REGIONAL – Recent news that population is declining in our area has caught the attention of planners, politicians and school administrations. The evidence suggests that the Mid-Hudson Valley is due for some dynamic changes.
It has always been clear that the Mid-Hudson Valley is a special case, because despite the rural nature of the area and its natural beauty, the proximity of New York City has profound economic effects. Once, those worked out in terms of a farming economy for the city markets; in the years since the area has always been betwixt and between, generation by generation, from Borscht Belt bungalow colonies and resort hotels yesterday to Airbnb rentals and endurance runners' events today.
But despite the City's effects, the social and economic changes that have hammered Rural America are unfortunately still evident in much of our readership area and seem likely to continue, although many are starting to note how the economic influences and new people coming from the metro area to our south will counter such effects.
How is this dichotomy between rural elements and an urban-tied economy playing out in Ulster, Sullivan and Orange Counties?
Ulster's 2016 population was down 3,268 since the census in 2010, to 179,225. Sullivan County fell to 74,801, down 2,746. Orange County lost 7,300 people, but births among certain groups added 14,000 and kept the county's population at around 380,000.
A little further afield we see the continuation of the long term trend. Upstate, rural New York lost population, and the City and downstate counties gained, though less last year than in previous years. Overall, New York lost about two thousand people, and migration out of the city and suburbs ran to about 149,331, a big increase on the previous year's 118,262. However, in-migration still overcame that deficit with the biggest growth showing up in Brooklyn and the Bronx. As of July 1, 2016, the state held 19,745,289 New Yorkers.
Joe Czaika at Pattern for Progress, who has been following these trends for years, explains things succinctly.
"The majority of those who migrate out of the state of New York blame high taxes," he said. "The other major trend is that millennials are attracted to large urban centers. They are migrating to New York City, to Boston, Chicago, Austin. They want nightlife, they don't want to depend on cars for getting around. They want a different sort of relationship with neighbors and community and they are willing to share housing. They are leaving the rural, suburban world."
Pattern for Progress has been working on a program, "Urban Action Agenda," for some time now that seeks to mitigate that trend among the young.
"Urban Action Agenda seeks to switch that paradigm around, because we want to attract and retain millennials here. And so we work to help redevelop our cities and towns," Czaika explained, pointing to the potential for growth he sees. "There's a palpable momentum going on in Newburgh now. There's great opportunity here. But there needs to be some controls on investment to prevent wide-scale displacement of those currently living in the city."
Turning back to the wider issues, Czaika added, "Roughly a third of the population of Orange and Ulster counties drives half an hour out of county to get to work. When you live outside the urban center you are dependent on your own vehicle. Kids coming out of college with debt and not a really great job soon find the costs add up quickly. Those costs can tilt them towards the city."
The other important factor is the price of land and housing.
"The outward migration from the city that took place in the 70s and 80s saw a tremendous influx into Orange and Dutchess counties. Many were commuters dependent on rail. In that period, cheap farmland was converted to housing, as in Scotchtown near Middletown," Czaika continued. "Today, developable land is a bit more rare, and land is now being developed as rental properties, luxury rental styles and complexes, instead of single family developments."
Thus the low interest rates of this era get balanced by the higher costs of land, which are pushing developers towards apartment complexes and luxury housing. In other words... Another impetus to the movement to the cities.
Czaika sees the coming decade reflecting these trends.
"The population here is aging. There is declining enrollment in many school districts, but the cost of operating the schools is not going down. A lot of people are 'aging in place' — they like their homes and they don't want to move away," the Pattern planner/researcher concluded. "That can be a positive trend for the construction industry, because homes will have to be modified and adapted for older people to continue living in them."
Yes, changes are coming, and probably already here.