Quietly, almost imperceptibly, 2019 became a watershed year in Santa Fe’s long demographic

history. For the first time in at least 60 years, Santa Fe County (including the city) recorded more deaths (1,316) than births (1,177) — this was pre-pandemic and, of course, in 2020, additional deaths because of COVID-19 exacerbated the trend.

For decades, and perhaps centuries, Santa Fe’s population grew, in part, due to local “natural increase” (i.e. births minus deaths). For instance, in 1960 (the earliest year for which vital statistics were obtained from the state Department of Health), Santa Fe County had nearly 1,200 more births than deaths, accounting for the vast majority of the county’s growth that year.

In fact, there were many more births in Santa Fe County in 1960 (1,428) than in 2019 (1,177). That, even though Santa Fe County had a much smaller population in 1960 (44,970) than in 2019 (est. 150,358).

The county hit a peak in the number of births in 2007, the same year the U.S. hit a peak in births (outpacing the previous record in 1957 during the height of the post-World War II baby boom). But since 2007, the annual number of births in Santa Fe County has been dropping precipitously, just as deaths from an older population started to increase steadily.

Suddenly, the lines on the graph for births and deaths began racing toward each other until they crossed in 2019. In essence, Santa Fe has fewer young couples having fewer babies and a high senior-aged population dying in increasing numbers each year.

While every community’s population growth is usually a combination of “natural increase” and “net migration” (i.e. people moving in minus people moving out), it appears that for the foreseeable future, the Santa Fe-area population growth will be entirely dependent on those moving to Santa Fe. And this net migration will have to overcome the statistical headwinds of population losses from what has now become Santa Fe’s “natural decrease.”

How long this trend will continue and what effect it will have on the Santa Fe housing market in the years ahead is unclear, though the demographics would suggest a slowing and softening of the housing market, especially at the higher end. However, Santa Fe is a highly desirable location drawing those with financial means from far and wide (especially retirees). Coupled with the fact that Santa Fe is a relatively small housing market, it may portend a housing market with continued strength and high prices.

Yet, as baby boomers decline in ever-increasing numbers over the coming years, and if the national birth rate remains low, one wonders if Santa Fe’s high-priced housing market will be sustained in the years and decades ahead.

When it comes to demographics, the Santa Fe area is in uncharted territory. The effects may soon be obvious, or as gradual, quiet and imperceptible as the crossing of lines on a graph in 2019.

Reed Liming was long-range planner for the city of Santa Fe for 23 years. He is retired and resides in Albuquerque.

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