California’s Shrinking Big Cities and Booming Small Towns

Samantha Miller

While California as a whole continues to see more people moving out than moving in, the population shifts within the state reveal two contrasting trends – the decline of the largest, most expensive cities and the explosive growth in some smaller, more affordable communities.

A new analysis by SmartAsset, a financial technology company, looked at population data for over 100 cities across the country to determine the fastest growing between 2017 to 2022. Two California cities made the top 20 list – Menifee in Riverside County and Roseville in Placer County near Sacramento.

Meanwhile, a review of Census Bureau population estimates shows California’s biggest cities have all lost residents over the same five-year period.

Menifee Leads State in Growth

The city of Menifee saw its population jump 17.4% from 90,599 in 2017 to 109,399 in 2022, ranking 9th in the nation for growth among cities over 100,000 people. Real estate developers have flocked to the once sleepy town now marketed as the new Southern California “boomtown.”

New housing, shopping and entertainment options are attracting young families seeking affordable communities outside of Los Angeles and San Diego.

“Menifee is buzzing as the new ‘Boomtown’ in the nation,” the city’s economic development materials boast.

Roseville Also Surging

About 80 miles northeast of Menifee, Roseville grew 12.2% from 135,325 people in 2017 to 154,826 in 2022. The Placer County city, located between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, has also drawn new residents with suburban living, quality schools, parks and shopping. Roseville ranked 20th nationally for population growth in the SmartAsset analysis.

Southwest Cities See Huge Growth

The analysis found cities in the Southwest, especially affordable suburbs around Phoenix and Las Vegas, dominated the top of the list for growth.

Buckeye, Arizona, an outlying suburb of Phoenix, saw its population explode by 48% between 2017-2022. Enterprise, Nevada increased 46% as a commuter town outside Las Vegas. Goodyear, Arizona, another Phoenix suburb, grew by 27%.

“In general we’ve seen positive growth indicators in the southwest besides just population,” said Jaclyn DeJohn, Managing Editor of Economic Analysis at SmartAsset.

“In fact, Texas and Arizona place second and fourth respectively in terms of where high earners are moving to. One thing that may be drawing high earners and others to these areas is relative tax-friendliness, and lower costs of living than coastal California and major cities.”

California’s Largest Cities Shed Residents

While some smaller communities boom, Census data shows steep population declines in the Golden State’s largest and most expensive cities:

  • San Francisco lost 7.8% of its population, over 70,000 residents. High costs of living and remote work opportunities have led to an exodus.
  • San Jose’s population fell 5% or around 28,000 people. The high-tech hub remains costly despite more companies allowing remote work.
  • Los Angeles dropped by 3.8% or nearly 110,000 residents. Rising crime, homelessness and traffic have plagued the nation’s second largest city.
  • San Diego’s headcount declined 2.7% or close to 33,000 people. Long commutes and high prices for homes have motivated some to look elsewhere.

California Net Loss of Residents

According to Census data, in 2022 over 817,000 people moved out of California to live in another state, while only about 475,000 moved in. This resulted in a net loss of around 342,000, continuing a years-long trend of more exits than arrivals.

Where are people leaving California heading? Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Oregon have been top destinations. Companies and retirees cite lower costs of living and housing and less regulation.

Surprise Gender Imbalance in Fullerton

One notable outlier was uncovered in the SmartAsset study – the Orange County city of Fullerton saw the biggest population shift toward women of any U.S. city between 2017-2022.

The percentage of female residents grew from 48% to 53% over the five-year period. Analysts did not cite any factors that would explain the anomalous gender gap.

Overall the latest data reveals divergent trends within California – with affordability issues spurring declines in major metros but driving growth in some smaller inland cities where housing remains relatively less expensive.

The flight of residents and businesses will pose ongoing challenges for state leaders.

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Samantha Miller is a business and finance journalist with over 10 years of experience covering the latest news and trends shaping the corporate landscape. She began her career at The Wall Street Journal, where she reported on major companies and industry developments. Now, Samantha serve as a senior business writer for, profiling influential executives and providing in-depth analysis on business and financial topics.
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