The new census data released this week show how much fast-growing Greater Boston is an exception compared to metro areas in the Northeast and in other colder climates. But even within the state, there are conflicting trends as the booming economy and high housing prices continue to create leaders and laggards.
For example, some suburbs that have long enjoyed a reputation for good schools and desirability are growing slowly — if at all — while several smaller cities that have been through tough times are on the rise again.
The new figures from the 2020 Census will likely result in more federal money heading to growing cities with a high-population of lower-income residents. State leaders will also use the data to redraw the political boundaries for congressional and state legislative seats.
But the numbers also tell us a lot about how and where communities grew around Greater Boston over the last decade. Here are a few trends that jumped out.
Massachusetts is exceptional
Zoom out a bit, and you’ll see the state is something of a demographic outlier in this part of the country. At 7.4 percent, Massachusetts’s growth rate was the highest of any state north of Delaware and east of Minnesota. Pennsylvania and Ohio grew just one-third as fast over the last decade. Connecticut barely grew at all. Illinois shrank.
The long-held narrative about people leaving the “old and cold” Northeast and Midwest for Sun Belt and mountain states is borne out in the overall numbers. With one exception: Massachusetts.
A key reason for this is the booming economy of Greater Boston over the last decade, which has made our region a magnet for young people in a way that isn’t as true of places such as Buffalo or Baltimore. Most of the growth here was centered near Boston itself, along with sizable bumps in Worcester and Lawrence. The population in some Western Massachusetts communities, however, declined.
So to some degree Massachusetts is a tale of two states, east and west, though the vast majority of its people live between Worcester and the coast. But that concentration is enough to power the kind of growth that few other places in this part of the country can match.
New Boston-area boomtowns
Within our region, cities and towns grew at significantly different paces. The fastest growth came in a corridor of cities just north of Boston. Revere’s population surged by 20 percent — twice as fast as the City of Boston — to more than 62,000. Everett added 18 percent. Chelsea increased by 16 percent. Lynn and Malden also notched double-digit growth.
What do these places have in common? They’re relatively affordable, close to jobs in the core of the region, and increasingly diverse. Ten years ago, Revere was almost two-thirds white. Today it’s a majority-minority city. Its Latino population has almost doubled in a decade.
And while there are debates around development in some of these cities, they’re poised to keep growing. Construction is just beginning on the massive redevelopment of Suffolk Downs, which straddles Revere and East Boston. There are thousands of apartments and condos in the works along the Lynn waterfront. Everett just approved its first high-rise apartment building.
Staging a comeback
Almost every city and larger town in Eastern Massachusetts grew faster in the 2010s than it did in the previous decade. Some reversed population declines.
Brockton — which has seen a wave of newcomers seeking a less-expensive alternative to Boston — went from losing residents in the 2000s to a 12 percent jump over the past decade; its population topped 100,000 for the first time. Somerville recorded a 7 percent population gain after shrinking in the decade before. Watertown grew for the first time since the 1960s, with a string of new housing along Arsenal Street helping to bolster its population by 10 percent, to more than 35,000.
It follows a pattern started in Boston, which in the ‘90s began to reverse decades of population loss caused by people migrating to outlying cities and towns.
While some parts of the region are booming and others are bouncing back, a few places just slowly chugged along in the last decade.
Two communities in the core of Greater Boston lost population, the twin peninsulas of Nahant and Hull, each shrank by about 2 percent. And a number of sizable suburban towns inside and along Route 128 grew far slower than the region.
Look at Newton, whose population expanded by just 4.4 percent, to about 89,000. It was overtaken by Lawrence as the state’s 11th-most-populous city. Reading grew by 3.1 percent. Dedham, just 2.2 percent.
Some suburban towns grew quickly, particularly along Interstate 495 in Hopkinton — which increased its housing stock by 30 percent in the 2010s — and Westborough, and in pockets elsewhere ranging from Lynnfield to Canton. But regional planners and housing advocates have long warned that towns which build little housing will gradually fall behind as their populations age and children grow up and move away. You can see where that’s starting to happen.
We’re building a lot. But is it enough?
The census found the Greater Boston area added 149,000 housing units. That’s a gain of 7.9 percent, nearly matching the region’s population growth of 8.5 percent. It amounts to one home for every 2.6 new residents.
Not bad, right? Well, that depends.
Greater Boston remains one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, thanks in part to decades of building relatively little compared with population growth. Building almost enough to keep up in the 2010s isn’t enough to move the needle.
While the new data count overall units, it doesn’t yet tell us what was built. One-third of all the new housing in the state came in just 10 municipalities — mostly Boston and urban neighbors such as Cambridge and Quincy. And while a single-family house can easily accommodate 2.6 people, a studio in the Seaport would feel pretty tight.
The Baker administration is pushing hard to spread that load around Eastern Massachusetts, hoping laws passed this year that make it easier to change zoning and require multifamily development near MBTA stations will spark more housing in more places. By the time the next census rolls around in 2030, we should have a sense of how that worked.