In the last few years, it’s become clear that Dallas proper isn’t part of the regional growth we’ve heard so much about. The U.S. Census released another batch of data last week, finding that Dallas County lost 25,000 people between 2020 and 2021.
Zooming out, the total growth for the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area was 97,290 people, which shows that the suburbs are growing so much that even the anemic city couldn’t slow them down. Dallas wasn’t the only large urban county in Texas to lose residents, but it outpaced the next highest by a factor of more than six to one: next up was Houston’s Harris County, which lost 4,000 people.
In the past five years, Dallas has essentially stopped growing. And, to be fair, these new numbers incorporate deaths and we’re coming out of a pandemic. But Dallas leaders have to look at this data—and the broader, national trend of cities losing population—and figure out what’s happening.
We’re only a few years out from the big “regionalism” myth, which is coded language for “subsidized sprawl.” Dallas has for too long ceded priority to projects that make it easier to get elsewhere, which has opened up a whole lot of land for corporate relocations and new residential subdivisions outside the city.
This trend is happening across the nation. The Census figures show major drops in populations for large metro centers like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. The New York Times attributes this to “skyrocketing housing costs” and other demographic shifts, like limited immigration and a declining birth rate.
In the year it took Dallas County to lose 25,000 people, home prices jumped by 22 percent, according to the Dallas Morning News. The median amount for a home here is now $350,000, which is unprecedented. Considering the cost, many families are clearly choosing the suburbs, where they can find larger homes on larger lots zoned for school districts that they prefer. (Even if Dallas ISD is improving.)
As noted by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, the four core counties in the state—Dallas, Harris, Travis, and Bexar—lost 6,000 people while the neighboring suburbs added 260,000 in a single year.
Those suburbs are going to see growing pains in the coming decades, much like Plano did upon realizing it had run out of land and would need to update its 1986 master plan to attract denser development. (That plan, known as Plano Tomorrow, was scrapped and narrowed to allow for density only in certain areas.)
So: Dallas must get its house in order. The permitting process is still broken, which can take months to build a single home. We need to diversify our housing stock by increasing density and doubling down on improving infrastructure near public transit. The city is not a suburb, and that can be a strength.
Writing for the Kinder Institute, economist Alan Cole posits growth as a math problem: the more a city builds, the more places people can live. “Affordability is the number of homes,” he writes.
“In the end, the cities that build get the people,” he continues. “Compare, for example, San Jose and Houston. The San Jose metropolitan area has gained just under 500,000 people since 1990. Houston gained 3.8 million. And if you look at their building permits, it is extremely clear why. Each city added about two and a half people for every new unit it permitted over the period.”
The North Central Texas Council of Governments expects Dallas County to add another 950,000 residents by 2045, a prediction that seems at risk if this year’s trend continues. For comparison, NCTCOG expects Collin and Denton counties to add a total of 1.35 million people. It’s proposing new or additional freeway capacity in all corners of Dallas-Fort Worth, which will contribute to further sprawl and increase emissions that will batter our climate.
Connor Harris, a Manhattan Institute policy analyst, noted this in a column in the Dallas Morning News in 2019 that was passed around Twitter over the weekend: “suburbs are developing in a way that leaves most people no choice but to drive everywhere — largely the result of regulations that require massive parking lots in every new development, making driving artificially cheap and walking unpleasant.”
Maybe the city of Dallas can start there.
A version of this story ran in the D Brief newsletter. Sign up here to receive it every Sunday.
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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He’s written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…