone, there was a shift of one Congressional, one State Senate and one and a half Assembly districts to inland areas.  Those districts ended up in Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.  In short, these coastal regions stand to lose political clout because they have fewer members representing them in both capitols.

What does this all mean for partisan politics and urban development policy?  It may not mean much—some are saying that most of the growth in the inland areas has been Latino, and that trends heavily Democratic.  However, it could mean a different type of Democrat.  While Democrats from highly urbanized coastal communities tended to be very progressive, pro-labor, liberal on social issues and strong environmentalists, Democrats from suburban inland communities are more middle-of-the road, more conservative on social issues and more focused on job creation and public education.

It’s possible to see shifting support on certain issues based on the diminished clout of inner-city representation and the growth of suburban and exurban legislators—a good example could be in the area of transportation, where mass transit, long the focus of urban politicians, continuously competes for funding against highways, which generally enjoy more support from the hinterlands.  The same might be true of housing and redevelopment programs, reflecting the very different economies and built environments of cities and suburbs and their respective constituencies.  

Or what about something like SB 375, which seeks to reduce vehicle miles traveled by encouraging the development of more compact communities.  While it has enjoyed broad support from urban politicians, it has met resistance from suburban, exurban and rural leaders.  Might a subtle shift in power from the coastal cities to the inland suburbs impact how well SB 375 is implemented and result in fewer state incentives for local smart growth policies?

Other policy shifts could occur, as the long simmering East-West divide in the state shifts power away from places like Los Angeles toward communities like the Coachella Valley.  Examples include CEQA policy and enforcement, state land-use planning and development programs and policies, air quality regulations, and water policy.  It may well influence the kinds of approaches taken to these issues, such as the balance between conservation and infrastructure, including the kinds of public works programs and projects that move forward.

Redistricting does its job if it genuinely reflects the socio-economic and demographic shifts reported in the Census.  The renaissance of America’s big cities, characterized by gentrification of once depressed neighborhoods and an infusion of new wealth, vitality and social capital by what urbanist Richard Florida calls the “creative class” is mostly a good thing.  But it also reflects a fundamental truth:  middle- and working-class families have had to move on to more affordable pastures in the suburbs and exurbs.  And with their kids, they’ll be taking their political clout with them.

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© 2020 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.