As population growth slows across Minnesota and the country, some Twin Cities' outer-ring suburbs are seeing growth rates accelerate since the COVID-19 pandemic, new regional estimates show.

It's a marked shift from the 2010s, when the biggest gains occurred in the urban core. Population growth in Minneapolis, St. Paul and many inner-ring suburbs has stagnated in recent years, or even declined.

In suburbs farther out, however, construction of new housing — primarily single-family homes and townhouses — is driving faster growth. The northwest metro city of Dayton saw its population increase by 40% between 2020 and 2023, according to new estimates from the Metropolitan Council. Lakeville added 5,700 residents over the same time period, the most of any city in the metro.

It's a revival of trends seen at the turn of the century.

"Our growth levels and the distribution of growth in the region look pretty much like they did in the 2000s," said Matt Schroeder, senior researcher for the Met Council. "But the underlying dynamics are somewhat different."

Demographers have predicted slower growth in the region for a long time because of lower birth rates, aging and a decline in international immigration. Some of those trends quickened at the peak of the pandemic, as mortality rates increased and immigration dropped off more steeply, Schroeder said.

But the Met Council's population estimates — calculated each year between the U.S. Census Bureau's decennial head count — rely heavily on housing data.

The average size of a household has been shrinking for some time, at least partly in response to aging and lower birth rates. The decline is more drastic in the urban center, where many of the units added in recent years have been studios and one-bedrooms that may be less attractive to families.

Data also showed occupancy rates dropping across the metro in 2023, Schroeder said, especially among multifamily units. That could be partly because it's taking time to fill up all the new apartment buildings constructed in recent years, he said.

Building permits for multifamily development — an indicator of future construction — also plummeted in 2023 after interest rates spiked.

"One of the things that we are really watching is development," Schroeder said. "Just based on trends in development, it does seem like the growth will continue to be tilted more toward the outlying suburbs than Minneapolis, St. Paul and more first-ring suburbs."

The end of the urban boom?

The past decade's population growth in Minneapolis, St. Paul and big cities across the U.S. was driven by young adult millennials flocking to newly built apartments and condos. Because the generation is one of the largest, its shifts have had a more seismic effect.

Multifamily development was quicker to rebound from the Great Recession, outpacing the development of single-family homes for several years. Moves to the suburbs, typical for young adults of previous generations, were postponed.

Now as more millennials age and become homeowners, growth has dissipated from the center cities to suburbs, said Susan Brower, Minnesota's state demographer.

"That was something that started happening before the pandemic," she said. "Minneapolis and St. Paul are very much in line with what's happening nationally."

International immigration also dropped off during Donald Trump's presidency and the pandemic, a trend that had a bigger impact on the center cities that new immigrants have historically favored, Brower said.

She emphasized that the suburbs are not now seeing the levels of growth the urban core experienced past decade.

"We're seeing dampened growth all around," Brower said.

But the growth that is happening is more concentrated in the suburbs.

While Dayton's 40% growth rate is the fastest in the metro between 2020 and 2023, neighboring Corcoran saw its population increase by nearly a third, according to the Met Council. Lexington in the northern suburbs and Lake Elmo to the east each grew by about a quarter.

While these suburbs have relatively small populations, their growth rates are faster than the metro core. Overall, the seven-county Twin Cities metro area grew about 2%.

Growth in these suburbs coincides with accelerated residential construction. For example, of all the new construction permits for single-family housing and townhouses since 1970, more than 30% in Dayton and in Corcoran have been issued since 2020. That percentage was about 25% in Lake Elmo and about 12% in Lakeville — all far above the 6% regional rate.

Demographic headwinds vs. housing

Schroeder said it's important to realize that the Met Council's figures are estimates.

There are still uncertainties about how the pandemic affected the 2020 Census, the starting point for the estimates. Fast-moving housing trends can also take a while to capture since the Met Council relies on five-year averages in data.

Many questions remain about how further social shifts could shape population trends. William Frey, a demographer for Brookings Metro, said in a recent article that the future of remote work, new immigrant waves and the preferences of younger generations could all have impacts.

Take Brooklyn Park. The city lost an estimated 2,600 residents from 2020 to 2023, according to the Met Council.

Single-family housing was a longtime driver of growth in the suburb, though production slowed substantially after the Great Recession. The city began adding units in a burst of multifamily projects starting around 2015, according to Met Council building permits, but that type of development has also slowed since the pandemic.

Brooklyn Park "has not built as much as it needed to kind of offset those demographic headwinds" in recent years, Schroeder said. City officials said that's a point of conversation, not a point of concern.

"Over a longer period of time, we're still seeing growth," said John Nerge, the city's GIS and data analysis coordinator.

And they expect more to come.

Paul Mogush, Brooklyn Park's planning director, said the city has about 1,000 acres of undeveloped land, as well as ample opportunities for infill and redevelopment. City officials also say they believe the planned extension of the Blue Line light rail, which is expected to bring five new stations to Brooklyn Park, will spark more growth.

"It's going to be a different flavor of development," Mogush said — more apartment buildings, mixed-use properties, walkable communities.

"It's not just potential — it will be realized. We will continue to grow," he said. "It's just about the timing, you know. When will it happen?"