Mark 2017 as the year Kingsport got its mojo back.
After two straight years of population declines, the Model City led the area in population gains. It also had the hottest existing home sales market; its best employment numbers in five years; and while it didn’t have the strongest new home market builders were pushed to keep up with demand. Its sales tax collections position also improved.
The biggest jewel in the crown is the just-released Census population estimates for 2017 that show Kingsport added 1,016 residents last year boosting its population to a little over 53,300 people. Last year’s population gain was seven times greater than it was in Johnson City, which had the area’s second-best growth.
Johnson City remains the largest area city with almost 66,400 residents. It’s also the only city that has added population every year since the 2010 census and its own progression of economic recovery.
Elizabethton, Erwin, and Unicoi had their first population increases in five years, and Greeneville was positive after a two-year slump.
The Twin Cities posted twin population loses.
Population growth wasn’t across the board since smaller Northeast Tennessee cities and towns were stagnant. The aggregate was a loss of 178 people.
Losses were across the board in the region’s Southwest Virginia cities and towns. The lone exception was Haysi. Its population was the same as 2016. The combined population loss was 432 people.
The seven-county Tri-Cities region had a population gain of 2,311. It was the second straight gain after losses in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Migration remains the sole population change driver. During 2017 there were 4,875 births and 6,069 deaths in the Tri-Cities.
Some of that migration was job-related, and some were retirees. The latter is of particular interest since the number of this type newcomers dwindled until housing markets nationwide improved enough for those folks to sell their homes and relocate. And most of them are moving South. At the same time, the folks who watch demographic shifts says the halfbacks are speeding up their relocation from Florida to middle Appalachia.
So, what drove so many newcomers to Kingsport last year?
Some of the expansion was job-related, but housing affordability was likely the larger driver. Simply put, housing in Kingsport was less expensive than it was in Johnson City during a year when home prices were rising faster than wages and inflation. Home sales in Johnson City peaked in 2016 then began to soften while prices increased. Last year the annual average inflation-adjusted Johnson City existing home sale price was up 4.8% while it was up 2.9% in Kingsport. The bottom line was the average sales price in Kingsport was $171,741 while it was $222,687 in Johnson City. That gave bargain seekers or those whose budget put them in the $200,000 and below market almost 51,000 reasons to look at homes in Kingsport.
At the same time, an attractive forgivable loan program from the Tennessee Housing Development Agency in the 37660-zip code was another strong incentive. And then there’s the Kingsport rental market. Early last year there were bets that the addition of so much new apartment product would drive occupancy rates to scary levels. But that hasn’t happened. While the apartment market is in more flux that the markets in Bristol or Johnson City it has given give renters more options. The test will be how long rents – which are under pressure to increase by some of the large complex owners – will remain affordable.
The challenge or Kingsport this year is to sustain some of the momentum it gained it gained in 2017. Most of the region has exhausted housing as an untapped growth resource and while builders are replenishing the stock, not nearly enough new homes are being built to meet demand. By most standards, the region is at full employment and it’s increasingly beginning to look like labor has joined housing in the crunch department. What hasn’t proportionally increased with last year’s economic gains is wages. They are increasing but both the Johnson City and Kingsport-Bristol Metropolitan Statistical Areas have some of the lowest private sector wage averages in the state.