"I have not seen any growth like this." Census estimates Johnston County 3rd-fastest growing in NC

CLAYTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Newly-released estimates from the United States Census Bureau found that Johnston County's population grew by 4.9% between April 2020 and July 2021, the third-fastest rate in the state.

"I have not seen any growth like this in my entire career in real estate," said Olita Boone, who is on the Board of Directors for the Johnston County Association of Realtors.

Boone moved from Wake County to Johnston County more than twenty years ago. While there are people moving in from neighboring areas, realtors say there's another factor driving the population increase.

"There's definitely been an uptick especially since COVID has hit. I've personally had clients come in from all over the United States. And it seems like I've had more of those clients than I had local clients," said Boone, who cited the state's climate as a selling point for clients in the Northeast and Midwest.

The uniqueness of the pandemic, which shifted a lot of work remotely, also possibly playing a role in the influx.

"Many people, while they were either working fully remote or now that they're back in the office, they're on a hybrid schedule. So those kind of trade-offs of 'well, do I want to live here and get this home price or am I willing to commute a little bit further in," explained Dr. Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The increasing population has created a sellers real estate market. According to data from Triangle MLS, through February 2022, there was a 14.1% drop in new listings and 9.5% decrease in closed sales compared to the same time period last year, and a 25.6% increase in the median sales price, increasing from $268,618 to $337,500.

"In this market, with buyers you don't have the luxury to wait to see what's going to happen, because what's here today may be gone within minutes or hours. You have to be ready and you have to act quickly in this market," explained Boone.

Theresa Zeoli cited lower taxes as a reason of why she moved to Johnston County from New York.

"What I've gotten in my home here, I couldn't even get a garage up there. Literally. It's just crazy. But the prices have gone up drastically since I've been here in 15 months," said Zeoli.

Zeoli now works at Nina's Restaurant and Bar in downtown Clayton, where many customers are new to the state.

"They're from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Kentucky, and they're having a hard time finding homes," Zeoli said.

Restaurants, who have been especially impacted by the pandemic, have been grateful for the trends.

"It seems like all the businesses are getting better. Of course, our restaurant is getting a lot more new customers, new faces, for sure," said Alberto Sanchez, who owns Nina's Restaurant and Bar and two other restaurants in Clayton.

Sanchez, who moved from New Jersey more than two decades ago, said business is not yet at pre-pandemic levels, but expressed optimism it's on the right track.

"We definitely see the difference. It's only getting better. Yes, for sure," Sanchez said.

With recent large-scale jobs announcements in the Triangle, Boone anticipates the population growth will continue, and noted the importance of making sure housing availability and infrastructure keep pace.

"We're having supply issues with new construction homes. Builders are not able to get the supplies as readily as they need to to close these homes. In a pre-pandemic market, builders were able to build homes and we could count on these homes being complete in five months. Now it is to be determined. Whenever (builders) get these supplies in, and (they're) able to build these homes, so the builders are asking for a little grace and flexibility with completion of these homes," said Boone.

Earlier this month, Brooks Moore, Johnston County's Chief of Facilities and Construction, presented a report to the Johnston County School Board, which showed the district's student population is increasing by more than 700 students per year, and would need six new schools (four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school) and expansions to seven more campuses (four elementary schools, two middle schools, and one high school) over the next five years. The 31-slide presentation estimated the necessary upgrades and projects would cost $720 million.

Overall, 73 counties in North Carolina grew between April 2020 and July 2021, with the state's population increasing by 112,000 people. Brunswick and Currituck were the two-fastest growing counties, followed by Johnston, Camden, and Franklin.

"This is really occurring during the peak of the pandemic, the onset and peak of it, so some of the surprises that we saw, it may be more consistent with some of the population churn that we had then. And we're really going to be waiting for a few more years to say, 'is this one year of data and does it normalize, or are these new normal patterns,'" said Tippett.
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