Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments: Regional Profile Shows Municipal Growth

WATERBURY — From 2000 to 2017, the Naugatuck Valley region has become more racially and ethnically diverse and has experienced a steady population growth of 4.7 percent, with the largest growth of 12.3 percent taking place in the “outer ring” municipalities, according to the 2019 Naugatuck Valley Regional Profile.

A report by the Naugatuck Valley Council of Governments, the Naugatuck Valley Regional Profile examines the relationship between population, housing and economic trends in the 19-town west central Connecticut region.

The region is home to Bristol, Waterbury, Naugatuck, Ansonia and Derby, which comprise the “urban core;” Watertown, Thomaston, Plymouth, Cheshire, Seymour and Shelton, the “inner ring;” and Bethlehem, Woodbury, Middlebury, Wolcott, Prospect, Oxford, Southbury and Beacon Falls, the “outer ring.”

Municipalities are grouped by similar demographics. The urban core, which emerged as a leading manufacturing center in the 19th century, is racially and economically diverse and has high population density, accessible public transportation and plenty of affordable housing options.

The inner ring has a mix of urban and suburban characteristics. Residents are highly educated and moderately diverse. 

The outer ring is traditionally rural, but has become more suburban in the last 20 years. This region has the lowest population density, the highest income and the greatest number of elderly residents.

From 2000 to 2017, population growth in the outer ring outpaced the region, state and nation. But since 2017, population growth has slowed in the outer core and has shifted to the inner core, where many employers have relocated to be closer to their workforce.

The Naugatuck Valley region has experienced positive population, housing and economic trends since the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession, according to findings from the 2010 Decennial Census, the 2013-2017 American Community Survey, the state Department of Labor and the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

Though births dropped by about 14 percent from 2007 to 2016, since many young couples delayed having children due to economic uncertainty and student loan debt, population growth has persisted due to high levels if in-migration that offset natural population decrease — more deaths than births — in areas outside the urban core.

For example, though the outer ring experienced a natural decrease in population, it gained almost 11,000 residents through in-migration.

The urban core experienced the opposite: the area had a large natural increase — more births than deaths — but lost slightly more than 12,000 residents through out-migration.

All municipalities have become more diverse over the 18 years examined, largely due to increased immigration, migration and higher birth rates among minority groups.

The percentage of minority residents was 28.4 percent in 2017, compared to 16.9 percent in 2000.

From 2000 to 2017, the urban core experienced “white flight” when non-Hispanic white populations declined by more than 35,600, while rapid growth occurred among Hispanics, African Americans and Asians.

In Waterbury, 61.5 percent of residents belong to a minority racial or ethnic group, making it the region’s only minority-majority city. 

Ansonia, Derby, Naugatuck, Seymour and Bristol have the next highest minority populations, while outside this urban core, less than 14 percent of the population belongs to a minority group.

However, between 2000 and 2017, inner and outer ring minority populations grew at rates of 91.5 percent and 172 percent, respectively, with Hispanics being the largest and fastest growing minority group.

Asians were the second fastest growing group: from 2000 to 2017, the group grew by 87.1 percent, residing mainly in the suburbs.

The State Data Center projected that the region’s population will continue to grow through 2025, though at a slower rate than the past. From 2025 to 2040, data projects the region will shrink by just over 1 percent, losing about 5,355 residents.

The urban core is projected to increase through 2040, adding almost 8,000 residents. Waterbury is projected to grow at 7.3 percent, as it has a much higher birth rate than the rest of the region.

Though homes in the region are on average more affordable than the state as a whole, the urban core contains the majority of the Valley’s affordable housing.

Multi-family homes, which are occupied primarily by renters and are typically more affordable than single-family homes, have accounted for just over 30 percent of all new construction in the region since 2011.

Due to the bursting of the national housing bubble in 2011, new construction decreased 68 percent by 2017 since peaking in 2005, when more than 5,000 housing units were built, 85 percent of which were single-family. Shelton and Oxford gained the most new construction.

Multi-family construction increased in 2012 and 2013, with apartment and condominium construction in Shelton and Bristol, then again in 2015, with 224 multi-family units built, spanning Shelton, Seymour and Thomaston. In 2016, multi-family construction stalled, with single-family constructing remaining stagnant.

Recently, affordable housing has been of concern to municipalities since state statue 8-30g took effect, which states that towns with less than 10 percent of the housing stock labeled as affordable are subject to looser zoning regulations for new, affordable developments.

“Affordable,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau, means the occupants spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs.

According to data collected in 2017, about 36 percent of households in the region spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, with renters 29.3 percent more likely to spend more than 30 percent of their earnings on housing. In the urban core, more than half of renters pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing.

Municipalities that have not met the 10 percent minimum are subject to Section 8-30g, which limits the conditions under which towns may deny housing development applications.

Currently, Ansonia, Bristol, Derby and Waterbury are the only municipalities in the region that meet the 10 percent threshold. 

This reflects the large income gap between the urban core and the inner and outer ring municipalities.

From 2012 to 2017 estimates, the inner and outer rings’ median household income was $86,462 and $93,192, respectively, compared to just $51,838 in the urban core.

Further, more than a quarter of urban core households are low income — earning less than $25,000 per year — compared to just 11.1 and 11.7 percent in the inner and outer rings, respectively.

In the inner and outer rings, more than 40 percent of households are high income — earning $100,000 or more a year — compared to about 20 percent in the urban core.

The number of impoverished people in the region increased by just under 60 percent from 2000 to 2017, jumping from 31,412 to 50,001. The increase was most prevalent in the urban core, with Waterbury containing almost half of the region’s impoverished people at a poverty rate of just under 25 percent.

Ansonia, Derby and Waterbury have the highest child poverty rates, exceeding 19 percent, while the urban core as a whole has 25.8 percent of children living below the poverty line.

Income and education level are highly correlated, highlighting the stark difference in educational attainment between residents of the urban core and those of the inner and outer ring municipalities. 

Just over 20 percent of the 25 and older population has a bachelor’s degree or higher in the urban core, compared to 38.3 percent in the inner ring and 41.5 percent in the outer ring.

Studies show that individuals with college degrees have much higher incomes than those who don’t, so municipalities with a high population of college graduates have higher income levels. This is a cycle that can be hard to break, as higher education, which gets more expensive every year, is less accessible to low-income families.

The urban core also has the highest rate of unemployment in the region at 6.6 percent in Waterbury, 5.7 percent in Ansonia and 5.2 percent in Derby. The inner ring city of Cheshire and outer ring city of Wolcott have the lowest unemployment rate at 3 percent, while Oxford, Woodbury and Middlebury have a rate of 3.4 percent.

The region as a whole was greatly affected by the 2007 to 2009 Great Recession, when unemployment was at its highest. The number of unemployed residents more than doubled from 11,954 in 2007 to 24,656 in 2010, caused by job loss and labor force growth.

Since 2011, the economy has improved and the region has gained more than 11,610 jobs. As of 2018, 94 percent of jobs that were lost during the recession have been gained back.

The economic burden of municipalities in the region overall will soon be shifting due to the retirement of the baby boomers.

The 65-and-over population is projected to increase from 70,934 in 2014 to more than 89,451 in 2040. As of now, the outer ring has the oldest median age at 47.6 years old.

But residents from all municipalities are aging. This increase in elderly residents will require more access to affordable housing and services for the aging.

At the same time, the birth rate and number of school-aged children are expected to decrease, meaning programs for young people will be replaced with those for the aging and elderly, like transportation, recreation and health care.

There will also be a greater financial burden placed on working-age people who will have to support the increasing number of retirees. The increase of elderly persons also adds financial strain on households, since retirees have lower incomes than working people.

However, because of the stock market crash from 2007 to 2009, many people continue to work past retirement age.

This, combined with a lack of new jobs, has led to a disproportionately high rate of unemployment among young people.

The unemployment rate for residents younger than 25 years old is slightly more than 16 percent, compared to about 7 percent for middle-aged workers, ages 25 to 44, and about 5-1/2 percent for workers over the age of 45.

However, the state Department of Labor for the Northwest Region predicts that an increased need for health care and social assistance by the aging baby boomers will drive new job creation through 2026. 

Lack of employment opportunities for young people has also changed household structure. Many young couples have delayed having children due to economic uncertainty and unemployment. The average age of marriage has gone up and family size has decreased.

Further, average life span has increased and more than half of married couples are now “empty nesters” as the millennial generation ages.

It’s now much more common for households to contain people living alone, cohabitating couples, married couples without children and single parents.

Overall, as the report notes, “The Naugatuck Valley has long benefited from strong local and regional leadership, effective economic development organizations and a well-trained workforce.”

The report also notes that the Valley is preparing for the years ahead, recognizing the need for sustainable, transportation-dependent communities that will stimulate economic growth in the region. 

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