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Here’s how unusual the population losses in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are

Here's how population has changed from 2020 to 2022. The darker the green, the more the population has grown. Yellow, orange and red show localities that have lost population. Courtesy of Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the University of Virginia.

You can find all our coverage of Virginia’s changing demographics here.

In January, we reported on Virginia’s new population estimates, which showed that Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — but especially Northern Virginia — are now losing population while some parts of rural Virginia are now gaining.

Those estimates were a precursor to national estimates, which the U.S. Census Bureau has now released, which gives us an opportunity to see Virginia’s population changes in a national context. So let’s get to it.

  1. The population losses in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads stand out even more because they are at odds with other Southern metros. Raleigh, Charlotte, Nashville, Atlanta, you name it — all those places gained population. In losing population, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have much more in common with Northeastern metros such as New York and Boston that also lost people. I’ve looked before at why this is: High housing costs are typically blamed but this becomes a complicated debate. Gov. Glenn Youngkin says Virginia’s taxes are too high; Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax County, has countered that the state hasn’t invested enough in transportation to ease Northern Virginia’s infamous traffic congestion. We will not resolve that debate today. Whatever the reasons, the important thing to know is that Virginia’s two biggest metro areas are losing population while other big Southern metros are gaining. Virginia’s leaders from both parties might want to ponder why that is.
  1. Virginia’s most popular destination for people moving in — Richmond — isn’t nearly as popular as other places in the Mid-Atlantic. We’ve reported before that more people are moving out of Virginia than are moving in; Youngkin has cited this as a worrisome metric that he regularly monitors. That net out-migration is driven mostly by outflows from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but some places in Virginia are attracting more new residents than they’re losing. The most popular destination is the Richmond metro. In fact, the Richmond metro is now the fastest-growing part of the state. However, Richmond’s population gains due to net in-migration are well below those of other metros in the Mid-Atlantic. Since 2020, Richmond has seen 15,848 new residents through domestic migration. However, 10 other metros in the Mid-Atlantic rank higher. The Charlotte metro leads the way with 63,742, while Myrtle Beach is second with 53,801 and the Raleigh metro is third with 47,750. Some context: “Raleigh, which is about 8 percent larger than the Richmond metro area, attracted over three times more domestic migrants between 2020 and 2022 than Richmond,” says demographer Hamilton Lombard at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, “while Myrtle Beach, which is close to a third the size of the Richmond metro area, attracted even more domestic migrants than Raleigh.”

Now, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing obviously depends on your point of view. Youngkin equates population growth with economic growth and economic growth does, undoubtedly, drive population growth. People don’t move to communities that are economically failing. However, others might say there’s such a thing as too much population growth. I live in a rural community because I don’t want too many people around me, so we can have robust arguments over just how much population growth is too much. On the other hand, a place that’s losing population is clearly a bad thing economically. Maybe people in Richmond are happy with that level of population growth and wouldn’t want to see growth that’s three times or even four times faster — that’s not for me to say. I’m simply pointing out that other places in the  Mid-Atlantic are much more popular destinations than Virginia’s most popular destination.

  1. Virginia’s second most popular destination for domestic migration may surprise you: It’s Bristol. Well, technically, the Kingsport-Bristol metro, so there’s more Tennessee in that metro than Virginia. Still, that metro saw a domestic migration of 8,928. That’s more than Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina (8,527), and Greensboro-High Point, North Carolina (6,285). Bet you wouldn’t have predicted that. “This lines up well with ranking the Kingsport-Bristol region as having one of the best housing markets in the country,” Lombard says.

For comparison purposes, the Winchester metro is 3,530, the Lynchburg metro is 2,658, the Staunton metro is 1,928, the Roanoke metro is 1,028, the Charlottesville metro is 872, the Danville metro is 545, the Martinsville metro is 348 and the Bluefield metro is 276. It’s noteworthy that those last three metros – all small and less affluent – are in the plus range. By contrast, Hampton Roads shows a loss of 6,754 while the entire Washington metro (covering Northern Virginia, D.C. and parts of Maryland) has a loss of 135,014. As I’ve pointed out before, many parts of rural Virginia may be losing population because deaths outnumber births, but in terms of migration, some places have fixed their population outflows. When Virginia shows more people moving out than moving in, the problem is Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, not Danville, Martinsville, Bristol and so forth.

Here is domestic migration by county for 2021-2022. Blue represents localities with net in-migration; orange represents counties with net out-migration. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
Here is domestic migration by county for 2021-2022. Blue represents localities with net in-migration; orange represents counties with net out-migration. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
  1. “Lifestyle communities” are gaining population fast. Notice that Myrtle Beach has seen more new people move in than any other place in the Mid-Atlantic except for Charlotte. Some other smaller communities rank high on the list. Hilton Head, South Carolina, has gained 12,030, almost as many as Richmond. Asheville, North Carolina, has gained 11,060. This is in line with other data we’ve seen; if the Zoom era allows people to live anywhere they want, many are choosing seaside retreats — or, in the case of Asheville, a place with a reputation as a mountain resort. We see that trend play out in Virginia with population growth along the Chesapeake Bay and, conceivably, some of the population growth in some rural counties along the Blue Ridge is driven by this as well. Ours just aren’t growing as fast as other places.
  1. Virginia is unusual among Southeastern states because it has a lot of rural areas that are losing population. When Virginia’s population estimates came out, it was noteworthy that many — though certainly not all — rural areas showed some population growth. When we look more broadly, through a national lens, we see that we might be missing the forest for the trees, so to speak. In Southside, Southwest and the Alleghany Highlands, we still have a lot of localities that are losing population. However, in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, virtually every locality is gaining population. All you have to do is look at the map to see how Virginia’s southern border acts as a demographic demarcation. In Virginia, we have a checkerboard of rural counties, some gaining, some losing. South of us, there’s much more widespread population growth. Once again, Virginia’s leaders from both parties might want to ponder why that is. Youngkin cites tax differences. I’m not in a position to dispute that, but I will gently point out that taxes are more complicated than that. Tennessee has no income tax, for instance, but the tradeoff is it has the nation’s second highest sales tax rates. In a previous column, I looked more closely at why eastern Tennessee has more population growth than Southwest Virginia; the answers involve geography and historic patterns of development. Whatever the reason, the pattern is clear: Population growth in rural areas is more uneven than in our Southern neighbors.
  1. Migration to rural areas is slowing, but still continuing. “During the height of the pandemic, many small counties experienced higher levels of domestic migration, while many large counties saw lower levels of domestic migration,” the Census Bureau says. “This pattern has reversed between 2021 and 2022, where many of the small counties that experienced increases in domestic migration saw that pattern slow down.” Slow down, but not halt altogether. Demographers are still watching these trends to see if this Zoom-era bump in rural population growth is a temporary phenomenon or something longer-lasting. Nonetheless, the exodus from some metro areas continues. Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Detroit, in that order, saw the biggest numbers of people moving out. So who’s gaining?

7. The Sunbelt continues to be where the population growth is. In terms of raw numbers of people moving in, the two biggest gainers are Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix), and Harris County, Texas (Houston). The 10 fastest-gaining counties are all in Arizona (one), Texas (six) and Florida (three). There are those who view these growth trends in political terms, making the case that Republican-governed states are gaining and Democratic-governed ones are losing — Illinois and New York are the two classic examples cited, although lately California has joined them. I’m not sure I buy that because there are too many exceptions. Mississippi and West Virginia are governed by Republicans and virtually every county in those states is losing population. Washington state is governed by Democrats and virtually every county there is gaining population. I suspect the reasons are much more nuanced. Party control certainly has something to do with the policies a state enacts (be it the taxes that Youngkin says are too high or the investment that Watts says it too low), but we also have to factor in underlying demographics and economic factors — along with, well, sunshine.

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