Chicago was the only major U.S. city to lose population from 2015 to 2016

Chicago was the only city among the nation's 20 largest to lose population in 2016 — and it lost nearly double the number of residents as the year before, according to newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

It's the city's third consecutive year of population loss. Chicago's population fell by 8,638 residents between 2015 and 2016, to 2,704,958. The year before, it declined by 4,934.

The population of the greater Chicago area, defined by the Census Bureau as the city and suburbs extending into Wisconsin and Indiana, is also declining. Numbers made available in March showed a drop of 19,570 residents in 2016 — the greatest loss of any metropolitan area in the country.

Illinois' population fell by more than any other state’s in 2016, down 37,508 people, according to census data released in December.

The declines for Chicago and Illinois come as Southern states grow. Chicagoans are likely to continue heading to those warmer states, as the South in 2016 was home to 10 of the 15 fastest-growing large cities. The population of Texas as a whole continues to rise, and the Census Bureau placed five Texas cities on its list of major cities with the largest population increases.

Chicago's population drop is part of a larger pattern of slowed urban growth in 2016. The country's top cities did not see the same surge as in previous years, experts say.

During the recession of 2008, families chose to stay in or move to core urban areas, and migration to the suburbs decelerated. Now, as families recover economically, they're deciding it's time to move back to the suburbs — a trend experts say may keep city populations steady for the next few years.

Illinoisans in recent years have flocked to Sun Belt states such as Texas, Arizona and Florida. During the years after the recession, migration to those states slowed, but then it heated up again as states in the South and West offered greater job opportunities and affordable housing.

By most estimates, Chicago's population will continue to decline. Over the last year, the Chicago Tribune surveyed dozens of former residents who said they packed their bags for a variety of reasons: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and weather.

Black residents have been among those leaving in search of safe neighborhoods and prosperity, with many heading to the suburbs and warm-weather states. Chicago lost about 181,000 black residents between 2000 and 2010, according to census data.

More than any other city, Chicago has depended on Mexican immigrants to balance the slow growth of its native-born population. During the 1990s, immigration accounted for most of Chicago's growth. After 2007, when Mexican-born populations began to fall across the nation's major metropolitan areas, most cities managed to make up for the loss with the growth of their native populations. Chicago couldn't.

Michael Bennett, 43, moved to Houston for a job in 2008, but was so committed to staying a Chicagoan that he kept his Lincoln Park home and flew back on free weekends and holidays. He sold his property and settled in Houston for good in 2015, saying his "romance and love for Chicago couldn't outweigh" his concerns about the city.

The cost of living was too high, he said. Property taxes kept rising. His home was robbed twice.

"It's not just limited to poor neighborhoods. Trouble could strike anywhere," Bennett said.

He had moved to Chicago in 2005 after spending most of his life in Michigan. Living in Chicago was always his dream, and he still misses being on the lakefront and strolling down Michigan Avenue. But Houston offers a diverse, cultural lifestyle similar to that of Chicago, he said. He's received job offers to return to Chicago, but even a higher salary couldn't balance increasing property taxes, he said.

Bennett said he thinks there will soon be a "tipping point" in Chicago, when more residents realize it's time to go.

Eltagouri writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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