PUBLISHED: May 15, 2021 at 5:10 p.m. | UPDATED: May 17, 2021 at 6:40 a.m.
A mountain biker rides along a stretch of the Gold Hill Fire in San Rafael on Saturday, May 15, 2021. (Sherry LaVars/Marin Independent Journal)
California posted a yearly decrease in population in 2020 for the first time in more than a century, and so did Marin County.
The state’s population dropped by 182,083 residents, or 0.46%, during 2020, according to population estimates and housing data released by the California Department of Finance. Marin’s population took an even bigger dip: It lost 2,614 residents, or 1% of its population, reducing its total to 257,774.
San Rafael, the Marin municipality with the biggest decrease, sustained a 0.6% loss, or 369 residents. Novato, which had a 0.1% decrease in its population, or 55 residents, was the Marin municipality with the smallest percentage loss.
Marin’s unincorporated area lost the highest percentage of residents, 2.6%, or 1,809 people.
“California as a whole had only three counties that did not experience population drop, so Marin County is not unique in that sense,” said Mike Blakeley, chief executive officer of the Marin Economic Forum.
“The implications in Marin of a shrinking population is that it could result in a diminishing workforce, which might make it more difficult for the economy to grow if labor is not readily available,” Blakeley said. “We already observe that employers are having difficulty hiring, especially at the lower wage levels, but this was also the case pre-pandemic so we would not attribute that to population decrease.”
Walter Schwarm, the state’s chief demographer, attributed the statewide drop in population to several factors. First, California continues to see declines in the “natural increase” of the population, he said. There were 24,000 more deaths than births in California in 2020. This trend was amplified by 51,000 deaths to COVID-19 in the state last year.
Schwarm said Marin County had 2,138 deaths last year compared with 2,073 births. That included more than 100 deaths from COVID-19.
Schwarm said another important factor leading to the population decrease was federal policy, including restrictions on H-1B and other visas, and global lockdowns that prevented international immigration during the pandemic. He said this resulted in 53,000 fewer international students in California during 2020.
The Bay Area Council wrote on its website that the population report “shows the nine-county Bay Area total population stagnating between July 2019 and July 2020. Notably, net domestic migration (movement between states) continued its growing negative trend, with a loss of 63,000 residents over the 12-month period.”
The 2020 data also indicate that California residents are moving from the coast to inland counties, Schwarm said.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, approximately 6.1 million people left California during the 2010s, while 4.9 million moved in.
Cynthia Murray, chief executive of the North Bay Leadership Council, said Marin’s population decrease “represents a further hollowing out of the middle class.”
“If you look at who is leaving, it is the younger workforce that is seizing the opportunity to move to where they can afford to buy a home and raise their family,” she said. “The exodus of the younger middle class workers is accelerating with the new options of being able to work from home or need to go to the office infrequently.
“Marin is, and will be, challenged to fill jobs that require people to be at the worksite,” Murray said. “With a lot of job openings, and talent in short supply, there will need to be an increase in wages and benefits to be competitive.”
The Department of Finance report also included new housing data, saying 103,073 new residences were created in the state last year. It was the first year since 2008 that the state created more than 100,000 residences.
In Marin, 176 residences were created last year. Novato led the way with 73, while 30 were created in San Rafael and 10 in San Anselmo.
The county also produced 77 new “accessory dwelling units” — also known as granny or in-law apartments — last year. Eighteen were in San Rafael.
Murray said the county’s “lack of housing will continue to spur more middle class workers to depart to less expensive parts of California or other states where they can live their vision of the American Dream, which for most of them is no longer attainable in Marin.”
Schwarm predicted in his report that California will return to slightly positive annual population growth this year as pandemic-related deaths decline and federal immigration policies are relaxed.
Schwarm added, however, that if the state’s population continues to decline it could affect local governments’ ability to spend by triggering the “Gann limit.”
Instituted by a constitutional measure in 1979, the Gann limit placed a cap on appropriations by state and local governments. The limit is calculated from the base year of 1978-79 and adjusted for cost of living increases and population growth.
If a government collects more in taxes than it is allowed to spend, excess funds must be returned to taxpayers. Tax rebates similar to the ones announced by Gov. Gavin Newsom this month would have been mandated by the limit due to the state’s large budget surplus.
“San Rafael’s loss is something we are watching and if the decline in population were to continue long enough, we could see a lower limit on our expenditure amount,” said City Manager Jim Schutz. “However, we are not running up against the Gann limit locally, so it would take some years of on-going declines for that issue to affect us.”