March 25, 2024

Harris County Grew by 1.2% in 2023, but Domestic Migration Continues Slide

Harris County Grew by 1.2% in 2023, but Domestic Migration Continues Slide

According to the estimates just released by the US Census Bureau, Harris County grew by about 56,000 residents in 2023, a 1.2% increase. However, somewhat ominously, for the eighth consecutive year more people moved out of Harris County bound for other places in the US than into the Country from other places in the US ("domestic migration).1  

The County's population growth, which had been growing at a torrid pace for the last three decades, began to slow about a decade ago. During the pandemic, the county’s population barely grew at all but began to rebound in 2022 with a 1% gain. This is the breakout of the change over last year.

Note that without international migration, Harris County population would have essentially been flat last year (34,695-22,792=11,903).

The Houston MSA2 grew by 139,000. That was slightly under 2% (7.34MM→7,48MM). About 61% of that growth occurred in the suburban counties.  Fort Bend County grew by 3.1% and Montgomery County grew at an eye-popping 4.7%. The population of Fort Bend County is now nearly double the population inside Loop 610.

Harris County was the only county in the MSA that posted negative domestic migration. The domestic migration for the suburban counties was nearly 62,000 compared Harris County’s negative 22,000. This is the result of Harris County residents moving further out and those moving to the region from other places in the US choosing the suburban counties over Harris County. According to the Census Bureau’s numbers, Harris County has lost over 200,000 residents due to domestic outmigration in the last decade.

There were 21 of Texas’ 254 counties that posted negative domestic migration last year. Most were small rural counties. However, Dallas and Travis counties also had negative domestic migration. Dallas County negative domestic migration was 33,000. Proportionately, that is about three times greater than Harris County’s loss.

The Houston MSA and the Dallas MSA, which also posted a 1.9% gain, grew the most of the 20 largest MSAs in the US. The Tampa MSA came in third at 1.6%. The Austin MSA, which is not in the top 20, was Texas’ fastest growing MSA at 2.3%.  Dallas and Travis counties, like Harris County, lagged well behind their suburban counties.

According to the Census estimate, Texas added 128,00 new residents from international migration. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the Census is badly undercounting the current surge of immigration. In the border counties, for example, it is showing very small increases in population from international migration. So, either the Census Bureau is not doing a very good job of counting recent emigrates or the immigrates are not stopping there for long.

Also, my friend Bob Rehak called to my attention, we have a glaring example in our region of what appears to be the Census Bureau’s undercounting of international immigration. The estimate shows that Liberty County’s population has only increased from international migration by 132 over the last three years. As many of you will know, the infamous Colony Ridge subdivision is located in Liberty County. Numerous media accounts have reported the rapid development of this subdivision, which caters to Latino immigrants. Some of these reports have estimated the population is as high as 50,000. The Census tract that covers that area (7003.02) only shows a population of 13,500. I am somewhat skeptical about the 50,000 estimate, but there are clearly more than 13,500 people in that area and certainly more than 132 moved there over the last three years.

Laying aside the problem that international migration may be undercounted, I think overall the 2023 numbers confirm the basic trends we have seen develop over the last decade. While Texas is doing better than the rest of country, population growth is beginning to slow. There are a few exceptions in some suburban counties like Montgomery, Collin, and Williamson. There is also some notable growth in the counties just outside the MSAs, sometimes referred to as exurbs.  Although, statistically speaking, those numbers are still relatively small.

The one undeniable trend is that the population has mostly flatlined in Texas’ urban cores over the last decade. That is largely true throughout the country. Relatively speaking, Texas cities are doing better than many urban cores that are seeing substantial declines in their population.

I think this reflects that the value proposition for living in an urban core has deteriorated and will continue to do so. Many of the advantages of having large numbers of people living in close quarters, which drove urbanization for the last two centuries, have been erased by technological advances. Those trends have been in place for some time but were greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Some believe those will be reversed post-pandemic. I am skeptical.

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