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Is Newton positioned for more growth?
Growth brings diversity to Newton
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The decade that ended last year saw the lofty height of the housing boom and, everyone hopes, the bottom of the recession. The 2010 Census numbers tell the tale and show some shifting trends, but officials are split on whether Newton County will rebound with robust growth in the next decade or whether rising gas prices, continuing transportation issues and a lack of high-end development will shift Atlanta's growth north and back inside the perimeter.

"Here opinion is really divided. Some are predicting that counties like Newton over-built housing and that once the recession and housing collapse are over, people will not want to live so far out (especially if gasoline prices go higher) and that inner suburbs and the city will be where the next round of growth is," said Charles Jaret, a Georgia State University sociology professor who specializes in demographic studies.

"I'm a little skeptical of that and think suburbanization will continue, though probably not at the pace of the 1990s and early 2000s, driven by lower housing costs, decentralization of jobs and better schools."

Newton County officials clearly think the county will continue to grow and at a steady pace, by about 300,000 in the next 40 years, based on its 2050 plan.

Deirdre Oakley, a Georgia State demographer, said many major metro areas, like Chicago and Phoenix, have suburban sprawl as far as 65 miles beyond the city's heart. Covington is about 35 miles from the heart of Atlanta. She said if the housing market picks up, growth should follow in the traditional patterns.

While Newton County expects the growth to come, it’s also working to direct that growth and create more urban centers within the county, particularly on the western side and in existing cities. If successful, the plan is to leave much of the county in a rural state, including land for agriculture and conservation.

Who will be living here?

As development shifts, so do populations. And the greater Atlanta area is showing a general reversal of demographic trends, as the city itself gained white residents and lost black residents, while the suburbs, including Newton County, showed a near opposite trend. Atlanta lost nearly 32,000 black residents during the decade and gained 22,000 white residents.

"I argue that a lot of this has to do with gentrification and (the fact) in-town living has become less affordable than the suburban counties. You particularly see this trend in the near-suburb location where there is access to public transportation," said Oakley. Gentrification is defined as the restoration of run-down areas to make them more attractive to the middle class.

She said Atlanta is following the same pattern of core revitalization that has been seen in other major U.S. cities.

Neither Jaret nor Oakley expected those patterns to reach as far east as Newton County.

"If we saw more high-end development in DeKalb and Rockdale, maybe (the pattern would extend). But really the trend now is these nearer-in counties still have affordable housing and taxes haven’t gone up much yet, although they probably will. Why I would suspect that we won’t see these trends extend farther and farther out is because people with money seem to be wanting to live ‘within the perimeter’ but at present the higher-end development is to the north, not the east like Stone Mountain where there is a large black population," Oakley said.

Jaret said younger affluent people, particularly singles and childless couples, might be attracted to move back into the city, but families would likely choose to move further east or possibly to the higher-end areas, like Alpharetta and John’s Creek, and Cherokee, Dunwoody and Forsyth counties.

Oakley said families that don’t like the increased socioeconomic, ethic and racial diversity would likely move further away from the city, not back into it.

Is Hispanic population growth directly tied to housing?

Some officials in the metro region were surprised by the high Hispanic growth, given the fact that the housing market has been in decline for a few years. Newton County about quadrupled its Hispanic population to 4,600.

Jaret who is an expert in immigration in the South, said construction jobs employ about 45 percent of Hispanic men, and around 12 percent are in management or professional occupations. Nearly a quarter of Hispanic women are in management and professional occupations and another quarter are in sales and office jobs.

He said Hispanic families have always tended to prefer suburban areas.

"(They have) easier access to work locations (especially in construction) in suburbs (and) more affordable housing in neighborhoods that are safer and have businesses that cater to their consumer preferences," Jaret said. "Some city neighborhoods that were popular Hispanic areas had their apartments and businesses torn down and replaced with more upscale housing and stores (the area next to the Lindbergh MARTA station is the best example of that)."