Walla Wallans Live in Relatively Small Units

By Dr. Patrick Jones

Is Walla Walla a lonely place? If we look solely at the number of people who live under one roof, then yes. That measure, seen in Trends indicator 0.3.1,  Average Number of People per Household, was estimated at 2.5 in 2022. That puts the metro area of Walla Walla and Columbia Counties as having the smallest households among eastern Washington metros. (Actually a tie with Spokane.)

Average household size in other metros for 2022 was:  2.7 people in the greater Wenatchee area, 2.8 in the greater Tri Cities, 3.0 in Grant and Yakima Counties. Were it not for the Hispanic/Latino population in the Walla Walla metro, the estimate here would be considerably lower. For that population, average household size in 2022 was 3.3 people.

Why might households in the Walla Walla area be so small? The obvious correlate that comes to mind is age. As Trends indicator 0.1.3 (Share of the Population by Age Groups) shows, the area shows a much larger share of the population in the older adult (65+) category than Washington State. Obviously, this segment is beyond child-bearing years, and in most cases, does not report children in the household.

For 2022, this segment amounted to 21% vs. 17% in the state. With the exception of the Chelan and Douglas Counties, the gap to other eastern Washington metros is even larger. The share of the 65+ population segment was a mere 15% in all others, with the exception of Spokane, which stood at 18% in 2022.

Undoubtedly, this age profile is a consequence of Walla Walla’s reputation as a great retirement destination. (It shares this distinction among Eastern Washington cities with Leavenworth and Chelan.) Undoubtedly, too, this is a consequence of the relatively low portion of Hispanic/Latinos here. Their share of the Walla Walla metro area population was estimated at 22% in 2022. While hardly insignificant, this share is far lower than all other population centers in Eastern Washington except for Spokane.

Conventional wisdom correctly puts Hispanic & Latinos as much younger than the overall population in eastern Washington. What may not be common knowledge is the size of the gap. Consider median age. The overall estimate, shown in Trends indicator 0.1.2, was 39.8 years in 2022. For non-Hispanic whites in the Walla Walla metro, the estimate for 2022 was 44.2 years; for Hispanic/Latinos, at 22.6!

Consequences? One is public education. In the first instance, this age structure likely means stagnant enrollment. In fact, that has been the case in Walla Walla County over the past decade. For school year 2022-2023, total enrollment on a full-time student basis was 8,294. A decade prior, 2021-2013, it stood at 8,412.

A potential consequence of static enrollments may be a weakening of ties between the general public and the K-12 system. Bond & levy votes become a bit more challenging with a population that skews older.

Another obvious impact is the demand for housing. The traditional pattern of a housing lifecycle among American households has been:  start small, peak when the number of children peaks, and downsize once life as empty nesters comes. If the Walla Walla area holds more empty nesters than its neighbors, average house size should reflect this.

There is not a source for the square feet of an average single-family residence in the area. But Census does provide a proxy by the number of rooms. For 2002, the estimate for the metro area was 5.5. This is the lowest among all eastern Washington metros, which show a range 5.7 to 5.9 rooms.

Similarly, we might expect the size of multi-family units to be smaller than the overall average. Size data are available from the University of Washington Real Estate Research Center for apartments. For the most recently available quarter, Q3 of this year, the Center’s survey definitely reflected this correlation. Among all eastern Washington metro areas, the size of an average Walla Walla County apartment was by far the smallest, at 720 square feet. The rest range from 850 (greater Wenatchee area) to 920 (Moses Lake).

Other determinants of housing demand obviously exist. The likely most important factor is income. High incomes might provide a counter-influence to smaller household sizes. For example, the recent estimated size of Yakima County homes was the same as in Walla Walla. While household size is larger there, household incomes there are considerably lower. In a word, none of us lives in a world where decisions rest on only one factor.

However, many the causes behind size of housing, we can still say that Walla Walla households are small. And that they are older than average. But lonelier? That’s unlikely, given the social fabric of this community.