We full? Fulton, DeKalb populations shrink for the first time in more than a decade

220117-Atlanta-Traffic flows freely along the Downtown Connector on Monday morning, Jan. 17, 2022.  Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Combined ShapeCaption
220117-Atlanta-Traffic flows freely along the Downtown Connector on Monday morning, Jan. 17, 2022. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s suburban counties such as Forsyth and Cherokee have seen strong, continual growth.

With Atlanta’s skyline in permanent flux, brutal traffic and soaring home prices, Atlantans are quick to say, “We full.”

But new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that three of the Atlanta metro area’s central counties—Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton—actually lost population in 2021.

The counties lost 10,000 people between 2020 and 2021, a little less than half a percent of the population in a year.

The pandemic played a role in this defiance of expectations of Atlanta’s rapid growth. Slowing growth in the most of the city’s core counties has been a trend, though, since 2016, an extensive analysis of census estimates and IRS data has revealed. Experts point to housing affordability and slowing international immigration as potential drivers.

Many also note Atlanta has also been swept up in a national trend of slowing growth in big cities.

“I am not surprised to learn that core counties have contracted population wise,” said Daphne Bond-Godfrey, executive director of the Atlanta branch of nonprofit The Urban Land Institute.

“COVID accelerated a lot of housing trends we were beginning to see — a more suburban future being one of them.”

Meanwhile, the other two, more suburban core Atlanta counties — Gwinnett and Cobb — gained population. Gwinnett in particular, saw an increase of 6,745 people, or 0.7%, while Cobb saw relatively flat growth of 593.

In 2020, Tony Tran moved from the Clarkston/Stone Mountain area in DeKalb, where he had grown up most of his life, to Norcross in Gwinnett.

He says he felt little sense of community in the area he grew up. While the cost of housing in the two communities is similar, Norcross, he says, and offers more of the green space and amenities he values.

“When I was in Stone Mountain, I felt like there wasn’t anything happening there. I would go to school, then work, then go home,” Tran, a Realtor, said. “Now I make my own plans, call some friends, go to a park, shoot some basketball. In Stone Mountain there wasn’t as much room for that.”

‘Less Space’

Georgia did outpace the United States in growth between 2010 and 2020. While the country grew at a rate of 7.4%, Georgia grew by 10% to 10.7 million people.

And last year, the Atlanta metro area leapfrogged the Miami metropolitan area to claim the distinction of being the eighth largest in the country, trailing the Philadelphia metro, according to the Census Bureau.

This stems, though, from from the census’ big-tent definition of “metro Atlanta” — 29 counties stretching to Georgia’s western and northern borders.

Much of the metro area’s growth came in Atlanta’s relatively far-flung exurban counties—Cherokee, Douglas, Fayette, Henry, Bartow, Paulding and Rockdale. These counties added 26,000 to their populations, a 2% increase, driven primarily by domestic migration.

Yet few if any who live in Locust Grove, GA—population 9,000—would say they’re Atlantans.

Migration to Atlanta’s core counties began to slow in 2016 and has remained sluggish ever since. The pandemic only exacerbated the pattern, as people looked to move away from dense areas prone to the spread of COVID-19, experts say. Births also slowed and deaths increased. Roughly 70% of Georgia’s counties saw more deaths than births in 2021, said University of Georgia demographer Taylor Hafley.

Immigration, which buoyed Atlanta’s growth rate for years, also nearly ground to a halt.

If it wasn’t for immigrants, the Atlanta metro area would have lost about 6,000 people to migration in 2018—instead, it gained 9,000. Last year’s estimates showed a net increase of just 5,000 immigrants.

Atlanta is not alone: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco lost a total of more than 700,000 people from July 2020 to July 2021, according to the Census Bureau.

Last year was the slowest population growth year on record, with the nation growing by just 0.1%, the bureau previously said.

“The pandemic has slowed growth nationwide,” Hafley said.

The pandemic is not solely to blame. Birthrates within the U.S., for one, have been slowing since 2007, and soaring housing prices also played a role.

According to data published by Atlanta Realtors, median home prices in Fulton, Gwinnett and DeKalb have all seen increases. In DeKalb, for example, the median price of a house rose 13.5% from December 2020 to December 2021, from $310,000 to $352,000.

A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta considers Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties unaffordable to its residents, meaning residents pay more than 30% of their pre-tax household income to their rent or mortgage.

DeKalb, which saw the greatest decline in its population, was deemed the least affordable county in the Atlanta metro analysis.

“Housing costs have to have an impact before and now because the pressures surprised everybody and continued to exist,” said Jim Skinner, senior principal planner at the Atlanta Regional Commission. “If we don’t solve the housing problems, we’ll see a consistent low migration into the core counties.”

A Suburban Rise

Atlanta’s exurbs, meanwhile, have seen steady growth for more than a decade. Eight of the city’s exurban counties added 26,000 more residents in 2021. Forsyth County saw the largest net increase of 7,420, or 3%.

Again, housing affordability is at play, experts say, as well as the shift to remote or hybrid work, which has unlocked greater mobility for many white-collar workers. None of the exurban counties are considered unaffordable according to the Fed report. Forsyth County, in fact, ranked as the most affordable among all of the core and exurban counties.

Bond-Godfrey notes that there are nuances. She points to an Apartment List analysis of census data which suggests that households with $150,000 in income were the only income group that had significantly more moves in 2020 than in previous years.

“The answer is not as straightforward as it depends on what segment of the population, age, education, and income,” she said.

It is also worth noting that the census estimates do come with some caveats. For one, the estimates will be refined later this year, based on data from the 2020 census count. The bureau also notes that, with the estimates, there is a statistically-significant undercount of Black and Hispanic populations, which can affect the data, especially in diverse core counties such as Fulton and Clayton.

And given the unique nature of the pandemic, it is unclear what will happen in the next few years as the country appears to slowly emerge from the pandemic. Skinner believes that, although migration won’t come roaring back immediately, there will not be a “sea change” in the way Atlanta grows.

“We’re going to have to carefully consider [the data] and track it year to year.”