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Where Is Virginia’s Growth Occurring? You Might Be Surprised
Virginia’s cities lost population during the pandemic, but some localities bordering metro areas grew significantly – especially those near Richmond, according to Hamilton Lombard of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Lombard is the estimates program manager for the Demographics Research Group at the Cooper Center. His review of recent state population figures shows that, after a decade of slow population growth following the 2009 housing crash, communities on the borders of Virginia’s metro areas are booming again.
“A decade ago, Northern Virginia was dominating growth in Virginia with two-thirds, three-quarters of the growth, depending on the year. What we’ve seen since 2020 is population declining in most of the inner part of Northern Virginia. That area has not seen that happen probably in a century,” Lombard said.
“At the same time, we’re seeing growth push up in some areas where we haven’t seen it in probably a decade. Those areas are on the outer edges of metro areas where it’s more affordable to live,” he said.
Each year, demographers at the Weldon Cooper Center develop and release the official population estimates for Virginia, its counties and independent cities as of July 1 of the prior year. The estimates provide the best approximation of population between official U.S. Census counts.
Population estimates are used by a variety of state agencies in planning and budgeting.
According to Cooper Center figures, communities surrounding Richmond are growing the fastest, with New Kent County leading the state between 2020 and 2022 with 7.5% population growth, followed by Goochland County at 5.6% and Louisa County at 5.4%.
The figures show most of Virginia’s growth over the two years since the 2020 U.S. Census has been north of the James River, particularly in Northern Virginia and around Richmond. Most of Virginia’s more rural counties have lost population, notably in Southside and Southwest Virginia.
The figures resemble growth patterns before and after the housing market collapse and Great Recession between 2009 and 2012. A major difference in the patterns is that the COVID-19 pandemic period saw the state’s population grow by only 52,000, while the post-recession growth was more than 200,000.
Migration from Northern Virginia into the Richmond metro area has risen by nearly 40% since the mid-2010s. Richmond has been so attractive that in 2022 Zillow ranked it the second-most popular metro area in the country for prospective home buyers, Lombard said. Bon Air, in Chesterfield County, was ranked the third-most popular Zip code by Zillow.
The moves are sparked by a combination of factors, including rising urban real estate values, lower home prices prices in the exurbs and a shift by employers to remote work, Lombard said.
“Whenever we see housing prices go up in a strong economy, we see this cycle. We saw it before in the mid-2000s housing boom – growth started slowing down in Northern Virginia and people started moving out,” he said.
Louisa County had 2,193 people move into the county since 2020, according to the figures. Albemarle County had 2,877 people migrate into its boundaries while the city of Charlottesville saw 141 people migrate out of the city limits.
Lombard said many of Louisa County’s new residents moved there from Prince William County as the county’s real estate values rose. In 2010, the median home price in Prince William County was $34,000 more than Louisa County’s. Last year, Prince William property was nearly $200,000 more.
Lombard said the median home price in other Northern Virginia counties is close to $400,000 more, making outlying communities more attractive.
Higher housing prices in Charlottesville and Albemarle County also put people on the move, feeding new residents into Nelson County as well as Louisa, Greene and Fluvanna counties, Lombard said.
“Charlottesville saw people moving out as its home values remain high, and that fueled some migration into surrounding counties,” he said. “That’s not a bad thing. It means the economy is strong enough for people to move to where they want to live.”
Reasons why people move vary. He said some choose smaller, more affordable communities for retirement. Others may move to open new businesses. Since the pandemic, many are moving to take advantage of remote work opportunities that allow them to live farther from population centers.
“That’s been the real change; the shift to about a third of all work being done remotely,” Lombard said. “Close to half of the workforce has some sort of remote work set up. That allows people to have a lot more options where they want to live and they can go after more affordable housing. Places like Louisa or Staunton become more attractive.”
Some areas saw migration into communities, but more deaths and fewer births among residents resulted in a population drop regardless. In Washington County, southwest of Roanoke, the population fell by 212 despite 428 people moving to the county, because 670 residents died.
“We have a lot of counties that attract a lot of people, but their population is still declining because there have been so many deaths from COVID, as well as drug overdoses and other unnatural causes, that it masks the extent to which we’ve seen this shift,” he said.
Lombard said the figures show deaths on the state level rose from 1,000 or so a year prior to the pandemic to 6,000 between 2019 and 2020. Between 2021 and 2022, that jumped to 9,000 deaths across the state.
Population migration, both within the state and out, is not a bad thing, but a positive sign of a strong economy, Lombard said.
“There’s certainly a rhythm. In strong economies, people become more mobile, housing prices go up, wages typically go up and you see a lot more relocation. In weaker economies, people double up, they rent smaller places and they usually stay in cities,” he said.
“This change is driven by people who now can live where they want to live. They have a good job, and they’re taking advantage of that. It’s a change, but it’s not necessarily bad,” he said. “The sky is not falling.”
The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service offers public interest research, leadership development programs, local government consulting, and unbiased data and analysis to public servants and policymakers across the commonwealth. Guided by its values of access, collaboration and impact, the Cooper Center’s services are designed to foster good governance, equity and resilience in every Virginia community.
Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications
March 22, 2023