Monday, August 29, 2011

How to Make Sure We Keep Our Young Families in Ventura

A few weeks ago, I went out to Temple Beth Torah to observe a service honoring eight 16-year-olds who were finishing the Temple’s confirmation class. It was an emotional evening for me, because these kids are the last of the cohort I have known at the Temple for many years – the younger brothers and sisters of the kids who grew up with my college-age daughter.

It is also, sadly, the kind of event that doesn’t occur nearly as much as it used here in Ventura. The truth is that, as much as we love Ventura as a family, the number of children – and young people generally – is on the decline. And as a community we are getting older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2010:

-- The number of children age 0-9 in Ventura declined by 11%.

-- The number of people between 30 and 50 – typically the parents of school-age children – declined by 10%.

-- The number of people over the age of 50 increased by almost 30%

To a certain extent, these statistics reflect a national and statewide trend toward a “graying” population. It’s also reflective of coastal cities throughout California, where the number of families and children is in decline.

More than anything, however, it might simply suggest a lack of turnover in Ventura’s population. Our kids are growing up and moving away and the rest of us are just getting older and staying here. I’m a good example: In the 2000 Census, I was in the 30-50 age category with a child at home. Now I’m an over-50 empty nester. (At least I was until a few weeks ago, when my Boomerang Daughter returned home … but that’s another story.) We don’t move away when we retire, because we already live in a great place to retire; and since we control new development strictly there aren’t many opportunities for new families to move in.

There was one bright spot in the Census: The number of people age 20-29 in Ventura went up 16%, a much higher figure than we saw statewide. This is a wonderful twist on the longstanding trend of kids from Ventura going away to college and never coming back. I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess there are two reasons for this bright spot. The first is that kids who grew up in town are sticking around because they can now go to college locally, especially at Cal State Channel Islands. The second is that young people from elsewhere are drawn to Ventura by the lifestyle and the growing opportunity for interesting jobs in our emerging economic sectors such as high-tech.

Like Ventura, mature communities all over the country are struggling because they can’t keep the people they need to fill important jobs and to give the community a family-oriented vitality. But the rise of the twenty-somethings here in town gives us an opportunity to reverse the trend. If we can hang on to these folks over the next 10 years, then they’ll stay here a long time and raise their families here.

But that’s not just going to happen. In order to keep our young families, we need to nurture the things that young families need – schools, jobs, and housing. We’ve already got the schools. Ventura Unified is an excellent school district with many choices – magnet and charter schools. We also have very good Catholic and Christian schools as well.

As for jobs, we’re working hard on creating a whole new sector of jobs in the “new economy” – high-tech, web development, and related companies that can provide stable, long-term employment. That’s why I’m so encouraged about the fact that our twenty-something population is on the rise. I think they’re coming to town – or staying in town after college – to work in these emerging businesses. We must continue our efforts to grow these private-sector businesses so that young families will have stable jobs.

That leaves housing. It’s true that, for the moment, housing in Ventura seems affordable. But it’s still expensive, especially compared with other places where young families might live. The median home price in Ventura in July was $327,000. That’s down 16% from last year, but it’s still way higher than the state average of $252,000 and more than double the cost of housing in the inland locations where young families typically move these days, like Bakersfield, the Inland Empire, and Las Vegas.

In the long run, we will have to be aggressive in making sure that there is enough housing – and the right kind of housing – for our young families to buy. That probably means building more townhomes and large, high-quality condominiums, because the families won’t be able to afford single-family homes as we did. It also means building more move-down housing for seniors – not just assisted living, but smaller units for older folks in places like downtown, where you don’t have to drive much. Because part of the problem, of course, is that we older folks are sitting on our larger houses even though we don’t have families. More move-down housing will encourage longtime Venturans to move out of their houses and stay in town – and also free up single-family housing for young families to buy so that we don’t have to build more sprawl to keep them in town.

In part, we can’t avoid the fact that we are an aging country, an aging state, and an aging city. We’re lucky that our health is better than our parents and we will be able to enjoy life – and also contribute to our community – far longer than they did. But Ventura remains – as it always has been – a great family town. We all need to work together to make sure that lots of people of all ages enjoy living here.