Just 348 residents were counted in a block in Charlottesville’s Venable neighborhood that has three large apartment buildings containing at least 740 bedrooms, plus several more houses and apartments, according to the 2020 census.
That’s one example of what experts say is an undercounting of University of Virginia students that resulted in the city of Charlottesville growing slower than expected in the official count.
Since the last decennial census, Charlottesville’s population increased 7.1%, from 43,475 in 2010 to 46,553 in 2020, according to numbers released earlier this month. Overall, the area has seen steady growth over the last 10 years. The Metropolitan Statistical Area, which covers the city Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene and Nelson, saw a 9.9% increase in population.
Albemarle County saw the largest population increase in the MSA, at 13.56%, from 98,970 in 2010 to 112,395 in 2020.
Experts at UVa’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service say other college communities in Virginia — such as Radford and Harrisonburg — also are seeing lower than expected numbers in the 2020 census due to potential undercounting of students.
Hamilton Lombard, a research specialist for the Demographics Research Group at the Weldon Cooper Center, noted that the Venable block with four apartment buildings near UVa — including the 641-bedroom GrandMarc at The Corner and The Greek, which has 90 bedrooms — decreased by 448 people compared with its 2010 count of 796 residents.
“It does look like there’s an undercount,” Lombard said. “My assumption would be it’s a matter of several thousand … maybe 3,000 to 4,000 people missing, primarily UVa students, but it could be other people, too. This was a very difficult census to conduct because it happened right in the middle of a pandemic.”
UVa moved to online classes in mid-March 2020, and many students left the area later that month. The census nominally counts residents in an area as of April 1 of the census year.
In addition to possible counting issues due to the pandemic, the census also instituted a new practice called “differential privacy” in the 2020 count, where noise is injected into the data to help protect confidentiality.
“I think for a city the size of Charlottesville, the missing students are too large to be differential privacy,” Lombard said. “Then when you look at Virginia overall and see that well, all the college towns are short of where they should be, that’s not differential privacy, that’s an undercount. But proving it is going to be very difficult.”
Most localities in Central Virginia saw their populations increase from 2010 to 2020, according to the new census data. Only Nelson County saw a decrease, of 245 people, or 1.63% lower than its 2010 population.
“We attract a lot of people, so that’s one of the reasons why the region has had such steady growth decade after decade after decade,” Lombard said. “What has changed from time to time has been where that growth is, but when you look at the MSA overall, we’ve had remarkably steady growth.”
Lombard said Albemarle had stronger population growth than the Weldon Cooper Center was expecting. Its estimates for 2020 had the county at 110,545 residents.
“Some of that I think reflects the housing market, and we really gained strength right around the time when the pandemic began,” he said. “You had a lot more people moving into the area, and Albemarle County seems to attract a disproportionate amount of them.”
Albemarle’s Comprehensive Plan includes a policy to focus development into designated growth areas, while maintaining the rest of the county as rural areas. That results in about 95% of the county protected as mostly rural land and 5% designated for growth.
Many census tracts that include designated growth areas in Albemarle had the largest increases. The tract that includes East Rio Road and the developments of Dunlora and Belvedere saw an approximately 63.5% increase in population, while the three census tracts that include Crozet saw an increase of about 53.5%. The Pantops area saw a jump of about 40.3%.
The census tract that includes UVa’s North Grounds and other off-Grounds student housing saw the largest decrease in Albemarle, losing about 8% of its population — another indicator of a potential undercount. The two census tracts comprising most of southern and southeastern Albemarle saw decreases of about 5% each.
In the city, the tract containing Fry’s Spring and Johnson Village, which saw new construction in the Beacon on 5th and the Huntley subdivision, saw the largest population increase, gaining 23%. The tract containing Little High and Woolen Mills followed with a 16.9% gain, driven by the City Walk apartment complex.
The block group containing the 10th and Page area and West Main Street saw a staggering 83% growth, with the construction of three large new student apartment buildings — the Flats at West Village, the Standard and the Lark on Main.
But the block group from Rugby Road to 14th Street, containing GrandMarc, lost some 20.4% of its population in the count, while the adjacent Wertland area lost 8.6%. The losses offset the gains on West Main, resulting in an anemic 5.9% growth rate for the tract as a whole containing the off-Grounds housing in southern Venable, as well as 10th and Page.
But blocks that include the Flats at West Village and the Standard also might be undercounted. The Flats block has a count of 267 people, but there are approximately 595 bedrooms in the building. The block where the Standard is located — which includes the Westhaven community and other houses and apartments — has a count of 736 people, but the Standard alone has 644 bedrooms. In 2010, before the Standard was built, that block had a count of 286 people.
As a general guide, Lombard said data for larger populations, even down to the neighborhood or tract level, should be accurate, provided there isn’t a large college, jail or military facility nearby that might have been undercounted.
“The census race/ethnicity data is usable but cannot be compared with previous race/ethnicity data because of the changes in the categories and how the census published the data,” he said.
In the 2020 census, the bureau added the opportunity for people who identify as white and Black to add a specific origin, which could change how people were categorized.
“But the other thing is, I think some people are going to joke that the census was sort of a ‘23andMe census,’” Lombard said, referring to the increase in DNA ancestry testing over the last decade. “If you looked at the same age cohort in 2014 in 2019, you’d find that over that five-year span, there was an increase in the amount identifying as more than one race. So there’s definitely a social change going on. Maybe it’s a DNA test, but it could just be socially in general — there’s not any sort of stigma about being multiracial, while a generation or two ago there might have been.”
In Albemarle and Charlottesville, the number of people who identified as two or more races had been 2.4% and 3% of the population, respectively, in 2010, and now those figures are 7% and 7.7%, respectively.
In Albemarle, magisterial districts and some voting precincts likely will change with the new numbers.
“We’ve already begun to unpack the census data to get a head start on knowing where changes will be likely, but a lot necessarily depends on when the state redistricting commission finishes its task,” said Senior Assistant County Attorney Anthony Bessette. “We’re constrained by needing to know that body’s outcome in order to begin finalizing our own district and precinct lines.”
For the first time, statewide redistricting is being conducted by a bipartisan commission of legislators and citizens, rather than directly by the General Assembly, following a constitutional referendum approved last year.
Taylor Yowell, acting registrar with Charlottesville’s Office of Elections, said it’s not clear how the city’s growth will affect redistricting of voting precincts yet.
“We have put together an internal redistricting committee for the city about whether we need to add a precinct,” Yowell said. “We’re not 100% sure if we will until we get the breakdown from the redistricting committee.”
Yowell said this information should be available in October or November. At that time, the office will determine whether an additional precinct is necessary.
With Charlottesville nearing completion of its Comprehensive Plan update and the start of a citywide zoning rewrite, and Albemarle on the verge of starting an update of its own, Lombard said the region should expect more growth.
“When you look at the last two decades, we added on basically the city of Charlottesville, about 50,000 new residents — we basically had to build another city in the MSA. And you look at the next 20 years, we’re going to have to do that again,” he said. “We’re still looking at a lot more growth. I think the question really is: where is it going to happen? And a lot of that is up to local government.”
Albemarle County 2020 Census Counts by Race
Race/Ethnicity Count Percent of Population
White alone 81,866 72.8%
Black alone 9,953 8.86%
American Indian and Alaska Native alone 286 0.25%
Asian alone 8,222 7.32%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone 50 0.04%
Some Other Race alone 4,101 3.65%
Two or More Races 7,917 7.04%
Hispanic 8,453 7.5%
a330a0a6-02cc-11ec-873b-338ef041cacfCharlottesville 2020 Census Counts by Race
Race/Ethnicity Count Percent of Population
White alone 30,344 65.18%
Black alone 7,122 15.3%
American Indian and Alaska Native alone 164 0.35%
Asian alone 4,083 8.77%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander alone 22 0.05%
Some Other Race alone 1,235 2.65%
Two or More Races 3,583 7.7%
Hispanic 3,207 6.89%