Dazzled by Harvard, LA Media Churn a Pointless Housing Stat

MAILANDER’S LA-KPCC was first to buy in. "'LA actually does stand out as having the highest share of people renting which in part is a reflection of the high housing costs in the area and a younger population as well,' said Chris Herbert, Research Director at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard," is what KPCC reported at its website December 10.


Of course the City--and this is the key word, "City"--of Los Angeles doesn't have "the highest share of people renting," by neither City nor County measures.  In fact, San Francisco, for instance, which is both a City and a County, had a whopping 64.2% renter-occupied units, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, which is not an estimate but rather an actual count, and the single most valuable statistical tool we have in identifying demographic trends.  This is higher than the City of LA's 62 percent.

But the Harvard study reported the LA metro region to have "the highest share of people renting"--at 52 percent.

So the truth for the City is far worse than the Harvard study, and yet still not as bad as it is in some other places we are better advised comparing ourselves to than these overly-general "Metro Areas" called out in the Harvard study.

I suppose sorting out the not-so-subtle difference between Los Angeles the Metropolitan Area--which was being cited in this report--and Los Angeles the City and Los Angeles the County didn't matter much either to the folks at Harvard or to the folks at KPCC.  After all, the "Metro Areas" more perfectly fit broadcast media signals and print distribution networks than they do real political and demographic entities.  So KPCC and other local media went ahead and did what they do best: failed to tell the whole story while forfeiting all the expertise to the so-called experts, who themselves don't seem so interested to distinguish souls from our own local pueblo from souls in Anaheim or in Palmdale or in Bell.

I don't know how aware Harvard Research Director Chris Herbert is of the immense extent to which the City of Los Angeles is different from the County of Los Angeles, and the degree to which both are supremely different in every way from Orange County.  But he certainly knows that his report cited Metropolitan figures--which are not especially readily comparable--and not City or County figures--and went ahead with promoting his gentle jeremiad to our unsuspecting media anyway. 

Perhaps local news agencies have been too much dazzled by the Harvard name to bother to give an accurate accounting of what is happening right here in our own City of Angels regarding rentals and owner-occupied units--something I've been reporting with increasing concern, and hopefully more relevance via truer statistics, for nearly a decade.

Nationally, the City of Los Angeles is not near the top slot in its ratio of rentals to owner-occupied units.  This is easily documented again by checking honest-to-God U.S. Census figures as reported by City and by County.  And we should check Census figures by City and by County, because both entities have governments of their own, which is the most critical fact regarding the setting of policy.

Not only is the demand for a Census written right into our Constitution, but the Feds now spend a fortune to produce this mammoth accounting of us all.  We lose when we scramble the data into shocking news for the sake of some cheaply won headlines.

All the confusion derives from the three different ways to count souls and their households in urban areas: by County, by City, or by Metro Area.  Of the three measures, the "Metro Area" is the one that is most useless to policy makers, because while there are politicians and governments specific to both City and County, there are not politicians or governments specific exclusively to the fluid confines of a Metro Area.

Nonetheless, the folks at Curbed LA were only too anxious to chime in on December 10.  "Los Angeles has the highest percentage of renters in the US," the Curbed LA headline blared, not telling you that this "Los Angeles" included Palmdale, Lancaster, and Orange County.

The LA Times' Christopher Hawthorne was also eager to cite the figure.  "A recent Harvard study found that Los Angeles has a higher proportion of renters — 52% — than any other metropolitan area in the country," Hawthorne wrote on December 20.

While the Harvard Report claimed that "Los Angeles" [the "Los Angeles" that stretches from Palmdale to Laguna] was 52% renter-occupied units, and local media affirmed that this figure is "highest in the nation," the U.S. Census Bureau itself in 2011 proclaimed the figure specific to the City of Los Angeles--key word here, "City"--to be 61.8 percent.  That's very high, but it distantly followings New York's 69.0 percent and follows San Francisco's rental ratio too.

Counting by Metro Area, in short, can make for the most shocking headlines, because what constitutes a Metro Area varies so wildly across the country.

Delineated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, a "Metro Area" is a Statistical Area, including includes at least one "urban core area" but can even spill into multiple counties. You can make a mess of just about any statistical measure at all when you start talking Metro Areas rather than Cities or Counties, and Harvard famously likes to make messes.

Curbed LA was just as eager as the Times and KPCC to nip at the Harvard Metro bait.

"Now a new report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University reveals that Los Angeles [again, which Los Angeles is the important question] actually has the highest percentage of renters in any major US metro area: 52 percent of Angelenos were renters in 2012, compared to 35 percent nationwide (and 30 percent in St. Louis, which has the lowest percentage)."

If you didn't catch that key word "Metro" you might have thought our own City of LA was on the cusp of renter-geddon. But the only mention of "Los Angeles" in the new report was one in which the LA Metro Area (which actually includes all of Orange County and cities in Los Angeles County including Lancaster, Palmdale, Bell, Long Beach, &c.) is found to have a higher rental ratio than other Metropolitan areas like New York's (which unhelpfully stretches from beyond New Haven, Connecticut on the east to beyond Allentown, Pennsylvania on the west) and Miami's (stretching on tippy-toes from the City of Miami all the way north to West Palm Beach).

We are not comparing in the Harvard report the City of Los Angeles to the City of New York or to what we know of as Miami.  We are comparing clusters of cities with vastly different geographies, no comparable governmental structures, no adherence to State boundaries in some cases, and even very different numbers of population centers.

Not many would call somebody who lives in Palmdale or Laguna or Bell an "Angeleno" though the places are indeed a part of the LA Metro area.

Make no mistake about it: despite what Harvard and local media have led you to believe, the City of LA still trails NYC and San Francisco City and County in rental units per measure.  And make no mistake about it: the rental-to-owner-occupied ratios in all three of these renter-oriented Cities are far more abysmal than the Harvard report implies.  But if you were led to believe that LA is the unfairest one of all, you were misled by a flimsy, eye-catching rehashing of a repackaging of Census data that containing very little useful statistical analysis.


(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of Days Change at Night: LA's Decade of Decline, 2003-2013. Mailander blogs here.








Vol 11 Issue 103

Pub: Dec 24, 2013