Daly City officials believe the 2010 census undercounted their population by more than 7,000, which could cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in state and federal funding.
Although the census put Daly City’s population at 101,123, City Manager Patricia Martel said the actual number is closer to 108,383. Martel bases her claim on a 2010 estimate by the state Department of Finance.
Because about $5 million of Daly City’s $163 million budget comes from federal sources based on population, Martel said the city plans to appeal to the Census Bureau.
Daly City’s $1.5 million annual block grant for low-income neighborhoods and $2.2 million in economic stimulus funds for roads and energy efficiency are tied to population. Similarly, gas taxes and state library funds are based on population.
Just how much the city might lose is “impossible to quantify” because the federal government doesn’t share its calculation criteria, city Finance Director Don McVey said. But it isn’t peanuts.
“It definitely matters, and it matters more over time,” he said.
Proving an undercount will not be easy, said John Malson, head of the state Department of Finance demographics unit. After each census, hundreds of American cities file such complaints.
Officials say Daly City is especially vulnerable to a miscount due to its large number of immigrants and foreclosed homes.
“The numbers are always difficult to count in Daly City because we have a large immigrant population that may not trust people asking questions about how many people live in the house and don’t participate in the census,” Martel said.
Foreclosures, however, present demographers with a new problem.
While census takers may assume that people whose homes have been foreclosed have moved out of state, the finance department does not. Malson said this may account for the population discrepancy. He believes many missing Californians have simply “doubled up in housing” — an explanation that also could account for the contested tally.
East Palo Alto, another city with many immigrants and foreclosures, may also have been miscounted, Planning Manager Brent Butler said. The census said its population was 28,155, while the state put it at 33,524.
Butler noted that Page Mill Properties sold 1,800 rental units in his city around the time of the census. Although it maintained a 50 percent vacancy rate, new owner Wells Fargo quickly filled the units.
“Now they have typical vacancy rates — so if it happened when vacancies were at the highest level, it might not be accurate,” he said.
Last year dished up some unusual challenges for census takers. While the 1980, 1990 and 2000 tallies all were conducted during economic booms, the 2010 census occurred during a major downturn.
Housing vacancies spiked around April 2010 as census takers hit the streets. The displaced residents thus became wild cards for the census, said John Malson, director of the demographic unit in the state Department of Finance.
“Census takers are not going to run down to bus stations and find out where they have gone,” Malson said.
These challenges help explain why the 2010 census differs so profoundly from state estimates.
The 2010 census said 37.2 million people live in California — a whopping 1.25 million fewer than the state Department of Finance estimated, extrapolating from the 2000 census.
By comparison, the 2000 census differed by just 75,000 from the department’s 2000 population estimate, Malson said.
“This is the first time ever that the Census Bureau and the Department of Finance had such a sharp disagreement,” Demographer Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute of California said. “It’s hard to know what is the most accurate number.”
Johnson said tracking migration is essentially “guesswork,” and with the high number of vacancies in California, the 2010 census could be way off.
“If it was a really bad count, it could have missed several hundred thousand, even a million people, but that’s speculation,” he said.
Census takers repeatedly visit homes and consult neighbors, but if no one answers they ultimately don’t count the residents, agency spokeswoman Jennifer Smits said. Such residents may be counted if they’ve moved in with friends, but temporary guests may be missed.
For demographers, Malson noted, there’s really no way to be sure whether residents of vacant homes left town or moved in with friends or family.
If the census is correct, a lot more people have left California than the state realizes. The Department of Finance estimates that fewer than 100,000 Californians moved to other states between 2000 and 2010. Based on its 2000 numbers, the Census Bureau puts the outflow at around 1.6 million, Johnson said.
Job seekers may have moved to neighboring states or crossed back over the border, Johnson said. While the census’ unpublished self-review may clarify the dilemma, he added, “in the end, we may never know.”
— Niko Kyriakou