Census: City seeing more newcomers

It probably will surprise few New Orleanians to learn that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of the city’s population made up of people who have moved here from out of town has increased sharply since Hurricane Katrina.

With the growth of eclectic neighborhoods such as Bywater, the increasingly diverse local cuisine and all the talk about “brain gain” and young urban professionals coming to town, New Orleanians have long suspected the city’s makeup is changing.

According to recently released census data, 8 percent of Orleans Parish residents in 2012 had been living in the city for a year or less, with about half of them having moved to New Orleans from outside the state.

In 2004, the year before Katrina, just 3 percent of the local population consisted of newcomers.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was often credited with having the highest proportion of “native-born” residents of any major American city.

In the 2000 census, 77 percent of New Orleanians were considered natives, meaning they were born anywhere in Louisiana.

The new census numbers don’t indicate who is moving into the city or why, said Allison Plyer, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which analyzed the census numbers in a report issued Thursday.

The newcomers could be New Orleans natives who had moved away for college and decided to return home.

They could be residents who finally made their way back after being forced out by Katrina. Or they could be people who didn’t previously have ties to the city but were pulled here by a job, love or wanderlust.

Business and civic leaders have been working to attract the latter group since Katrina.

It’s not clear how big the community of true newcomers is, but anecdotal evidence — particularly some recent dust-ups between newcomers and longtime residents — suggests that it is thriving.

“When we started 504ward, we wondered if people would keep coming,” said Jessica Shahein, executive director of the organization dedicated to keeping young talent in New Orleans. “We’ve just been blown away.”

Shahein said she still meets three to four new New Orleanians each week.

Regardless of the reason people are moving to town, the influx is an indicator that New Orleans has a strong economy, Plyer said. “The reason people move from one region to another is because of jobs,” she said. “What’s most important about the data is that it’s one more indicator of a robust economy.”

When surveyed last year, just 3 percent of the national population had moved to a different state or country within the preceding year.

New residents who had relocated from out-of-state made up 5 percent of the population in Orleans Parish, 4 percent in St. Tammany Parish and 2 percent in Jefferson Parish.

New Orleans’ transition to a city with a growing population of newcomers hasn’t always been smooth, as evidenced by the recent dispute between French Quarter residents and a Brooklyn restaurant owner who has proposed opening a Cuban restaurant at Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street.

Urban planner Steve Villavaso said that as the so-called “in-migration” continues, New Orleans should change to accommodate its new residents, who he said will bring with them new ideas about how to solve the city’s problems based on things they’ve seen in other communities. Villavaso was a key contributor to the New Orleans neighborhood recovery planning effort after Katrina.

“We want to include those people in our planning process and reinvigorate the master plan and figure out how we can improve quality of life,” Villavaso said. “It’s good news and a challenge for us when these numbers come out.”

The census data also found that as New Orleans attracts more new residents, the cost to live in the city has risen. The median gross rent, including utilities, climbed 25 percent, to $861 a month, from 2004 to 2012. The escalating costs could hurt future growth, the Community Data Center said.

“High housing costs can limit a region’s ability to attract and retain the workforce essential for a healthy economy,” the center said in its analysis.

The census data also revealed an increase in the metropolitan area’s foreign-born population. About 5 percent of the area’s population was born outside the United States in 2000. That percentage grew to 7 percent in 2012, according to the report.