The Charlottesville Metropolitan Statistical Area is at risk of being downgraded, depending on population changes from the 2020 Census and new proposed definitions.
The federal government is proposing changes to the standards for MSAs, which would increase the minimum population of an MSA’s urban area to 100,000 people. Areas with more than 10,000 people but fewer than the minimum to qualify as a metropolitan area are classified as Micropolitan Statistical Areas.
It’s unclear how the changes will affect the area if approved, and officials across the country and state have asked the Office of Management and Budget to delay or reconsider their adoption.
Locally, David Blount, the director of legislative services for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said uncertainty regarding the impacts of the change on the area led him to sign on to a letter asking for the proposal to be reevaluated.
“I think OMB, in some of the information they put out, said it is purely statistical, but I think there’s more information that we saw coming out, and different groups were having questions about funding formulas and potential impacts — how might different federal funding allocations be impacted?” he said.
The Charlottesville MSA is made up of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson counties. Currently, a metropolitan statistical area must contain a Census Bureau-delineated urban area with a population of 50,000 or more, which the OMB wants to raise to 100,000 people.
The Charlottesville urban area consists of the city and much, but not all, of what Albemarle considers its “urban ring” — Pantops, the Fifth Street and Avon Street Extended area, the Rio Road area and around Hydraulic Road — as well as Hollymead, Piney Mountain and a portion of Ivy.
A map submitted with the MSA change proposal of potentially affected areas, including the Charlottesville MSA, was based on 2010 Census data, which showed a population of 92,359 for the Charlottesville urban area.
According to the most recent American Community Survey from the Census Bureau, the urban area’s population is estimated at 101,520, with a margin of error of ±1,369 residents.
But the criteria for a census block to be included in an urban area could also be changing and might cause the boundaries of the Charlottesville urban area to shrink.
In a separate proposal, the Census Bureau is proposing to require 385 housing units per square mile as the primary criterion for determining whether a census block qualifies for inclusion in an urban area, replacing the use of population density. The previous standard was 1,000 people per square mile.
Allocations for the Community Development Block Grant Entitlement Program — which come from funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide “decent housing and a suitable living environment, and … economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income persons” — are based on OMB standards.
Eligible grantees for its entitlement program need to be principal cities of MSAs, a city within an MSA with more than 50,000 people or urban counties that have a population of 200,000 or more. There are also non-entitlement funds given to states that are given to localities that are not a metropolitan city or part of an urban county.
The Brookings Institution and The Aspen Institute wrote a letter Blount signed that was submitted as a comment to OMB. They said current requirements to access federal program resources “often disadvantage rural applicants through a bias towards large populations, compounding the difficulty for low-capacity communities to identify and access funding.”
“Widening this pool of ‘nonmetro’ communities would likely result in the current remote and distressed towns with very small populations competing with an even larger number of well-resourced former metropolitans for scarce federal funds, such as CDBG non-entitlement funding,” the letter said. “Further, many of these currently low-capacity communities are in rural counties with persistent poverty, the majority of which have majority minority populations, which means this change could worsen inequity.”
Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine signed on to a letter with other senators asking the OMB to “establish a comprehensive process” to “fully evaluate the impact of such a change on the distribution of federal resources and services to arrive at any future proposed change.”
The senators noted that the pandemic has led people to temporarily migrate to new areas of the country outside of their permanent homes, citing data from the United States Postal Service that “nearly 16 million people changed addresses during the pandemic — an increase of almost four percent from the year before.”
“This significant increase in people moving as a result of the pandemic demonstrates that population data based on the calendar years of 2020 or 2021 is likely to be misleading and inaccurate in predicting long-term trends about where Americans will choose to live,” the letter said.
Blount, who also serves as the executive director of the Virginia Association of Planning District Commissions, said the possible change would not affect the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization — which is responsible for transportation planning and programming in the urban area — as MPOs are required for urban areas of more than 50,000 people.
“We have some concerns. We’d like to slow the process down until there can be some further examination done as to what all the impacts could be,” Blount said.
The Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association also sent in a letter, saying the change would have a negative impact on multiple hospitals that are already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In Virginia, these hospitals would no longer be in an established MSA and would now be considered rural hospitals,” the letter said. “For example, Charlottesville — which is home to a major university and one of two state teaching hospitals that are a safety net for Virginia residents — would now be considered a rural area. The negative impact of this change across all Virginia hospitals is estimated to be over $65 million.”
The Charlottesville MSA would become a Micropolitan Statistical Area if it were to lose its metropolitan status.
The University of Virginia Health System said it didn’t know how it would be affected by the possible change.
“At this point, we don’t have enough information … to know how or if this impacts us,” said Eric Swensen, spokesman for the UVa Health System, in an email.
Localities were caught off guard by the potential change.
In an email to the Associated Press, Charlottesville Spokesman Brian Wheeler said “perhaps they made a mistake.”