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Is Oakland Shrinking? To the Contrary!

I love information. Facts. Numbers, charts, graphs – I’m a data freak. All my friends know this. Within my social circle, I’m the go-to-girl when anyone wants to know anything, whether it be a list of the 5 best single malt scotches within a certain price range, or the exact date of a bar opening two years ago, or when early Christian leaders decided they didn’t have to keep kosher. And I always get it for them – I pride myself on this skill – helping people get the information they need satisfies me like little else in this world.

So when I started hearing talk about Oakland shrinking, I immediately dug in to find the source of the rumors. I’ve seen in a few places assertions that Oakland has lost 35,000 residents since the 2004 census. That’s obviously wrong! So where are people coming up with this number? Well, mystery solved. It turns out that the source of the confusion is the American Community Survey.

Now, the Census Bureau does put out the ACS, but it is not the same as the U.S. Census. For starters, they make no effort to be comprehensive. When census time rolls around, we hire people to go door-to-door everywhere from the ghetto to rural Appalachia, trying our best to count every last person living in the US. It’s a daunting, expensive, and time-consuming task, which is why we only do it every ten years. The ACS is one of the ways we keep tabs on what’s going on in between. Aside from accuracy issues (the ACS counts by using probability sampling), the primary difference between the ACS and the Census is who gets counted. Simply put, the ACS intentionally leaves a lot of people out. They’re only interested in household population – institutional and group homes are excluded. Multi-family housing is drastically underrepresented due to sampling methods. You can read about sampling issues/errors here. Warning! PDF.

It’s a good survey, and useful for many reasons, but you can’t compare it to US Census figures. If you do, you’ll come up with some truly bizarre looking data, like the laughable suggestion that we’ve lost almost 10% of our residents in 4 years without anybody noticing!

In between Census time, the State Department of Finance keeps tabs on our population changes. Here’s the good news – we’re growing! Here’s a link to the California Department of Finance State Population Report for 2005. Warning! It’s a PDF. Jump to page 3, and you’ll see that Oakland safely retains its position as the state’s 8th largest city, with a whopping 412,318 residents. That’s up from 399,484 in 2000. Go us! I can’t wait to read the 2006 report when it comes out in May to see how many more new neighbors we’ve gained.

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4 Responses

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  1. deckin says

    V. Smoothe:

    Nice piece. One thing that struck me about the ACS estimates is that it has the rental vacancy rate skyrocketing up to around 10% or so, but it’s obvious rents haven’t tanked. So either the 2000 figure of vacancy rate was too low, or the ACS too high, or something in between. So just a little bit of common sense would tell you that something’s not right here.

    Also, for us who play on all fields (i.e., all blogs–as opposed to those who only go where they’re agreed with), it’s tough to both comment and blog, no?

    Keep it up. You and Oakland Native have really gotten under some skins over there and that’s good for everyone.

  2. V Smoothe says

    deckin -

    Thanks. I’ve heard this lost 35,000 residents since 2000 nonsense a few times over the last week, and I’m shocked that the number continues to be mindlessly repeated. A population flight of that degree over 4 years would be a huge story, and, I think, blatantly noticeable to everyone on the streets. If we’re bleeding population at such an absurd rate, why would housing prices continue to rise? Why do our stores, restaurants, and sidewalks continue to get busier? It just doesn’t make sense. A friend of mine wrote an excellent blog about problems like this, which he attributes to people’s generally whack sense of proportion. Either way, this myth needs to be put to rest. It’s one thing for Ron Oz to misunderstand the data sets and write about it on his website, but it is another issue entirely when the San Francisco Chronicle prints it.

    As for the rental vacancy rates, if you look at their upper and lower estimates, they offer a range between 6.5% and 15.1% for the estimated rental vacancy rate, which is so wide that it strikes me as useless. My understanding is that a vacancy rate somewhere between 5% and 7% is generally considered healthy. Any lower than that, and people can’t move when they want to. Oakland native knows more about this that me, so maybe he can offer a more detailed analysis of that statistic.

    Thanks for the encouragement. I’m enjoying sharing my views about Oakland, and hopefully persuading some people in the process, but it can get really nasty over at Stop Ignacio. I’m really grateful to have you and oakland native for backup.

  3. ronoz says

    I try not to misunderstand data sets, although I know biases creep in from everywhere. I sincerely hope we’re not losing population at such a drastic rate, but all the corroborative evidence seems to indicate it is so. We’ve dropped from 222,000 registered voters ten years ago (1996) to 187,000 today. The school population is down from the Oakland Budget figure of 49,000 to the School District’s figure of 40,000+, the frequency of police calls for service is down from over 800,000 to now in the 600′s per year.

    Can anyone cite any evidence of population increasing since 2000? The California Dept of Finance methodology includes counting water meters and asking the jurisdiction for its own estimates. Not very scientific. The US Census methodology sounds pretty comprehensive actually.

    So, I guess it all boils down to wishfull thinking, and I join the well wishers for a growing population. But I want to see facts, and the facts point to an exodus.

    Whoever is Mayor should be grounded in truth and not political fantasies. New questions, formulated by people with open minds, will lead to adjustments to the old answers.

    ron oz

    ps. I just happened on this blog a few moments ago and enjoyed the format and content very much. I know it’s difficult to have an open mind during the team sports of political contests, but we should all be on only one team… Oakland.

  4. V Smoothe says

    Ron -

    Where did you get that 1996 number of registered voters? According to the Oakland City Clerk’s office, in 2000, we had 177,679 registered voters. (warning! PDF!) Since Oakland definitely grew between 1996 and 2000 (which we know from the real US Census), it seems pretty inconcievable that we would have lost 40,000 voters in 4 years, especially while the population was increasing. Well, basically impossible. Anyway, if we have 187,000 registered voters now, that’s a 10,000 person increase in six years. So that’s pretty clear evidence that the population has risen.

    As for school enrollment declining, there’s a number of factors that play in there, but the main one is tthe trend that many adults these days simply decide not to have children. Many others are putting off child-bearing until later in life, so 20-somethings who move here will often not have children enrolled in public schools for 15 or more years after they settle in a city. That was one of the major flaws in the school district’s budgeting that caused our enormous debt – they made calculations to assume how many children would enroll based on faulty assumptions of how many people actually do have children. So even though the population increased, the number of children in school didn’t. Another contributing factor is the explosion of charter schools in Oakland – this offers families who don’t have the resources to afford private school an alternative to the public school system, and people are taking advantage of it.

    Police calls – well, since crime has plummented more than 50% since 1993, it stands to reason that calls for police service would drop.

    As I explain above, the American Community Survey, while put out by the Census Bureau, is not the same as the actual US Census, and their methodology is different. The numbers are based on random surveys, and they acknowledge that this can often result in flawed estimates for various reaons (their sample size is really small as well). Beyond that, their numbers are always lower than actual Census numbers, since they don’t count the same populations. The State Department of Finance uses numbers from a variety of sources, one of them being, yes, utility consumption. Historically, this has proved to be an extremely accurate measure of population growth. (Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense.) And numbers based on that methodology traditionally align pretty closely with the US Census numbers when they come out every ten years.

    As for more evidence, well basic common sense dictates that a city cannot lose 10% of its population in 4 years without anyone noticing. In fact, that type of loss would be devastating. So the fact that housing values are increasing (no matter what the national climate, housing does not increase in price in locations that are victims of widespread flight), homes sell quickly, and new developments sell out and fill up long before they’re even finished is proof that the city is, at the very least, not decreasing in size. Not to mention the fact that retail is flourishing, sales tax revenues are up, retail vacancy rates have dropped to nearly nothing – all traditional indicators of growth. Furthermore, the low commercial vacancy rates and 16 consecutive quarters of job growth are in keeping with an expanding population.

    I hope that answered your questions. Glad you’re enjoying the blog.