We just got our first glimpse of population data for 2021, and it shows that Washington grew steadily through the COVID-19 pandemic. And despite speculation of an exodus from Seattle, the state’s largest city also increased its population at a modest rate.
According to the Washington Office of Financial Management, the state’s total population hit 7,767,000 on April 1, 2021, representing an increase of 110,700 people from the same date in 2020.
That pencils out to a growth rate of 1.45% — not a record-breaking year, to be sure, but still respectable.
Nearly every county in the state grew, and only one showed a significant drop: Whitman, where the population declined by nearly 5% this year. Whitman is home to Washington State University, and the decrease is certainly due to the number of students who stayed home because of the pandemic. The numbers should bounce back as things return to normal.
The OFM had originally estimated a much smaller increase of 61,600 people statewide from births, deaths and net migration. However, data from the 2020 census for resident population data showed a higher number, and the state adjusted its own estimates to account for this. The OFM added more than 49,000 residents to its estimate, bring the total growth to 110,700.
Unsurprisingly, there was an increase in the number of deaths compared with previous years, which was surely due to COVID-19. About 61,100 Washingtonians died in the 2020 to 2021 period, the first time that number has exceeded 60,000.
The pandemic also had a negative impact on births, which was true across the nation. There were 85,600 babies born statewide. That’s comparable to the number for 2019-2020, which captured the early months of the pandemic. But those numbers are the lowest we’ve seen since the 2005-2006 period.
The number of births minus the number of deaths is called “natural increase,” and it really took a hit during the pandemic. For the period from April 1 2020 to April 1, 2021, Washington’s natural increase was just 24,500. You have to go all the way back to the 1975-1976 period to find a lower number.
The OFM also estimated a big decline in population increase due to net migration, at less than half what it was pre-pandemic, at 37,100. It’s possible, though, that this is where most of the underestimate occurred, when compared with 2020 census data.
Consistent with previous years, the Seattle metropolitan area, which includes King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, accounted for more than half (57%) of the state’s total growth, at nearly 63,000 people. And for the first time, our metro area now exceeds 4 million people. Residents of our metro make up 52% of the state’s total population.
King County alone grew by 32,500, which is pretty close to the average annual growth over the 2010s. The county’s population is nearly 2.3 million.
And as for Seattle? There’s been plenty of talk of an urban exodus due to the pandemic and the rise of remote work. Even so, Seattle’s population increased from April 1, 2020, to April 1, 2021, according to the OFM. The city grew by 8,400 residents, or 1.1%, bringing the total to 769,500. (It should be noted that this number is still a tad lower than the Census Bureau’s 2020 estimate for Seattle, which was 769,700).
To be sure, that’s a modest population increase when compared with the boom of the 2010s. In some years, Seattle grew by twice that number. Still, it’s a far cry from an exodus.
Some small cities in Washington grew much faster than Seattle this year, perhaps benefiting from pandemic escapees. In Clark County, which is north of Portland, historic Ridgefield increased its population by 18% this year, making it the fastest- growing place in the state. In Eastern King County, Black Diamond grew by 15%.
Other King County cities that grew significantly faster than Seattle this year include Snoqualmie (5%), Newcastle (4.2%) and Maple Valley (3.5%).
In the past year, the state added 46,700 housing units (15,250 of which were in King County). That is 2,350 fewer than the 2019-2020 period. Of all new units built this past year, 57% were multifamily.