Get out your crystal ball. Imagine Humboldt County in 10 years: Will our population have grown or shrunk?
According to the California Department of Finance’s most recent projection (2019), Humboldt County is on the downhill slope, with falling populations projected into the future. Meanwhile, the State of California will grow, slowly, as a whole. This population projection is important because it is used by the California Department of Housing and Community Development to set the “Regional Housing Needs Allocation” (RHNA, pronounced “ree-nah”). RHNA is the total number of housing units that local governments are required to plan for. If we get our growth projections wrong — if we grow instead of shrink — we are likely to have under-planned for housing development. And because housing cost responds to demand, if we fail to meet this demand with increased supply, housing prices will only go further up.
Let’s unpack the Department of Finance’s model. At its root, it’s fairly simple: births - deaths + migration. For Humboldt County, the Department of Finance reports that deaths are already outpacing births, and predicts that net migration into the county will not compensate. Thus, we are projected to see a net population loss. Migration — people moving within California (say from the Bay Area to Humboldt) or people moving from elsewhere to California — is the most critical variable in the projection, but also the hardest to predict. Using data like voter registration or driver’s license applications, the Department of Finance can get a rough picture of migration trends. For the most recent model, the department of Finance used migration data from 2010 to 2018 to project forward likely migration. This period saw slightly more people move out of the county than the number who arrived here from somewhere else. Because we had a slight downward trend, the Department of Finance predicted that this trend would continue into the future.
So, are we likely to see a declining population? There is strong reason to doubt.
While only three years old, the model is already outdated. The model projected a total population of 134,214 in 2020. In reality, the 2020 census counted 136,310 Humboldters. So the model was wrong by 2,096 souls. More than the entire population of Garberville. More than Ferndale. More than Trinidad and Blue Lake combined. 2,096 people, which at 2.2 people per household, means some 953 households.
Housing prices have reflected this increased population. Housing prices across the county have increased dramatically in the last four-year period. The March 2018 Humboldt Economic Index reported that the median home price was $275,000. Just four years later, the March 2022 index reports that the median price is now $450,000. Increases in housing prices are multi-causal, but one plausible explanation is we have more new residents.
Why was the model so far off? The answer likely lies in the years used to predict migration. While the model looked at data from 2010-2018, which showed a net loss of people coming into the county, 2017 onwards seems to show a new trend: population growth driven by migration. Arcata, Humboldt’s second-largest town, provides some clues. 2017 marked an interesting turning point for the city. Historically, Arcata’s population was largely tied to student enrollment at the university — i.e., with increased enrollment, the city’s population would respond largely in kind. In 2017, however, then-Humboldt State University saw a dramatic downturn in enrollment yet Arcata saw an increase in population. Weird. Population in the city continued to build despite successive years of smaller and smaller student enrollment. People were moving to Arcata but they weren’t students.
There are many forces that will likely continue to draw migration into Humboldt County. Humboldt has seen migration into the county from individuals from Mendocino, Sonoma, Butte and elsewhere who were burned out of their houses. Many people — myself included, sadly — expect this trend to continue. The impacts of climate change don’t need to be as blunt as losing a home to fire to cause climate migration. With the effects of climate change making life more uncomfortable in, say, Sacramento in the summer — who wants to experience a week of 105+ weather? — we should anticipate more internal migration from areas that will experience more severe weather as a consequence of climate change to our coastal-moderated climes.
Covid has changed office culture and new telework flexibility allows for folks to call Humboldt home even if their place of business is hundreds of miles away. The second bedroom as an office appears to be a new normal, an unanticipated product of the pandemic. Other drivers of migration into Humboldt County include Cal Poly Humboldt, which anticipates another 5,600 students by 2028, and potentially Nordic Aquafarms and our much-anticipated offshore wind industry are also likely to drive additional residents to the area.
Imagine that the Department of Finance got it wrong. That means our RHNA numbers are also low. The 2019 population projections fed into the 2019 RHNA allocations, which govern jurisdiction growth planning until 2027. Already with a projected declining population, the state mandated that the county plan for 3,390 new housing units. Imagine if Humboldt County’s population grew 1 percent per year. By 2027, the end of the current planning horizon for RHNA, our population would be 144,858 — 10,810 more folks than what Humboldt County is building for. At 2.2 people per household, we need 4,914 new homes in addition to the 3,390 that we already need to plan for.
For some people, projected population growth in Humboldt will be read with alarm. But remember, unless you are indigenous to this region, you also moved here relatively recently. We can’t stop people from moving here. Plus, new people can be great. New potential friends. New ideas and culture. New businesses and new jobs. Maybe even one of those new businesses will be a Korean restaurant. (A boy can dream.) But we need to make sure that there is new housing both to meet our current needs and to help house our new friends.
Instead of planning for the state-issued RHNA numbers, which we are legally obligated to do, we should anticipate and plan for even greater numbers. We can plan for growth that protects the places that make Humboldt special — the forests, fields and farms — through building housing in our urban areas. Local jurisdictions are already hard at work. Arcata is working through the Gateway Area Plan. Eureka has its parking lots-to-apartments program. The county is (too) slowly developing the McKinleyville Town Center. There is room for more. Let’s embrace housing as a Humboldt value because if we don’t, the Humboldt we love — weird, rural, free-spirited — will be priced out of existence.
Tom Wheeler is the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center.