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Colorado’s largest counties see population decline, experts point to affordability

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Migration to Colorado has slowed at a higher rate than usual. State demographer Elizabeth Garner shared insights on the cause.
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Following a decade of steady population growth, net migration to Colorado slowed down over the last year, leading to the second slowest rate of growth since 1989, according to new statistics from state demographers.  

“Colorado grew at a lean rate in 2021 and 2022, population slowed down to about a third of the rate we had during the last decade,” said Elizabeth Garner, Colorado state demographer, at the State Demography Summit.  

“That’s due to slowing births, increasing deaths and slowing in-migration,” Garner said. In total, the growth rate was 0.48 percent from 2021 to 2022. 

For a number of policymakers at the summit, the slow down indicates an affordability crisis that’s leading people to choose other places to live.  

“It really comes down to housing costs,” said Tatiana Bailey, executive director at Data-Driven Economic Strategies. “We're just too expensive for a lot of people to move here. And that's particularly unfortunate.” 

According to Garner, more than 50 percent of counties are in a state of natural decline for the last two years—meaning there are more deaths than births.  

In 2022, in-migration from other states in the U.S. was 229,876, and the out migration from Colorado was 239,200 resulting in a negative net migration of -9,324, according American Community Survey data. An analysis conducted by the state demographer’s office, which incorporated other data sources and accounted for international migrants, found net migration to be higher, at 14,924.  

Denver, Jefferson and Boulder counties as well as some resort mountain counties all saw an overall decline in population, said Garner.  

In 2020, Denver’s population was 717,000 and that has fallen to 712,000. 

Historically, in-migration has been mostly attributed to younger populations because young adults haven't started having kids, and they're moving around from job to job, said Garner.   

“Fewer young people moving here, it gives me some concern,” said Bailey “We have too many baby boomers retiring and not enough working-age people.”  

An effect of having fewer young people move to Colorado, she said, is decreased contributions to business growth and entrepreneurial endeavors.  

“The workforce shortage is something that we're acutely focused on,” said Meredith Moon, chief economist at the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “The changing immigration patterns across the country have made it challenging to find the workers that we need.” 

She highlighted the need to focus on the current workforce in the state, ensuring they have the skills and education necessary to meet labor demand without having to rely as much on importing talent into the region.  

But not all counties across the state faced shrinking populations, Weld, Douglas, Adams, Larimer and El Paso counties all had high growth rates. 

“Weld County had the most natural rate of increase,” said Bailey. “People are having kids, and they are pretty aggressive in building affordable housing.” 

Affordability has become a problem facing some counties despite population growth, with affordable homes out of reach for people whose wages remain stagnant, she said. Colorado Springs, in El Paso county, is an example of a city where affordable housing has become a big issue.  

“The proportion of homes that were affordable to the median household income was 71 percent in 2019,” Bailey said. “Now we're down to 25 percent according to the Housing Opportunity Index.” 

Despite rising home prices, wages in the Colorado Springs however, remain stagnant and are limiting growth, she said. 

“Average wages are not on par with the U.S. People are going to start leaving, just like they kind of have in Denver, if we don't get this figured out with affordable housing.” 

In Denver, it’s estimated that you need a salary of $160,000 to afford a median priced home, said Moon. “In 2015, when we had our highest net population increase, the median home price was about half of what it is now.”  

Based on data from the Colorado Futures Center analysis, Resnick and Newcomer discovered that the people in the state who are the most housing vulnerable are households with earnings of $75,000 or less. 

Households making $75,000 or less represent 47 percent of all households across the state and 86 percent of households that experience housing cost stress. And that share of housing cost stressed households has been increasing over time. “We tried to leave people with this notion that while we're talking about housing in these sort of very broad macro terms, we really need to understand where this segment of Coloradans is that's most affected by the inability to be stably housed,” said Phyllis Resnick, an economist with the center.  

Housing policy is drifting up to address people who are more solidly middle-class, she said. “We're afraid that that's happening at the expense of, I wouldn't say neglecting people, who were at the lower end, but without as much emphasis.”  

Lizzie Mulvey is the executive producer of investigative journalism at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach Lizzie at

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