Home crisis will impact 2010 census

When census workers hit the streets in coming weeks to reach residents who have not returned their 2010 surveys, they’ll knock on doors of a lot of empty homes.

The foreclosure crisis is going to make it much harder to count Americans this year because many homes that were occupied 18 to 24 months ago are now vacant, say officials with the U.S. Census Bureau.

According to Alpharetta-based Equity Depot, which tracks foreclosures, notices in the 13-county metro Atlanta area hit a monthly record of 12,568 in March, up 24 percent compared with the same period last year. While that number includes both residential and commercial foreclosures, the overwhelming majority were residential.

Complicating matters will be where the former owners of those foreclosed homes have landed. They often are staying with relatives or friends who might not know that they should count them as part of their household, or in some cases are not willing to.

“In areas with a lot of foreclosures, we are doing a lot of special outreach to say, ‘If you are doubled up ... the only way we’re going to count them is if you count them,’ ” Census Bureau director Robert Groves told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a recent interview.

The inability to count the former residents of foreclosed homes could have a significant impact on metro Atlanta. Beyond knowing how many people actually live in the United States, the decennial census determines the allocation of more than $400 billion in annual federal funds based on population. The larger the number of residents, the more money that flows from Washington for such things as day care programs, new bridges and law enforcement.

Metro Atlanta, like many large communities, also will be faced with addresses that were never occupied in the first place, experts said. Atlanta’s Peachtree Street is lined with empty condos and the suburbs are littered with “stove-pipe” subdivisions, so called because of the plumbing that sticks out of the ground for houses that were never built.

“You’ve got addresses for all of those units that were never built, much less ever occupied,” said Jim Skinner, a research planner for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

To get as accurate a count as possible, enumerators will go to houses multiple times, Groves said.

“Our folks in May through July will go to every vacant house,” he said. “We’ll knock on every door, we’ll ask neighbors. Sometimes we’ll have to go back three or four times. We’ll spend money on vacant houses because we can’t put up with uncertainty about that.”

Andy Carswell, an associate professor in housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia, said it is critical that the numbers come out right. Programs like community development block grants, for instance, depend on numbers to make the case of need.

“If you are talking about one or two missed counts, you’re talking about a lot of money,” he said.

The transient nature of the economy also worries him, Carswell said. If some people leave with the intention of returning, they won’t be counted here and that will mean less money for metro Atlanta.

“What we’re talking about is a residential situation that is in flux,” he said. “You want to get as accurate a picture as you can get, but it will be difficult.”