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Population decline could reshape Long Island

Pedestrians stroll down Main street in Southampton, May

Pedestrians stroll down Main street in Southampton, May 20, 2017. Credit: Daniel Brennan

The future is always a puzzle. You think you know what the pieces are, but life is not static. And we adjust our plans, hoping the future we envision is the one we get.

That’s true for individuals, companies and governments. And regions like Long Island.

So what’s in store for us?

Good question. Because some recent data about the region is disquieting.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 11,278 more people left Suffolk County for other parts of the country last year than moved to Suffolk from elsewhere. For Nassau, the figure was 5,090.

If not for foreign immigration — which added a net of more than 4,300 people in each county — Nassau would have lost population instead of its anemic estimated growth of 1,798 people. And Suffolk, whose population fell by 5,320, would have seen an even larger drop.

As a snapshot, the numbers are easy to dismiss. Long Island, after all, has nearly 3 million people. What’s a few thousand in comparison? Look at the wider context, though, and there’s reason for concern and careful planning.

Suffolk’s population has been declining since 2013. Nassau’s increase has shrunk every year since 2012. And the number of people leaving Long Island for elsewhere in the United States, compared with the number coming here, has been increasing annually in both counties since 2012.

The problem goes back further. The number of people migrating from both Nassau and Suffolk was even higher from 2004 to 2007, before the recession slowed departures.

Ask demographers about reasons for this outflow and they suggest myriad possibilities. It’s one of the most complex problems facing Long Island, with threads attached to issues of housing, cost of living, jobs, taxes and land use. It’s important to try to determine the relative importance of each. Because underlying the uncertainty is the surety that having a stagnant or declining population is never good. Large swaths of hollowed-out upstate New York are proof of that.

Long Island’s population numbers reflect the anecdotal evidence in many residents’ lives. We all know someone who moved to North Carolina for a job, Florida for retirement, or any number of states for a lower cost of living. We all know others who are talking about it.

And we feel the impact in our communities, in the talent we lose and the families that are fractured.

This presents challenges for the region’s leaders and policymakers. Many are acutely aware of the symptoms, but they are unable to address them because Long Island lacks a regional framework for doing so, or they are unwilling to do so because of the possible political cost.

For those who leave because the cost of living is too high, efforts must be ramped up to control property taxes and utility costs that are higher than almost anywhere.

For those who leave seeking more opportunity, more must be done to attract businesses and create more high-paying jobs.

For empty nesters looking to downsize and 20-somethings anxious to leave their parents’ basements, the construction of apartments and condominiums, affordable or not, must be accelerated. Whenever such a development is built, it sells out before all the units are finished.

What impact will baby boomers have? The generation’s sheer size has influenced virtually everything. As boomers move into retirement en masse, demographers worry they could exacerbate recent population trend lines. Long Island cannot afford such an exodus.

Among the groups most prone to leaving, these retirees are important for the counsel they offer and the wealth they possess. Young adults are important for the region’s schools, its workforce and its vitality. Each is critical to maintaining the backbone of Long Island — its families.

Some promising work has been done, from the state property tax cap to new housing in downtowns and near train stations, but more is needed.

It’s time to bear down on this puzzle, before a trickle becomes a flood.