Berkeley’s population increased more than almost any other Bay Area city from 2021 to 2023 owing to UC Berkeley students returning to campus after learning remotely during the pandemic and overall rising enrollment at the university, according to new data released by the California Department of Finance this month.

The more than 2.6% increase in a two-year period — from 120,418 in 2021 to 123,562 in 2023 — is rare in the Bay Area, which is losing people in the vast majority of cities to out-migration. But Berkeley’s population has still not recovered to pre-pandemic levels. If it weren’t for UC Berkeley, the city’s population changes would look much like the rest of the Bay Area.

The pandemic prompted an exodus from Berkeley. Within one year of the start of the pandemic, over 6,000 people had left the city.

But unlike the rest of the city, the group housing population, consisting mainly of student housing, rebounded quickly. By 2022, students had returned to the city in nearly full force, while the rest of the population is still short 3,000 people, compared with April 2020.

From January 2021 to January 2023, the number of people living in group housing in Berkeley, which primarily includes student housing, rose by 3,144, a 33% increase, according to the Department of Finance data. At the same time, the number of people living in standard housing (homes or apartment buildings) in Berkeley fell by 1,833, a 2% decline.

The population numbers show the impact of students returning to campus dormitories and apartments after time away during the pandemic, as well as the effect of increased enrollment at Cal. 

From fall 2020 to fall 2022, the number of students enrolled in UC Berkeley rose by 2,980. About three-quarters of Cal students live in Berkeley, according to a survey conducted by the university in fall 2021. 

The Department of Finance data are estimates, not census counts, and they differ from U.S. Census Bureau estimates as well. Since the group housing category includes but is not limited to Cal students living in dormitories and campus apartments, the numbers are difficult to compare with UC Berkeley’s count of student housing residents.

But the trend aligns with UC Berkeley’s count of residential hall beds, which declined from 7,200 in fall 2019 to 2,600 in 2020. This year, the university increased the number of dorm beds to 7,305.

Enrollment at Cal has been the subject of intense scrutiny as the student headcount has risen north of 40,000 in a town of 124,000. In 2022, a lawsuit by Berkeley neighbors over the impact of the university’s expansion on city services, housing stock and noise led Cal to announce it would need to send 5,000 fewer admissions letters for fall 2022, until the legislature and governor intervened.

Concerns over the impact of rising enrollment have also been a factor in lawsuits neighborhood groups have filed to try to stop UC Berkeley from building student and supportive housing at People’s Park, with a suit now on the docket of the California Supreme Court. The university has repeatedly said that it must build student housing on all of its available sites to meet student demand. 

Other university towns in the state have seen similar patterns of population growth. The population in Santa Cruz, home to UC Santa Cruz, rebounded by over 6,000 (10%) between 2021 and 2023; in Irvine, the number of residents rose by 1,817 (.6%). In Albany, the population rose by 4% — the most of any Bay Area city — which may be related to UC Berkeley’s University Village complex.

Berkeley isn’t immune from Bay Area exodus

Outside of university towns, residents are leaving the Bay Area for more affordable pastures, moving within the region to places like Oakley and Antioch and out of state, especially to Texas cities. The birth rate in California is also slowing, further impacting the state’s population. 

While there is no data available on migration patterns at the city level, all signs point toward Berkeley being part of that trend — other than its student population.

“There’s no reason to expect Berkeley to be an exception to that pattern. Housing prices in Berkeley are every bit as high as they are in almost any other part of the Bay Area,” said Hans Johnson, a researcher at Public Policy Institute of California who specializes in demographic changes.

People cross the Center and Oxford Streets intersection in Downtown Berkeley on April 3, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Prior to the pandemic, lower- and middle-income residents had long been flocking to other states in the West, including Texas, but college graduates were moving to California, according to Johnson.

Now, wealthier Bay Area and California residents with a college degree are just as likely to move out as others, a change Johnson said is being driven by the ability to work remotely in more affordable locales. Those moving out tend to be older, at least in their 30s and 40s, while people in their 20s continue to move to the Bay seeking job opportunities.

In Alameda County, new residents have a lower household income than current residents and those leaving the county, according to IRS data analyzed by the San Francisco Chronicle. The 105,000 people who left from 2020 to 2021 had an average household income of $132,000, compared with $121,000 for residents moving to the county.

One factor slowing the population decline is an increase in international immigration to the Bay Area and California, which slowed during the pandemic and has now picked up again.

The city’s population appears to be starting to stabilize; it increased by just 374 residents between 2022 and 2023, over a year in which the population decline in much of the Bay Area slowed. The number of people living in group housing rose by 271 and the population of people living in standard households grew by just 42.

Berkeley’s building more housing but people are less likely to live with others

Since the pandemic, Berkeley has added 1,403 housing units, outpacing the rate of housing development between 2010 and 2020. But unlike in the last decade, Berkeley is no longer adding people faster than housing.

From 2010 to 2020, the number of people per housing unit rose from 2.3 to 2.4 citywide, according to the U.S. Census, which often indicates people packing in tighter. But the trend reversed from 2020 to 2023, as the number of people per housing unit fell, mirroring a trend in cities across the country

“As we talk about the housing crisis in California, there is housing being built,” said Johnson. “But as the number of people per household goes down, it kind of creates an even larger challenge. And the pent up demand for housing remains, I think, quite high.”

In this case, the vast majority of new housing in Berkeley is apartment buildings, which add orders of magnitude more density than single-family homes. But they offer smaller units better suited for one or two people rather than families of four or more, which could be impacting the number of people per unit across the city. People may also be opting to live with fewer roommates. 

Between 2020 and 2023, Berkeley added 1,156 new housing units in apartments, compared with 150 new single-family homes.

As Berkeley ages, families have fewer children and older children move away, further causing a decline in the city’s non-student population. These factors mean that, over time, there are fewer people in each housing unit. In the Berkeley Hills, there are the most spacious homes, with about the same number of people living per unit there as in the rest of the city, despite the fact that the homes are more likely to have six, seven or eight rooms.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...