Has City Population Growth Leveled Off?

Source: Demographics Research Group at UVa

After a decade of strong growth, the population of Virginia’s cities may be leveling off, says Hamilton Lombard with the University of Virginia’s Demographics Research Group. The rising cost of housing in Virginia cities is pushing households into neighboring counties, he says.

The major swing group is households with young children. For decades, families with young children moved from cities to counties in search of better schools. After the 2007 recession, Lombard contends on the StatChat blog, many families found it difficult to purchase a home, so they rented in cities where a larger share of the housing stock is rental homes. As a result, the share of children in city populations increased, leading to an unexpected surge in school enrollments in many cities. Over the past 10 years, cities accounted for seven of the 10 fastest-growing school divisions.

Lombard expects cities to hang on to their population gains, but he suggests that continued population growth will be difficult to maintain. The main problem is the difficulty of building new housing. In Virginia cities, vacancy rates are declining, and housing prices are increasing. Prior to the recession, for example, owner-occupied housing in both Charlottesville and Richmond was 27 percent cheaper than in surrounding counties. By 2016, housing was only 12 percent cheaper in Charlottesville and eight percent cheaper in Richmond.

Concludes Lombard:

In the coming years, home construction levels will need to increase for Virginia cities to continue growing at recent rates. Some cities, such as Richmond, have seen more home construction. But building new homes in cities can be difficult; most development in cities is infill which often requires more paperwork and faces more public opposition than greenfield developments.

If cities are not able to supply enough housing to meet demand, the recent trend of falling vacancy rates and rising home prices will likely continue, along with slower population growth.

Bacon’s bottom line: I concur with Lombard’s analysis.¬†Cities have limited space for infill development, and established neighborhoods resist re-development at higher densities. There is a significant unmet demand for walkable urbanism found in the traditional neighborhoods of Virginia’s cities, both large and small, but people have to live somewhere and they will buy what they can afford, even if the surrounding amenities are not what they would prefer. I expect we will see “sprawl by default” — scattered, low-density, single-use development, not because it’s what the market demands but because that’s what counties zoned for in the go-go days of the early 2000s and that’s what’s in the supply pipeline.

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8 responses to “Has City Population Growth Leveled Off?

  1. Development of any type requires more public facilities to support the added demand on those facilities and related services. Most urban or relatively dense counties are similarly affected in the same way cities are.

    Unless new development contributes a reasonable amount to support the added demand on existing facilities and services, existing residents suffer a decline in the quality of life and higher taxes to fund added facilities and services. Couple that with local governments’ often-found failures to enforce zoning and related laws and TDM and other development conditions, it is not surprising that existing residents often oppose infill development, most especially at higher levels of density.

  2. I’m still skeptical that zoning laws are the cause of stalling growth until I see a comparison of various cities, their zoning laws and the growth rate or something that can be more precise and specific than the generalized broad brush assertion.

    And this question needs to be answered: ” what kind of housing do married folks having kids want … and is that kind of housing available and affordable in most urban areas?

    My understanding is that finding a traditional single family detached home in a reasonably safe neighborhood with a nearby “good” school is a tough “get” and there is very little greenfield land available for that kind of housing.

    One can visit just about any major urbanized area in Virginia but especially places like DC, Richmond, Hampton, etc – at “rush” hour and see the traffic that is typical and normal as people come and go from the exurbs to their urban areas jobs.

    This pattern is the norm across the USA.

    Yes… there are “pockets” and enclaves of dense and walkable settlement patterns but they’re almost like atypical “special” places.. they do not grow and expand across urban areas – they are more like pocket parks that are walled in on all sides by the “other kind” of development.

    If we could ever tie – on a one to one correlated basis – certain types of zoning policies that actually do result in better or worse outcomes – we could then actually develop “model” ordinances to use to spur/motivate more dense and walkable places.

    But I’m not at all sure most young marrieds having their kids actually want to live that lifestyle anyhow. I’m sure some do – they’re comfortable living the urban life and having kids in urbanized places … they more easily adapt to but an awful lot of folks – just flee to the exurbs…

  3. In the more attractive neighborhoods in Richmond this selling season the prices were as high or higher per s.f. than in the suburbs. Outlandish prices, which will lead to outlandish assessment and tax increases. In my neighborhood one of the drivers is the surging PRIVATE school, with people wanting to be close to that. Also there is a major apartment complex going up across the street from that school (not sure if those tenants will be paying that tuition, though) and we all expect that complex to grow. Taxes, home prices, undesirable local schools – those are the brakes on urban growth.

    • I can’t help but be a little amused when talking a about the “attractive” parts of Richmond that one presumes is at east somewhat related to the idea of walkable when we also talk about how awful it is to try to put bike lanes in
      and it messes up the car traffic. Seems like it can’t be both fish or fowl … no?

      So how does a “walkable” place really co-exist with cars? just separated sidewalks with cross-walks at the lights .. and the street is owned by cars whizzing by and there is no space left for bikes?

      This is one reason I call these spaces isolated enclaves because if you actually want to go further than a couple of blocks on a bike, it’s a totally different thing. Bikes to be used for transportation from point A to point B are very much different than bikes on their own isolated place going around in circles for “recreation”.

      I would assert than until we actually have connected places for bikes to be used for transportation – that these walkable places are always going to be just isolated enclaves that will never grow and expand organically – they’re like isolated parking plazas…surround by a sea of higher speed autos traveling on infrastructure solely dedicated to autos…

      We actually have to push back on the auto mentality in the suburbs in neighborhoods where the battle is have cul-de-sacs not connected roads and traffic calming and road “diet” but perversely it’s only to preserve and protect THAT neighborhood – NOT to have it connected to adjacent ones or to nearby shopping. Most of exurbia is little different than the downtowns in man places where you simply cannot ride a bike safely..

      so.. I assert that until and unless you do what needs to be done to provide genuine bike able facilities – it’s never going to be truly a walkable “place” except for a walled in enclave.

      I DO NOTE that most every new major road that VDOT builds these days – provides bike infrastructure no matter what the locality wants… because many localities, if given the option, will delete the bike lanes.

    • From my perch down Spotsylvania way – Prince William is viewed at a lower cost alternative to NoVa/Fairfax .. still relatively close-in but much more affordable. Stafford comes next.. in better affordability but at a commute cost – then Spotsy and believe it or not – some folks in Caroline which is also an exurb to Richmond.

      The big cost drivers for the exurbs are schools -usually 1/2 or more and public safety – all those fire/ems stations and deputies and both are directly connected to population growth..the more/faster you grow the more of these costly tax-funded things are needed.

  4. I think “walkable urbanism” — which is code for a range of lifestyle choices reflected in a gentrified older city or town environment — is more important in getting many people into the cities today than the relative cost of that choice, which is all Lombard apparently talks about. And yes, some of them may get tired of the hassles and costs of that lifestyle and move out to the ‘burbs when their kids come, but that may be a very reluctant choice. Why would folks so love their Ginter Park/Sherwood Park homes they’d be ready to pay for private school as the price of staying there? SH, I agree with your three “brakes” but the lifestyle draw is powerful and can overcome some degree of all of them. Richmond has a lot of that draw to work with.

  5. re: a “reluctant choice”.

    indeed. One way to view / assess the exurban conundrum is to recognize that NoVa has 2 million people and the Fredericksburg/Stafford/Spotsylvania exurban region has 300,000 people – and the 50,000 portion of that 300,000 is one completely maxes out I-95 twice a day… The numbers for out-of-region, non-commute traffic on I-95 just north of Fredericksburg on a weekday is about 30,000-40,000 vehicles per hour. That’s a busy road for sure but it’s when you add the 50,000 commuters to it that it gets tough.

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