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Greater Boston population growth cooling

The morning rush hour in Boston at the crossing of Atlantic Avenue and Summer Street. Globe Staff file

Greater Boston is growing. But not as fast as it was just a few years ago. And that could have big implications for the region’s housing market.

New figures from the US Census indicate the region’s quick pace of population growth in recent years is tapering, with more people moving out of state. The five large counties in Eastern Massachusetts — Suffolk, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Essex — added about 25,000 people in 2016, according to the Census Bureau, a number that fell for the third straight year and is down nearly by half since 2013.

While the Boston area is still growing, housing costs that are among the highest in the nation are dampening that growth, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. And that may put the brakes on our broader economy.


“That’s a critical problem for us in terms of attracting and retaining young families and workers,” Draisen said. “We’ve got to continue to make progress in housing production to keep our population growing and our economy strong.”

Builders have been throwing up thousands of apartments and condos a year across Boston and neighboring cities, which has helped flatten the growth in rents. But the supply of houses for sale, especially in inner suburbs, remains historically low.

The trend has some housing experts questioning how Boston will keep its large numbers of millennials as they age out of rental apartments and want homes with a yard and room for kids. If they can’t find that, at an affordable price, in Boston and its inner suburbs, will some leave the region?

That’s possible, said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Like many older Northeastern cities, Boston has long had sizable numbers of people moving away, especially to lower-cost cities in the South and West after the recessions of the 1990s and early 2000s.


“Clearly cost of living is a factor,” Goodman said. “But it’s really job opportunities that are driving these migrants.”

That outflow of migrants briefly reversed when the economy began recovering from the most recent recession. Now the old patterns are reemerging. Indeed without immigrants, the region would have lost population since 2015. Greater Boston gained roughly twice as many from immigration as it lost from domestic moves.

That has people who watch housing and labor markets watching events in Washington very closely. President Trump has pledged to curtail immigration. How he does it could have big ripples here, Draisen said.

“If the door gets shut, that’s a huge impact on our economy,” he said.

Tim Logan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.