The impact of the pandemic on population growth in the Pacific Northwest

A great story of the COVID-19 pandemic has centered around where people decide to move, especially since many workers are no longer tied to their trips to the office.

In Washington state, the Office of Financial Management publishes an annual review of every population center statewide. The growth rate is calibrated for the month of April of each year and the results are published in June.

So how has the pandemic impacted the population growth rate of municipalities in Washington? Statewide, Washington added 110,725 people, a population increase of 1.45%. This increase is actually a drop from the 1.6% growth rate recorded in each of the two years leading up to the pandemic.

The map below displays the changes in relative growth rates for cities in the state with more than 5,000 total inhabitants in 2021 (relative size of circles proportional to population). The darker circles represent a large increase in population growth year over year, while those in the orange tint indicate population declines.

Courtesy of Zonda

Most of the cities with a negative growth rate (Bellingham, Ellensburg, Pullman, Cheney and College Place) have been impacted by students and are expected to return to normal levels once campuses fully open.

The fastest growing municipalities from 2020 to 2021 occurred on the outskirts of Washington’s largest urban markets and include Ridgefield, Black Diamond, Edgewood, West Richland, Arlington, and Bonney Lake.

Courtesy of Zonda

Most of the aforementioned communities were showing robust growth before COVID, but the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards the peripheries in search of affordable prices and tolerance for longer trips to the office, if at all.

Ridgefield experienced the state’s fastest population growth rate last year at 18.3%, adding 1,790 new residents from April 2020 to April 2021. Along with Vancouver, Battle Ground and Camas, municipalities in the county de Clark have shown impressive population growth rates and remain popular. with homebuyers looking to dodge state income taxes over the river. Last year’s upheaval in downtown Portland, Oregon and deteriorating social order adds to the appeal of living in the more affordable Clark County.

Black Diamond, home to the planned Ten Trails community in southern King County, has seen its population increase by 15.1%. Most of Black Diamond’s new residents are new home buyers, which has been the case for a few years since Ten Trails started selling homes. The popular Ten Trails community is a great data point for homebuyers looking for more open and affordable space further from the urban core (Seattle-Bellevue). With a trail of several thousand future lots, Black Diamond will continue its rapid rise from the remote town to the group of exurbia residents.

Edgewood, adjacent to Puyallup, is another data point to support the argument that more people are moving away from Seattle-Bellevue to find affordable housing. With a 7.7% year-over-year growth rate, Edgewood’s total population now stands at 13,000. Similar to Black Diamond, several production builders have had a disproportionate influence on the recent population increase in Edgewood.

West Richland is the fastest growing Tri-Cities submarket in central Washington. With a growth rate of 6.4%, the town now has 16,710 inhabitants. Tri-Cities, Franklin and Benton counties are number 1 and 3, respectively, as a percentage of the population increase from 2010 to 2021. Franklin County has added more than 21,000 new residents since 2010, and it leads all of Washington’s other counties last year with a population growth of 2.8%.

The 5.4% year-over-year population gain in Arlington is an anomaly as relatively little new home construction has taken place in the past two years. The assumption is made that most of the 1,100 new residents were renters, a phenomenon we are seeing across Puget Sound with higher apartment demand in the outlying submarkets. The neighboring towns of Lake Stevens, Stanwood and Marysville, although not included in the population growth rankings, have been very popular with new home builders in recent years. These cities all hover around an annual growth rate of 4%, exceeding the state’s overall average rate.

Bonney Lake, home to the planned community of Tehaleh, has seen a 5.4% increase in population growth. That was quite a jump from 2019 to 2020, when Bonney Lake’s 1.6% growth was just above the statewide average of 1.5%. Similar to Edgewood and most of Pierce County’s submarkets, Bonney Lake became increasingly popular during the pandemic for entry-level buyers looking for achievable prices.

Contrary to some assumptions, Seattle proper did not contract in 2020 with population losses, although social unrest and the closure of urban attractions have tarnished the shine of the Emerald City somewhat. The city recorded a net gain of 8,400 inhabitants (1.1%) from the start of pandemic stresses in April 2020 until April 2021. Although in the dark with growth, the 8,400 are the lowest number of Seattle’s population increase over the past 10 years, and a 40% reduction from the 13,800 gain seen from 2019 to 2020.

For Washington, it’s not only interesting to follow the rapid growth of more rural municipalities, but also the population growth of its largest urban area, Seattle. Will people return to the city center once the pandemic is in our rearview mirror, or are its best days behind us as major employers pivot to the Eastside?

With remote and hybrid working arrangements, many have widened their geographic scope in search of accommodation. But it’s important to note that most people don’t have the option of working from anywhere, and many will still need to focus on a shelter closer to major employment centers.

One thing is certain: the pandemic has accelerated the trend of people moving away from urban centers, and there is little evidence that the current migration pattern will change drastically anytime soon.

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