Friday, February 11, 2005

The Population Boogie

Yesterday's Post-Dispatch reported on a forum held at UMSL about the St. Louis region losing population based on IRS data.

The lead investigator on this report was Dave Laslo, of the UMSL Public Policy Research Centers demographic arm. Meanwhile, among those attending and critiquing the report was Rollin Stanley, the director of the City's Planning & Urban Design Agency.

What's funny here is that Dave used to work for the very agency that Rollin heads, albeit several years ago, before Rollin came to town from Toronto. Anyway, the IRS data - generally considered a pretty good indicator of where people live - showed a slight decrease in the metro area's population, and of course an even stronger decline in the City of St. Louis.

Basically, the IRS data is pretty good, but as Rollin argues, doesn't capture the very low-income, transient and recent immigrant populations who may not be required to file tax returns.

However, the City's method used to challenge the Census estimate, building permits, certainly ain't perfect either.

1) The usual method of the City planning agency is to say that any building permit over $20,000 implies a major renovation of a housing unit. But, that doesn't necessarily mean the unit is unoccupied prior to the permit issuance.

2) Sometimes, permits are issued and the work doesn't actually happen.

3) Permit dollar values are self-reported: basically, the person getting the building permit can say their project costs whatever they want to say. Admittedly, there is an incentive to say a project will cost less than it really does, which may cancel out the $20,000+ problem.

4) Building permit data is the City's proprietary data, and as such, has the potential to be manipulated internally. I have no evidence this has occurred, but certainly, it is possible.

5) Even if we accept $20,000 as a reasonable standard for a housing unit rehab minimum cost, there's really no good way of knowing how many people will live in a building that's been rehabbed.

In fact, oftentimes we see that in gentrifying areas of South City, a project cost of $60,000 can result in a former two-family with two bedrooms per unit that housed four to six people, being converted into a single-family with only two people living there. Sure, their incomes will be probably be higher, but it's hard to really claim that more building permits necessarily means more people. In some cases, gut rehab may mean fewer people.

All in all, there is no perfect way of estimating out the population in any given geographic area. Even the Census itself is far from a complete count.

It seems safe to say, in any event, that the St. Louis region has a stagnant population. Whether the decline is significant on its own terms, is hard to say. However, we are clearly not growing. Even if the City of St. Louis may have stabilized its 50+ years of declining population - which is hopefully the case - it is not accurate to say the City is growing by leaps and bounds. It is not. Instead, there are positive signs of higher-income, socially and geographically mobile people moving into certain pockets of the City.

However, there are still working-class and working poor people moving out, and some of that can be attributed to frustration with a seemingly non-responsive Police Department and with the poor quality of education in many of the St. Louis Public Schools. This is certainly true of immigrants - many Bosnians with children have left the Bevo neighborhood and moved to the Bayless and Mehlville school districts in South County.

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