From her home in Irvine’s Woodbury neighborhood, Tyler Townley has for years been closely watching development boom at the nearby community known as Great Park, a swath of valuable land that once housed the El Toro Marine Corps. Air Station.
Before she moved there in 2018, her commute took her through the area via “an empty road that no one drove on.”
Much has changed in the last few years.
“Now it’s all houses and condos and they keep building even more,” said Townley, 40, who is self-employed teaching online baking classes.
Amid California’s housing crisis, Irvine has stood out as a city that has grown while others lose population. However, growth can come with costs.
“They’re building the Great Park neighborhoods incredibly different” with “no shopping, no restaurants, just lots of condos and houses,” said Townley.
California as a whole lost about 500,000 people in a 28-month window around the pandemic, with the number of residents leaving surpassing those moving in by nearly 700,000.
Within Orange County, demographic data shows some suburbs — like the Great Park neighborhood — and exurbs have been able to thrive with growing populations while nearby urban areas like Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana have been losing population.
The shift of population from older central county cities to south and east county cities with room to grow has been going on for years. But new data show the changes have accelerated.
A Times analysis of U.S. Postal Service data shows those ZIP Codes in Orange County where recent move-outs most outpaced move-ins. The data consist of Change of Address (COA) requests submitted by families, individuals and businesses to the postal service. The requests can be temporary or permanent, and are grouped by ZIP Code and year.
The 5 ZIP Codes in Orange County with the most net move-outs from 2019-22
April 5, 2023
As head of a Santa Ana-based moving company, John Rose has a good sense of moving trends in Orange County, and lately the trend among locals has been an exodus from cities like Anaheim, Costa Mesa and Santa Ana to more affordable communities.
Anaheim city spokesperson Mike Lyster conceded that when it comes to the need for new housing, there is “no doubt we face challenges as a largely built-out city.”
Population decline and lack of housing, he said, are “issues our city will be looking at and wrestling with.”
Unlike newer, less-developed cities in Orange County, “every bit of land in our city is spoken for,” Lyster said, adding that new housing — including some 17,000 units planned by 2029 — largely must come through rezoning and redevelopment.
“We can’t build it fast enough,” he said. “We know that demand is much bigger” than what the city can accommodate.
After taking up the mantle of the county’s most populous city from Santa Ana in 2010, Anaheim’s population grew gradually for a decade before stalling out in the pandemic.
For now, Anaheim remains Orange County’s biggest city. Irvine’s population has nearly tripled in the last 30 years and is now not far behind, with still more room to grow. Having passed Santa Ana in 2023, Irvine could be poised to overtake Anaheim as the most populous in the not-too-distant future.
“We don’t have that open field of development” that a city like Irvine still has, Lyster said.
The movement signals a population shift to the growing communities in the east and south areas of Orange County.
“Usually people are leaving those areas for better places to raise a family,” said Rose, general manager of Pro Movers Inc.
On the other end of the spectrum, areas with significant move-in volume can often chalk growth up to housing.
Rose said cities like “Yorba Linda, Corona and Riverside” were frequent move-in destinations recently.
Those who move are looking for “bigger homes and more affordability,” he said. The Pro Movers Inc. website features a page titled “Moving from Anaheim to Irvine.” For good reason: USPS data shows that Anaheim had the most net move-outs and Irvine had the most move-ins.
With older cities, an aging ownership base can explain some population decline.
“When people first move into a neighborhood, usually it is families with young children,” said Susan K. Brown, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine.
“The neighborhood fills up with families that are, say, four people on average. Over time, spouses die, kids move out, and the number of people in each household will decline.”
“The result is over time, most neighborhoods will have contracting populations even without families changing,” she said.
See data for over 1,400 ZIP Codes covering most of the state on the map below.
The 5 ZIP Codes in Orange County with the most net move-ins from 2019-22
Deborah Diep, director of the Center for Demographic Research at Cal State University, Fullerton, said that the high rate of move-ins in “Irvine and [Rancho Mission Viejo] are most likely due to new housing construction.”
When asked previously about Irvine’s population growth, Mayor Farrah Khan said she was not surprised that an Irvine ZIP Code shows the second-most net move-ins of any in California. In the area near the city’s Great Park, some 10,000 homes have been proposed, she said, and builders have completed “6,000 to 7,000 so far.”
A representative for the city of Irvine did not respond to a request for comment on any potential plans to expand the amenities at Great Park.
Now, in adjacent Woodbury, Townley said “shopping, traffic is crazy because everybody has to travel outside of the Great Park neighborhoods” for basic services.
Even with new housing being built in Irvine, prices can still be prohibitively high. After 40 years in California, Townley plans to move out soon.
Having rented in Irvine for almost five years, Townley is in escrow on a house in St. Louis, Mo.
“I would stay in Irvine for the rest of my life,” she said, if housing weren’t so expensive. “It’s a great place to live if you can afford it.”
It will be her first time living outside of California. “We’re just moving to a cheaper Irvine, in St. Louis,” she said.