Who Hit the Brakes on NoVa Growth?

Hamilton Lombard. Photo credit: UVA Today

by James A. Bacon

Northern Virginia’s population is growing, but not nearly as fast as before. According to a new study by University of Virginia demographer Hamilton Lombard, Northern Virginia accounted for 66.5% of the state’s population growth between 2010 and 2019, but slipped to 33.7% in the last year.

“While Northern Virginia is still growing in population, its recent slowdown is remarkable given how long so much of Virginia’s population growth has been concentrated in Northern Virginia,” Lombard said in an interview with UVA Today. “Since 1980, Northern Virginia has contributed to over half of the commonwealth’s entire population growth. Earlier in the 2010s, over two-thirds of Virginia’s population growth occurred in Northern Virginia.”

“Yet, since the mid-2010s, population growth in Northern Virginia has slowed considerably as more residents have left the region, often moving to other Southern states,” Lombard said. “Some of the initial out-migration may have been driven by the federal budget sequestration and shutdowns, which slowed growth in the region’s economy.”

Northern Virginia has driven demographic, political and economic change in Virginia over the past three or four decades. The region now dominates the state in much the same way that Chicago overshadows the rest of Illinois and New York City runs the Empire State. A marked slowdown in the region’s growth could have momentous consequences for Virginia’s economic prosperity and political economy. Here’s the big question: Was 2020 a transitory blip or does it portend longer-lasting changes?

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, where Lombard works, uses births, deaths, new home construction and school enrollment to calculate population growth between official U.S. census years. All data indicate a slowdown in NoVa’s population growth. Births, for example, declined by more than 7% between 2015 and 2019, more than in any other Virginia region.

Lombard believes that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated demographic trends that were already in place before 2020. Said Lombard in a Q&A:

Since at least the mid-2010s, the input data we use has been signaling a shift in Northern Virginia to more people moving out of the region than into it, which has caused the region to grow more slowly. In 2020, out-migration from Northern Virginia likely quickened, causing population growth to slow even further, as it did in most other large metro areas, particularly those with high housing prices. …

The pandemic condensed trends that would have taken place over multiple years into a shorter period of time.

Localities on the fringe of the Washington Metropolitan Statistical Area — Fredericksburg and Winchester, for example — have seen an uptick in population growth over the past couple of years as people have left Northern Virginia. Similarly, the Richmond metro area has experienced a “substantial rise” in the number of people moving in, many of them from Northern Virginia. Even migration into rural counties outside Virginia’s MSA has risen.

More ominously, Lombard says many Northern Virginians are just leaving the state.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, what’s driving the trend? Lombard links NoVa’s regional dynamism in part to federal spending. When Uncle Sam loosens the purse strings, NoVa benefits. When Uncle Sam folds his wallet, NoVa loses. A boost in federal spending under the Biden administration could inject the region with new stimulus — but that would depend on the nature of the spending. A surge in domestic spending would have less impact than a fresh burst of spending on defense, intelligence and homeland security, the region’s primary industry clusters.

Other factors to consider are the cost of business, the cost of living, and quality of life. COIVD-19 had a momentarily ameliorative effect on the bane of the region’s existence, its traffic congestion. Will the shift to work-at-home offset the rebound in traffic? What is happening to the supply, demand and price of office space? What about home prices? How much is the lack of affordable housing pushing out the middle class?

The challenges are tremendous, just as they are in other technology centers. But it’s way too early to conclude that NoVa has lost its mojo. Amazon hasn’t gone anywhere; its Coast headquarters in Arlington is still hiring and likely will act as a magnet for new enterprises. Also, just a few days ago, management consulting firm Guidehouse announced its commitment to the region by means of a $12.7 million global headquarters building in Tysons. The project will create more than 900 new jobs, and the HQ will house more than 1,550 employees at full capacity.

NoVa has a lot of brainpower, and brainpower creates a lot of jobs.

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14 responses to “Who Hit the Brakes on NoVa Growth?”

  1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Another way to gauge growth. Examine enrollment projections for public schools. In Loudoun, after decades of growth, enrollment numbers are likely to flatten in the next 5 years at 85,000 students. That does not factor in the impact of Covid and community disaffection with things such as CRT. I think the bean counters are in for a surprise. A contraction of enrollment.

    Fairfax is projecting a return of 8,000 students that went missing this year. Will that really happen or is the 189,000 enrollment figure wishful thinking?

    Prince William is also projecting a return to pre pandemic enrollment levels. But I am wondering about the 91,000 students. Are they really coming back? Will more leave?

    All three districts have a much slimmer projection for enrollment growth in the next five years. Far less than the staggering growth of the last 20 years.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Would that work in The Villages?

      1. WayneS Avatar

        Perhaps, albeit at a much lower assumed student-to-dwelling unit ratio. Even though the Villages is age-restricted, more houses means more businesses and more workers – and workers have children who need schoolin’.

        Go Buffalo!

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          more service workers = more low income kids to educate…MO money!

        2. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Sometimes you can just suck all of the fun from the room.

          Go Cubs!

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      The schools do not have the luxury of being wrong on the low side and as a result, at least the ones up my way, use a diverse set of factors in their forecasting and I have to say, they have been right most of the time.

      For instance, they not only look at building permits, but for what kind of housing and they look at approved rezones even before built and application for building permits.

      A few years back, the school system agreed to expand some existing schools but warned that option would be gone for the future and new sites would have to be developed. The school system also keeps a list of where the new schools would be needed geographically and what property in those area is still undeveloped and/or potentially available for re-development. All in all, they have an in-house function who seems to stay on top of it.

      I’d be surprised that Loudoun and Fairfax don’t do something similar.

      1. tmtfairfax Avatar

        Sorry, Larry, but Fairfax County Public Schools have a long history of missing student growth. It infamously missed young students from new large/expensive home developments. “Maybe some HS students, but no young kids.” Wrong. There is also good evidence that FCPS missed student growth in Tysons.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Well then, they probably need the folks in the Spotsylvania system to help them….

      2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        Loudoun is still planning on building more schools. 3 more high schools, 4 middle schools, and a slew of elementary schools. Not sure if those schools are needed any time soon. Dr. Sam Adamo was a genius. He was the LCPS growth and enrollment forecaster for years. His calculations were right on the money. Retired now. The replacement always over estimates by big margins and this pushes the school budget up much higher than needed.

  2. I sometimes get the feeling that Jim et. al. look for any possible reason to write the obituary for Northern Virginia. (Bad traffic jam on the Beltway? Better start packing!)

    I’ll give points for honesty – Jim uses the very end of the essay to touch on the most important aspect, the fundamentals of the regional economy.

    Beyond that, anyone who claims knows how any region of the state (or country for that matter) will fare in the long-run is kidding themselves.

    But it’s also amusing to watch the same “End-Of-NOVA-is-Nigh” essays from the past ____ years here.

    I’ll note that both gubernatorial candidates (presuming T-Mac) are from up this way.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Absolutely. The plantation elite in Virginia have long had a bi-polar attitude toward Northern Virginia. On the one hand they desperately want NoVa’s money to pay for their schools, jails, police and toll-free roads. On the other hand they resent NoVa for breaking the back of what remained of their precious Byrd Machine.

      Now Jim is stunned that only 33.7% of the state’s population growth came from Northern Virginia in a pandemic year. Maybe the plantation elite will be able to keep pumping money out of NoVa while restoring the Byrd Machine. Wouldn’t that be special?

      What percentage of Virginia’s population lives
      in NoVa? Well, that depends how you define NoVa and there are plenty of definitions. By my accounting, about 2.7 million Virginians (out of a total of 8.7 million) live in NoVa. For those not coming from accelerated math programs that’s 31.0%. Growth of 33.7% (in a pandemic year) on a base of 31% still means NoVa is gaining on RoVa.

      Personally, I think NoVa and the Washington, DC suburbs of Maryland should join DC in forming the 51st state. “Columbia” would certainly be liberal and Democratic. But Virginia would be right-leaning and Republican and what’s left of Maryland would be up for grabs. Best of all – Virginia’s plantation elite would have to figure out how to pay for their own stuff.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        You can’t use “Columbia” as a name for the 51st state. Too yt and has a colonizing ring to it. Hades might be a better name.

      2. Hey, I thought you were the guy who thought NoVa sucked so bad that you couldn’t imagine starting a business there… until you started a business there. Is your real point that RoVa sucks even worse? If so, say so!

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Well, Jim is Mr. Boomergeddon and NoVa is such a liberal cesspool, it MUST FAIL. And DJ is bi-polar. He hates the plantation-elite/ clown show but loves NoVa as long as he can believe it’s something besides VA!

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