Eastvale, CA: Suburban Charm Trumps Urban Convenience

Appearing in:

Orange County Register

Eastvale, a new community just over the Riverside County line from Orange County, is a place that most urbanists would naturally detest. City Hall is no architectural masterpiece, occupying a small office inside the area’s largest shopping mall. The streets are wide, and the houses tend to be over 2,500 square feet. There’s nothing close to a walking district and little in the way of restaurants besides fast-food outlets and chain eateries.

Yet Eastvale, which incorporated in 2010 , is also among the fastest-growing places within California. Located in an area once known as Dairy Valley, it was settled by Dutch farmers and for years was known as "Fly Valley" because of the insect infestations associated with herds of cattle. Houses began to go up in the early 2000s, as families leaving congested and high-cost coastal Southern California began to move into the area.

Although hit by the housing bust, like much of Riverside County, Eastvale’s home sales have been on the upswing, and real estate agents suggest that the biggest problem is finding properties to sell. Land prices, $5 an acre in 1974, rose to $525,000 at the peak of the boom, then collapsed, but are now back to over $300,000. The median price of a single-family home, $433,000, is just around the state average. In contrast, prices in coastal Orange County average $556,000 and, along the coast, closer to $1 million for a comparatively newer home.

With prices escalating again in Southern California, affordability is once again dropping, particularly for new buyers. Today, according to the California Board of Realtors, affordability of new housing in Orange County for first-time buyers has already dipped below 50 percent for the first time since 2008. It could be headed back to the 20 percent – or lower – rates experienced during the housing bubble.

Los Angeles, San Diego and other coastal cities are experiencing similar upticks, but with no appreciable likelihood of new home construction, which statewide is now running at one-third of annual demand. This is particularly true for single-family detached homes, the housing preferred by most consumers but most detested by the state’s planning hierarchy.

In the short run, this shortfall benefits what historian Bob Bruegmann calls "the incumbent’s club," current owners of single-family homes. But it also fundamentally functions as a tax on future generations. The costs of housing inflation are imposed on the offspring of the coastal cities, not to mention immigrants and new migrants, who still need someplace to live a basic middle-class lifestyle without draining all their financial resources.

Although people on the coast tend to look down on the "909s", the fact remains that, to retain a large, growing and vibrant middle class, the coast needs an outlet, particularly for the workers to staff its industries. Roughly a third of the Inland Empire’s workforce labors in either Los Angeles or Orange County. Without the outlet represented by the area, companies in Orange and Los Angeles will increasingly be forced to relocate or expand further out of the region and the state.

Rather than being dismissed as second-rate, the oft-maligned Inland Empire remains a critical component for the future of Southern California. The media obsesses over the disasters that accompanied the housing bust but, in places where schools and parks are strong, like Eastvale, things have improved as foreclosures have plummeted.

In fact, after a long hiatus, local developers are beginning to put up more new houses to meet the demand. With over 50,000 residents, Eastvale already has more people than downtown Los Angeles, and the mayor, Ike Bootsma, seventh of nine children of a Dutch immigrant farming family, projects this population to swell to 76,000 by 2020.

Eastvale largely attracts upwardly mobile (average household income is around $100,000) families, many of them minorities. These are people who, a decade or two ago, might have settled closer to the coast, but can no longer afford to do so.

Kids are a big deal in Eastvale, at a time when coastal California, including both Orange and Los Angeles are becoming older, and dominated by childless households. One-third of Eastvale’s population is made up of children under 18, well above the one in four average for California. The number of persons per household is over four, compared to less than three for the state as a whole.

The dream people are chasing is a traditional one, yet many of the new families are diverse. Located roughly an hour from downtown Los Angeles, almost half the city’s households speak a language other than English at home. Asians account for close to a quarter of the population, Latinos roughly 40 percent.

"There’s no way you can live this life in Mumbai," notes Indian immigrant Nibha Kothari, who moved to Eastvale with her husband and young daughter earlier this year. "There’s a balance here between city and town here. In Mumbai, everything is so crowded and congested and there’s so much stress. It’s the little things, the quality of life for our family, that got us here."

Residents like Kothari admit it’s not the aesthetics of the urban design that brings them to Eastvale. Instead, as in Irvine, it’s the things urban pundits barely address, like good schools, a well-developed park system , low crime rates and, perhaps most importantly, larger house footprints. After all, family is the main reason people move to Eastvale, and many locals talk about having relatives living in the same community.

Andrea Hove, the wife of an Orange County sheriff’s deputy with whom she has four kids, has several relatives in the neighborhood and a network of friends who also have extended families. "I wanted to stay home with the kids," she explains. "In Orange County, we’d be stuck with 1,800 square feet and send the kids to private school. Here, I have great schools, 3,000 square feet for less, and my walk-in closet is bigger than most people’s bedrooms. It’s a great family community in terms of schools and parks. I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone I know."

Finally, she says, there’s also an excitement from being in somewhere new that is still developing its sense of place and urban traditions. "This is a place where we can shape the community for our kids," she suggests. "We can make it the way we want it, not just live the way some politician says we should."

These kind of aspirations are rarely discussed among planners, academics or even many developers but they constitute much of what people actually want and reflects their most cherished priorities. It may seem mundane to urban aesthetes, but crucial in the locational decisions of many people.

"Everyday life," observed the great French historian Fernand Braudel, "consists of the little things one hardly notices in time and space."

Most people live ordinary lives, start businesses, raise families, go to church, play in little leagues and local softball tournaments. Concert halls, hip restaurants and striking architecture may thrill our media and design communities, but perhaps more critical to the long-term future may be places, like Eastvale, where Southern California’s middle-class families still can comfortably thrive.