Government estimates released this week show that Jefferson Parish's population is shrinking, a trend that echoes changes happening in suburbs across the U.S. and one that is expected to figure prominently in the policy debates emerging in this fall's race for parish president.

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the state's second-largest parish has 434,051 residents, down nearly 2,250 from last year. Combined with an estimated loss of 450 the previous year, Jefferson has lost nearly 2,700 residents in the last two years.

The new estimates put the parish's population at its lowest point since 2012. The data highlight how a parish that for decades served as the first stop for Orleans Parish residents fleeing crime or seeking newer housing has begun losing out to more recently developed suburbs. The same report shows continued population growth in St. Tammany Parish.

Quality-of-life issues — key to luring the valued demographic of young families — are already taking center stage in what is expected to be a hotly contested president's race in October. The two declared candidates, Councilwoman-at-large Cynthia Lee Sheng and former Parish President John Young, have made improving the parish's allure to professionals and families a key part of their platforms.

Current President Mike Yenni, who has been in office since 2016, has declined to say whether he intends to run again. But in an interview Thursday he argued that improving infrastructure, housing and the education system are key challenges that need to be addressed in order to keep current parish residents and attract others.

He also said the parish needs to attract more businesses.

"Migration is the biggest problem," Yenni said. "We've got to attract good corporations and good companies to have higher-wage jobs to give better opportunities for young people to stay here."

Yenni pointed to the nascent redevelopment of the former Avondale shipyard site into what its owners are calling a "multimodal" cargo hub. When that is complete, he said, it will bring high-paying jobs to the west bank.

While the total population loss may seem small — about 0.6 percent — the direction of population trends is striking when compared to New Orleans' next-largest suburb. St. Tammany Parish posted a net gain of nearly 2,300 residents last year, the estimates show. Over the last two years, St. Tammany gained approximately 5,700 residents.

The current estimates are based on records such as tax returns and birth and death rates. A more accurate count will occur next year in the decennial census, the results of which should be released in 2021. 

Jefferson's losses are due to people moving to other places in the U.S., the Census Bureau said. Approximately 4,700 people moved out of the parish between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018, according to the estimates. A high birth rate and an increase in people arriving in the parish from outside the U.S. were not enough to offset those losses, according to the estimates. 

The trends in Jefferson Parish's population are similar to older suburban communities around the U.S., said Allison Plyer of the Data Center, a New Orleans-based think tank. 

"That's typical of an inner-ring suburb," Plyer said Thursday, referring to areas that are close to city centers and are the first to develop as cities expand. As their housing stock ages and grows more affordable, they attract city dwellers who may be priced out of expensive real estate in the core city. In recent years, that has sometimes brought crime, or the perception of it, as well as lower-income residents to Jefferson.

"Jefferson as an inner-ring suburb has been subjected to the suburbanization of poverty," she said. The dynamic was occurring before Hurricane Katrina but accelerated after it, she said.

A myriad of other factors can contribute to population declines, such as access to transportation, crime and quality of education, she noted.

Young, the former parish president who is running for the office again this year, said job growth is critical. But residents also want communities that have green spaces and are pedestrian-friendly, he said Thursday.

"We have to attract quality jobs so we don't lose our best and brightest," Young said. "We have to make people who are born here and raised here want to stay here."

Lee Sheng has talked extensively about improving the parish's aging housing stock. 

Jefferson has "a very old housing stock that is not attractive to younger people," she said. In addition, federal regulations about elevating homes in flood-prone areas make it more difficult to lure home buyers. "It's more complicated where we are," she said.

She pointed to developments in Elmwood, where plans include a mixed-use retail and residential development, as the kind of projects the parish needs more of. Green infrastructure is also key, she said.

"We have to live better with water, too," she said. 

Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent Cade Brumley, who has been on the job since March 2018, has made improving the parish's schools the goal of his aggressive reform agenda. In doing so, he has earned plaudits from many Jeffersonians who see good schools as a key driver in attracting families.

At the same time, he has repeatedly urged residents not to think of the parish's school system as a suburban system. 

"The diversity within our system is really only found within large urban systems in America," he said. "You won't go into another school system in Louisiana that isn't urban and find our diversity of demographic."

School ratings are one area in which Jefferson suffers in comparison with its north shore rival. St. Tammany earned a B rating from the state in the most recent district performance ratings. It is also consistently highly regarded, while Jefferson has lagged with a C rating. 


Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.