For the first time in more than a decade, Multnomah County saw its population shrink in 2021, according to new figures released today by the US Census Bureau.
The county’s decline—by 12,494 people or 1.5%—drove a more modest decline (0.2%) in the Portland metro area.
The loss of population comes amid more dramatic declines in some of the nation’s largest cities, a trend which experts link to COVID-19 deaths and people trying to escape rising housing costs. (Portland’s decline pales in comparison to the exodus from San Francisco, which lost 6.3% of its residents in a year.)
But the new Portland numbers come amid deep public dissatisfaction with the direction of the city—and will renew questions about whether Portlanders are fleeing civic disorder.
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Charles Rynerson, who directs the Population Research Center at Portland State University, cautions against drawing large conclusions from the census data.
“The population figures are lower than our 2021 population estimates,” Rynerson tells WW, “The Census Bureau does have access to some indicators that we don’t have access to, but in the longer run throughout the decade I’d expect our figures to converge. The July 2020-July 2021 period was unusual due to COVID; the new figures show huge declines for many larger metros and urban counties including San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, but if true those trends likely stabilized or slightly reversed after July 2021.”
Rynerson says the population loss in the Portland area was driven largely by net migration losses—that is, more people leaving than arriving—in Washington County and especially Multnomah County. In the latter, which contains Portland, 12,617 more people moved out than moved in.
Josh Lehner, a state economist, says PSU preliminary population estimates last November actually showed a slight population gain in Multnomah County—of 4,300 people.
“Those are kind of the same number, or in the same ballpark,” Lehner says. “One is just positive and one is negative which changes the connotations and interpretation. Hard to know which is more accurate today.”
One clear trend from the national data: US cities with high housing costs saw people leaving in droves, often for more affordable, mid-sized cities nearby. As people left Los Angeles and the Bay Area, places like St. George, Utah and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho saw the most dramatic percentage increases.