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City Talk: How we’re changing – and how we aren’t

  • Bill Dawers

In last Sunday’s column, we looked at new information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey about the rapidly changing Thomas Square neighborhood south of Forsyth Park.

Today, let’s look more broadly at the demographic and economic changes across Chatham County.

For this column, I’m comparing the ACS’s 5-year estimates for 2012-2016, which were released last week, to the 5-year estimates for 2008-2012.

As I noted in another recent column, the last 10 years have been volatile. In 2008, the national economy was still unraveling, and then we had a painfully slow recovery beginning in summer 2009. In more recent years, the metro area economy has been expanding steadily.

The ACS’s use of 5-year estimates has a tendency to smooth out the rough edges in the data, however, so we don’t end up focusing too much on the outlying years or data points.

Please note that the 5-year estimates will differ from the 1-year Census estimates that are often cited in the press.

The changes in Chatham County from 2012 to 2016 are generally small, but the new numbers have some implications for public policymakers and private investors.

A more mobile community

“In 2008-2012,” the ACS notes, “86 percent of the people at least one year old living in Chatham County, Georgia were living in the same residence one year earlier.”

The deep 2007-2009 recession and the subsequent slow recovery restricted migration at the local, national and international levels. Folks who wanted to sell their houses suddenly found themselves stuck in place, older workers delayed retirement, and fewer Americans moved for new jobs .

In 2016, just 79 percent of people in Chatham County over one year old are living in the same residence as a year ago. In neighborhoods like Thomas Square, which is seeing both fast out-migration and in-migration, the increased rate of housing turnover has led to massive demographic shifts.

On the one hand, the increased mobility is likely a sign of a more vibrant economy, but, on the other hand, a sense of community can be upended when 20 percent or more of housing units change hands each year.

A little older, a little better educated

In 2012, 60 percent of Chatham County residents over age 25 had taken at least some college, with 30 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

In 2016, 64 percent of Chatham County residents over age 25 had some college behind them, with 33 percent holding at least a bachelor’s degree.

The number of Chatham County residents aged 65 and over was 12.5 percent in the 2012 estimates, but that population climbed to 13.6 percent in 2016. That number is likely to rise as the baby boom generation ages, but then it’s likely to fall as that generation — how to put this nicely? — cycles out of the population.

Housing vacancy rate falling

During the housing bubble in the years before the recession, the housing vacancy rate rose precipitously, largely as a result of overbuilding. Locally, it seems that uncontrolled blight and disinvestment in some neighborhoods also contributed to an increase in the vacancy rate.

In the 2012 estimates, 15 percent of 119,300 housing units in Chatham County were vacant.

In 2016, 13 percent of 122,700 housing units were vacant.

This is an important shift. We have been adding new housing units at a rate slower than the rate of population growth, and we have been slowly pulling in the slack of our excess vacant units. You won’t see any headlines about a wonky issue like this, but it’s one of the most promising single data points that I see in this latest ACS release.

Also, the number of residents with a housing cost burden has actually declined slightly over the past few years. More good news.

Poverty, unchanged

Despite the general improvements in the area economy, the poverty rate in Chatham County has barely budged in the 2016 5-year estimates compared to the 2012 estimates.

The number of people in poverty in the county fell from 19 percent to 18 percent, and the poverty rate for children fell from 28 percent to 27 percent.

Service jobs make up a slightly higher percentage of positions in the county than they did five years ago, and we have seen a decline in construction jobs, but the shift toward lower wage jobs has been quite small. Even with the increase in lower wage positions, the poverty rate for the city of Savannah fell from 27 percent in the 2012 estimates to 25 percent in the 2016 estimates.

I’ll be looking more closely at the data over the next few weeks to see what other stories emerge.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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