The U.S. Census Bureau surprised us last week with the news that Atlanta's population only grew by approximately 3,500 people, bringing the total number of folks living in the city limits to around 420,000.
That number, which is way off the bureau's own estimates over the years that put Atlanta past the 500,000 mark, has a lot of folks — including Mayor Kasim Reed — scratching their heads.
Weren't Midtown, the Westside and such eastern neighborhoods as Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park fast becoming dense communities? Hadn't the Census Bureau's own 2009 estimates put Atlanta at 540,000 people? How could the city's population only increase by 3,500 people in 10 years? Was there an error? What happened?
Reese McCranie, the mayor's deputy spokesman, when CL chatted with him on Friday.
"We find it surprising that the census came back with results that they did," he said. "We'll be looking at them closely."
Mike Alexander, the chief of the Atlanta Regional Commission's division that pores over statistics and monitors trends, was also surprised about the the city's numbers. While he continued crunching data, he pointed us to this nifty interactive map his team built that offers a different look at population growth and loss on the county and city levels. He also guided us through some of the info. We're grateful and owe him some sort of beverage.
Here's what stood out to us.
For a moment, let's assume the census data — which is calculated by surveys, housing data, and complex formulas — is correct.
The unimpressive population growth might not be because people weren't moving to Atlanta, but rather because some people — particularly African Americans — moved out. And the economy probably played a pretty large role in that phenomenon.
Between 2000 and 2010, Atlanta's black population declined by 29,746 people, or 12 percent. That's similar to a phenomenon seen in other cities throughout the country during the last ten years. Some of what occurred in Atlanta, which despite the loss in African-American population remains a majority-black city, could be attributed to the demolition of public housing and the impact of the recession.
The city's white population grew by 22,155 people, or 17 percent, in the last ten years. Atlanta's Hispanic and Asian population also increased.
Now let's look at the percentage of Atlanta's vacant single-family homes, condominiums and apartments.PDF) Zoom in closer and you'll see most are located in predominantly African American neighborhoods hit hard by foreclosures and mortgage fraud.
Another depressing factoid: According to census data, Atlanta added 37,648 housing units between 2000 and 2010. Yet the city only gained approximately 3,500 people.
Statistics aside, why were the census bureau's population estimates so high the last five or six years? It's a good question, one which we probably won't know the answer to for some time.
Here's one interesting perspective, courtesy of Georgia Tech Ph.D. student Jacob Alperin-Sheriff. It's also worth nothing that Atlanta and Fulton County in 2004 and 2005 challenged the census bureau's population estimates and were later given higher numbers, sometimes tens of thousands greater. Whether those challenges changed any methodology or made subsequent population estimates unreliable is unclear. We gave the bureau a ring on Friday but sat on hold for about 20 minutes.
Expect a lot of chatter about these population counts — and some cities and counties to possibly make some type of official challenge — over the next few weeks. Considering that this data plays a large role in how local governments divvy up sales tax revenues and jockey for federal funding, you can bet politicos will want to be sure every man, woman and billygoat is counted.
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