Monday, August 20, 2007

The City's Population

One issue that seems to arise every year is a population estimate from the Weldon Cooper Center, or the US Census Bureau, showing that people are leaving Charlottesville. In 2005 the US Census thought we had lost 4000 people since 2000;we appealed this and won. This year the Weldon Cooper Center thought we had lost 140 people since the year before. This position seems at odds with almost everyone's intuitive sense of the City - not to mention things like building permits, car registrations and the like - so I recently met with some Weldon Cooper folks to see why they think we are shrinking, and to tell them why we think they are wrong.

This is what I learned. Basically the Weldon Cooper Center looks at the increase in state population, and estimates what portion of the increase goes to each locality by looking at changes in a locality's housing stock, school enrollment, births, tax return exemptions and driver's licenses. And also takes into consideration "group-quartered population" - military, prisons, jails, dorms, etc.

The problem (assuming that I am right, of course) lies mostly in the peculiarities of being a college town - of UVa's 18,000 or so students a significant portion live in the City, although I should note that the dorms are technically in Albemarle County. Some issues may lie with students not having their fair share of babies, not to mention school-age kids, or not getting a local driver's license, or not claiming any exemptions. But the bigger issue may be that the density for much of our housing, and hence our population, is higher than our housing stock would lead you to believe. In other words, a significant amount of new housing in the City is near the University (our 2003 zoning ordinance allowed much denser buildings adjacent to UVa) where the number of bedrooms, and shared bedrooms, is likely higher than the state average. The WC Center assumes a certain number of persons per household, and we discussed that a way to get at this would be a survey of households to determine a more accurate assumption for the City.

I also learned that one problem with the way the U.S. Census Bureau conducts their estimates is that they look at how many people have moved into a locality vs. how many have moved away. This information is gathered, at least in part, by looking at where you live each year when you file a tax return. So UVa undergrads move here, often not filing a tax return - so we don't get credit for the inflow. But when they move elsewhere, and file a tax return, it is counted against us. According to this model we had a net loss in population, from coming and going, of almost 6000 people from 2000 until now.

Is it worth doing a survey (at our expense) to help the Weldon Cooper Center conduct a more accurate estimate? The financial implications of a small discrepancy in population are not large, and not consequential if we are talking about a couple of hundred (couple of thousand might be a different matter).

But I just hate to leave any impression that people are choosing to leave the City, when the reality is, I think, just the opposite.


Blogger Duane said...

When you identified these extenuating circumstances to the Cooper Center, did they offer to revise their model? This would seem the most reasonable correction, rather than the city paying for a separate survey.

I would suggest that such a small discrepancy doesn't warrant the expenditure from the city to set the record straight.

11:36 AM  

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