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Income Drop in '90s Cut a Broad Swath, Data Show

August 27, 2002|SCOTT MARTELLE and ERIN CHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A broad decline in household income during the 1990s struck hard at middle-class and upper-middle-class neighborhoods across Southern California, part of a complex erosion triggered in part by the collapse of the aerospace industry, according to census statistics being released today.

Although the effects were most pronounced in such places as Porter Ranch, Hancock Park and Mission Viejo, there was no geographic pattern to the declines. Household income dropped or stagnated in thousands of neighborhoods from Upland to West Covina and Cerritos to Anaheim.

By contrast, neighborhoods where incomes rose the most during the '90s tended to be beach and upscale mountain enclaves, including Manhattan Beach, Newport Beach and Temescal Canyon.

The new data offer a more focused view of trends first depicted in census numbers released in May. That data marked a general trend of declining Southland household income amid the economic boom of the '90s, part of a national widening gap between the wealthy and the poor.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the median income dropped from $45,600 in 1990 to $42,200 in 2000 when adjusted for inflation--a stunning change from the previous two decades, when median income in the county rose 3.5% in the '70s and 21.5% in the '80s. Median household income fell across the Southland in every county except for Ventura County, where it rose by a few hundred dollars.

The data being released today by the Census Bureau will allow demographers to track changes at the census-tract level--areas that average 1,600 households. For example, the census data released in May showed that 18% of Los Angeles County's residents live below the federal poverty line. UCLA researchers said the new numbers more clearly define that poverty: About 28% of Los Angeles County's census tracts are "poor," meaning at least 25% of the tract population lives below the poverty line. That was several times greater than the 5% level in the Bay Area. The number of poor tracts grew in Los Angeles, but remained the same for the Bay Area, the demographers said.

The cause of economic decline portrayed in the new numbers is manifold and reflects such broad social changes as the retirement of the World War II generation and an influx of immigrants taking low-wage jobs, said Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demography at USC's School of Policy, Planning and Development.

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No 'Fresh Replacements'

"Over the decade, California did not get fresh replacements of upper-middle-class new residents, and the state lost a lot of those," Myers said. "Those that stayed in place got poorer, and immigrants came in at the bottom of the ladder. So everything worked to drop average income."

Myers also said some of the income shifts at the high end could be skewed because of the way the census categorizes income, allowing the wealthiest to list income ranges instead of actual income to preserve privacy in lightly populated census tracts.

In ranking census tracts, The Times compared only the 45% that did not change boundaries from 1990 to 2000. The data are gleaned from census "long forms," which were filled out by about 1 in 6 people counted in Census 2000.

The largest income gains went to households in Corona del Mar, a bluff-top community at Newport Beach's southern edge, where median household incomes rose $30,207, to $98,718.

The other top-gaining census tracts were in Marina del Ray, Manhattan Beach, Temescal Canyon and Coto de Caza, a gated neighborhood in southern Orange County.

The disparate reasons for the region's overall decline in median income intersected in Porter Ranch, where contiguous census tracts north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway near Reseda Boulevard were ranked 2nd, 6th and 14th on the list of median-income losers. Another tract just to the east, in Granada Hills, was ranked 10th.

A prime factor: high-paying jobs that evaporated with the closing of Lockheed Martin, General Motors and Hughes Aircraft Co. facilities in the early 1990s, said Keith Myers, a Porter Ranch real estate agent for 20 years.

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Real Estate Factors

Also, real estate development during the decade was heavy on homes in the $200,000-to-$300,000 range, while new developments now feature $750,000 homes in gated communities, residents say.

Lee Hunt, who has lived on Porter Ranch's Singing Hills Drive since 1977, traces some of the decline to the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

"It was just an ugly place to be," Hunt said. As fear of more quakes led some people to move out, real estate values tumbled, opening the door for families who couldn't otherwise afford to live there.

"That Spanish colonial," Hunt said, pointing down the street, "was sold to a real estate agent for $146,000.... It's probably in the $400,000s by now."

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