Business & Economy

Does census data reveal the movements of out-of-state residents?

Dover covid
Dover is among the ski towns in Vermont that have seen a mini population boom during the pandemic, according to the 2020 census data. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Results from the 2020 census have revealed the deep impact of Vermont’s shifting population, as Chittenden County gained more people than any other part of the state. 

With closer scrutiny, another trend emerges: Ski communities, and areas popular with tourists and seasonal homeowners, had a mini boom in population, with some reporting increases 10 times higher than the state average.

The communities that gained the most people as a percentage of their population included Killington, Stratton, Dover, Winhall and Marlboro. All but Marlboro had a ski destination within the town’s borders or a few minutes beyond them.

But, in an unprecedented year for census data-gathering, it’s hard to say how much of that boom was due to genuine, long-lasting population growth and how much due to a quirk of timing. 

Most Vermonters filled out their census forms in April 2020, the middle of mud season. Census workers knocked on doors throughout the summer of 2020 to reach homes where people had not responded.

To show just how much the pandemic has affected population trends, VTDigger compared actual census 2020 counts with the population estimates compiled prior to the pandemic based on births, deaths and migrations.

In Killington, the census estimated the population would be 751. Instead, it was 1,407, almost double the expected number.

Once again, many of the communities that had greater-than-expected population totals were ski destinations or well-known areas for seasonal homeowners, vacationers and tourists, particularly in southern Vermont.

Mike Moser, head of the Vermont State Data Center at the University of Vermont, said it’s likely that seasonal residents who are not normally here were “hiding out” in Vermont and marking it as their usual residence. 

“Where those people are now is the big question everyone is asking,” he said via email. “How many people went back home?  How many people will stay here?  How many more will continue to come here?”

There’s some other data pointing to more permanent shifts during the pandemic. Home sales to out-of-state buyers rose in 2020, and some ski towns, including Stowe, Dover and Ludlow, reported a rise in those types of sales in 2020.

But KC Chambers, a Realtor for Red Barn Realty in Stowe, said the pandemic only exacerbated trends of low vacancies and rising demand he had seen in the years before the pandemic. “The pandemic really just threw gas on the fire,” he said.

Chambers agreed that the higher-than-expected numbers could be tied to second-homeowners who would normally be here on weekends, or visit in ski season, choosing to live in Vermont full-time.

“They just didn't leave through those first few months of the pandemic, and some have never left,” he said.

There’s also a tendency for out-of-staters moving to Vermont to seek out touristy areas, he said. 

“[They’re] used to a certain number of services and restaurants and that sort of thing,” he said. “That’s why having a place in Stowe, versus some other non-tourist area that doesn’t have those services, is appealing to them.”

It’s also a “hedge” on moving here permanently. If they cannot work remotely post-pandemic, they can keep their home as a seasonal property or rent it out, he said.

One of the tradeoffs of having an influx of new migrants, or having people no longer renting out their seasonal home, is the difficulty of full-time residents to find apartments.

“It’s impossible to find a year-round rental,” Chambers said. “I have clients who are trying to do it, and I basically give them some tips and tell them I’ll keep my eyes out for them.”

But that was true even before the pandemic. “Airbnb came along and just made it so easy for people to rent their house” short term, he said, although a handful of landlords actually switched from Airbnb to renting because of Covid-19 concerns.

Asked if he believes these new Vermonters are here to stay, Chambers said, “My crystal ball is just as cloudy as everyone else’s.”

Moser said it’s likely we won’t get a full picture of the pandemic’s impacts on population for years, particularly because other census data products are likely to be affected by more pandemic quirks.

One thing is clear. Between April 2020 and now, the real-estate market has only gotten hotter. 

“It’s crazy to say but, I mean, prices were escalating in real estate where people who bought houses in Stowe last summer could make money on them this summer,” Chambers said. “The market’s really accelerated.”

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