This post is the third in a series: Lessons from a Pandemic. Read the second post here.

Was LA’s housing boom a reaction against other, denser cities?

Taken in isolation, L.A.’s 1920s housing boom would seem to suggest that pandemics, business closures and other quarantine measures do not have a lasting (or even a short-term) impact on housing demand and construction. But is it possible that rapid growth in Los Angeles reflected a broader fall-out from the pandemic? Los Angeles had, since the late 19th century, been promoted as a healthful place for people with tuberculosis and other ailments to visit or move to. Sunshine, fresh air and indoor-outdoor living had been part of the overall allure of the region. Did people flock to L.A. in the 1920s- and spur housing construction here-  in part because they were suddenly afraid to live in older, denser cities? 

If we look at the ten most populous cities in the United States in 1920 and 1930, two facts jump out. First, Los Angeles grew the fastest of any city on the list, rising from 10th to 5th. In fact, Los Angeles was among the top five cities in the U.S. (among the largest 311 cities in the nation) in terms of housing starts per capita for 6 out of 10 year during the 1920s, while none of the other top ten most populous cities cracked the list in any of these years. And second, L.A. was by far the least dense of the nation’s biggest cities both in 1920 and 1930. 

Rank in 1920              Population  sq. miles density (population/ sq. mile)

   1   New York city, NY ……  5,620,048   299.0    18,796

   2   Chicago city, IL……… 2,701,705   192.8    14,013

   3   Philadelphia city, PA….  1,823,779   128.0    14,248

   4   Detroit city, MI………    993,078    77.9    12,748

   5   Cleveland city, OH…….    796,841   56.4    14,128

   6   St. Louis city, MO…….    772,897    61.0    12,670

   7   Boston city, MA……….    748,060    43.5    17,197

   8   Baltimore city, MD…….    733,826   79.0     9,289

   9   Pittsburgh city, PA……    588,343    39.9    14,745

  10   Los Angeles city, CA…..    576,673  365.7     1,577

Rank in 1930              Population  sq. miles density (population/ sq. mile)

     1   New York city, NY ……  6,930,446   299.0    23,179

     2   Chicago city, IL……… 3,376,438   201.9    16,723

     3   Philadelphia city, PA….  1,950,961   128.0    15,242

     4   Detroit city, MI………  1,568,662   137.9    11,375

     5   Los Angeles city, CA…..  1,238,048  440.3     2,812

     6   Cleveland city, OH…….    900,429    70.8    12,718

     7   St. Louis city, MO…….    821,960    61.0    13,475

     8   Baltimore city, MD…….    804,874    78.7    10,227

     9   Boston city, MA……….    781,188    43.9    17,795

    10   Pittsburgh city, PA……    669,817    51.3    13,057

But these two points do not necessarily mean that L.A. lack of density caused its growth, or that its growth came at the expense of denser places. With the city’s population more than doubling over the course of the 20s, it is hard to untangle all the reasons why people relocated to Los Angeles:

  • There was a zeitgeist that Los Angeles was a new and different type of city, with more dispersed districts, more cars, and fewer tall buildings. This sensibility included a nod to the downsides of denser cities, like slums and the noise and shadows of elevated rail tracks. 
  • Only 20 percent of L.A. city residents in 1930 were born in California. New York and Illinois were the two top states where new arrivals had moved from; and no doubt some of those transplants came from NYC and Chicago and preferred the more suburban, spatially open feel of L.A. 
  • The third leading origin state of new Angelenos was, however, more rural Iowa. The city also had a reputation for attracting many former residents of midwestern small towns; and large number of African Americans and Latinos moved to L.A. during the 1920s, many arriving from rural areas. So to most migrants, Los Angeles would have been a new, bigger city to live in- not a suburban escape. 
  • The main reason people move, then as now, is for jobs and economic opportunity. L.A.’s burgeoning petroleum and film industries and L.A. County’s largest-in-the nation agriculture industry were all major draws. 
  • Part of the reason for L.A.’s comparatively low density was that the city was huge in size, having had recently annexed the sparsely populated San Fernando Valley. 
  • While we tend to think of 20th century Los Angeles as being a city of single family detached homes, a stark opposite of older cities, the 1920s housing boom in L.A. was almost evenly split between one unit homes and multi-unit buildings. (See the graph of 1921 to 1942 housing construction above for the year by year split among single family houses, duplexes, and 3+ unit apartments). 

L.A’s growth rate was unusually high, but the 1920s was a decade of high housing production across most of the nation. New York and Chicago, the two most populous cities in the U.S., both had healthy population growth, densification and housing construction during the 20s. Long-term trendlines for U.S. urban growth also show that population, density and wage and rent premiums for urban vs. rural areas did not dip following the influenza pandemic. 

1920s Los Angeles was a popular place to move to, partly due to its comparatively lower density, its strong economy, its newer housing stock and its more suburban characteristics. But the weight of evidence is that the 1918-19 influenza pandemic did not slow the growth of cities, density and apartments.