Not EVERYBODY Loves San Diego: County Population Declines

San Diego County's population declined by more than 12,000 residents last year

Frustrated man sitting on couch surrounded by cardboard boxes
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Remember back when everybody wanted to move to San Diego, and the forecast painted a rosy picture of a boomtown growing ever bigger, sunnier, and, well, better?

Well, the pandemic and housing and gas prices and whatever else have put an end to that, at least last year, in any case.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, San Diego's population crested in April 2019, when an estimated 3,298,634 called the county home. By July 1 of that year, the numbers were in the red, with 3,297,252 San Diegans counted, and, a year later, that number dipped to 3,286,069.

San Diego County hit lavender last year, according to the census bureau

While that's only a loss of 12,565 San Diegans — 0.38%, for those of you keeping score at home — the fact that San Diego's population declined is noteworthy. In 2021, for example, NBC 7 reported that, according to a comparison of census data from 2010 to 2020, San Diego County saw an overall population growth of 6.6%, while the growth in housing units was 5.5%.

While more than 5,000 San Diegans lost their lives due to complications from the coronavirus, that still leaves a decline of more than 7,000 in the county's population to explain, many of which can be ascribed to locals leaving for a cheaper cost of living during remote-work times.

It's a story repeated elsewhere in the Golden State. The data released by the census bureau on Thursday shows several California counties topping the list of regions that saw the biggest drop in population during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Top 10 Most Populous Counties: July 1, 2021
U.S. Census Bureau
Top 10 Most Populous Counties: July 1, 2021. Information from the U.S. Census Bureau

Data shows that Los Angeles County lost more than 159,000 residents in 2021 — the most significant population decline of anywhere in the U.S.

Between 2020 and 2021, a total of 116,385 residents moved out of the Bay Area, which includes San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, according to the Census data.

The Census also looked at the U.S. counties that saw significant population decreases between April 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021, coinciding with the start of the pandemic.

Here are 10 counties that suffered the biggest declines:

  • Los Angeles County, California — Decline of 184,465 residents
  • New York County, New York — Decline of 117,375 residents
  • Cook County, Illinois — Decline of 102,395 residents
  • Kings County, New York — Decline of 95,022 residents
  • Queens County, New York — Decline of 74,321 residents
  • San Francisco County, California — Decline of 58,764 residents
  • Santa Clara County, California — Decline of 50,751 residents
  • Bronx County, New York — Decline of 47,706 residents
  • Alameda County, California — Decline of 33,797 residents
  • Miami-Dade County, Florida — Decline of 38,990 residents

The data shows a different perspective when you compare percentages. San Francisco County lost 6.7% of it’s population during the same time period — making it the county with the second-highest population decline in the country.

The only county higher than San Francisco was New York County, which saw a decline of 6.9%, or about 117,000 people.

And though Los Angeles County lost the highest number of residents among U.S. regions, with a population of more than nine million, the percentage is much smaller.

So where did they go? Well, it's difficult to discern where San Diego's residents went en masse, but we do know that Maricopa County, in Arizona, gained nearly 60,000 residents, and five counties in Texas and a pair in Florida also posted gains in excess of 23,000 residents. Riverside County, too, bloomed during the year, adding 35,631 to its rolls.

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