Do we know that 500,000 people have fled NYC since the start of COVID-19?

On the heels of much discussion of residents leaving New York City, San Francisco, and other major cities because of COVID-19, the Daily Mail suggests 500,000 people have left New York City:

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Parts of Manhattan, famously the ‘city that never sleeps’, have begun to resemble a ghost town since 500,000 mostly wealthy and middle-class residents fled when Covid-19 struck in March.

The number is also part of the headline.

But, how do we know this number is accurate? If there was ever a figure that required some serious triangulation, this could be it. Most of the news stories I have seen on people fleeing cities rely on real estate agents and movers who have close contact with people going from one place to another. Those articles rarely mention figures, settling for vaguer pronouncements about trends or patterns. Better data could come from sources like utility companies (presumably there would be a drop in the consumption of electricity and water), the post office (how many people have changed addresses), and more systematic analyses of real estate records.

A further point about the supposed figure: even if it is accurate, it does not reveal much about long-term trends. Again, the stories on this phenomenon have hinted that some of those people who left will never return while some do want to get back. We will not know until some time has gone by after the COVID-19 pandemic slows down or disappears. Particularly for those with resources, will they sell their New York property or will they sit on it for a while to give themselves options or in order to make sure they get a decent return on it? This may be a shocking figure now but it could turn out in a year or two to mean very little if many of those same people return to the city.

In other words, I would wait to see if this number is trustworthy and if so, what exactly it means in the future. As sociologist Joel Best cautions around numbers that seem shocking, it helps to ask good questions about where the data comes from, how accurate it is, and what it means.

If workers can live anywhere, does this increase or decrease placelessness?

A theme is emerging: today’s workers with technology and COVID-19 might be able to avoid going to an office. But, if they can live anywhere, what does this do for a sense of community and connecting to a particular place?

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The coronavirus is challenging the assumption that Americans must stay physically tethered to traditionally hot job markets—and the high costs and small spaces that often come with them—to access the best work opportunities. Three months into the pandemic, many workers find themselves in jobs that, at least for now, will let them work anywhere, creating a wave of movement across the country.

Recessions tend to damp migration. Americans typically move with a new job already in hand, and hiring plummets during downturns. The 2008 financial crisis limited Americans’ mobility because millions of homeowners found themselves underwater on their homes, unable to sell without taking a loss.

But this time might be different. Home prices haven’t yet taken a major hit. And the forces at play are novel. Confronted with the prospect of not being able to easily fly in for a visit with an elderly parent, grown children are suddenly questioning why they live so far away in the first place.

Many newly remote workers are finding they prefer somewhere closer to family or fresh air. Others are giving up on leases they can’t afford, chasing opportunities in states that are reopening faster or heading back to hometowns.

On the side of more community and rootedness:

1. People can live in places they want to live rather than choosing a place for a job. Whether they live somewhere to be near family, find housing, enjoy the outdoors, or some other reason, workers will be inclined to invest more locally.

2. Working from home schedules can offer more flexibility, freeing people up to participate more in local activities.

3. The commute is eliminated, freeing up time as well as getting rid of the illusion that driving through an area is the same as knowing it.

4. People might stay longer in places if they can simply change jobs from afar rather than having to move when they switch jobs or careers.

On the side of less community and rootedness:

1. Spending time at a workplace can build community, both in the building as well as outside the workplace.

2. Corporate actions at the local level will connect less with employees who are not physically there and involved.

3. More businesses may have headquarters in one place (often desirable for big cities and high-status suburbs) but workforces – and all the benefits that come with it such as their spending or jobs numbers local politicians like – will be elsewhere.

On the whole, this could be good for employees who can invest more time in places of their choosing while businesses then have more tenuous connections to the places where they are officially located. In a country of suburbia (often considered non-places) and relatively easy travel, anchoring employees in places for longer could help lead to more rootedness.

“The Great Reshuffling,” “extension cords” to suburban living

New terms are arising to describe the possibility of more people moving to the suburbs with remote work becoming more popular:

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Zillow Chief Executive Rich Barton has coined the coming changes in where and how workers live their lives “the great reshuffling.” Redfin’s lead economist Taylor Marr says his company is registering stronger demand in terms of homes under contract in places like Seattle and Austin, Texas, where there has been spillover from bigger cities. These are tech hubs where a lot of remote work was already happening and they have been more insulated in terms of layoffs, he said.

Zillow’s chief economist, Svenja Gudell, says she doesn’t expect residents to cut the cord entirely from their cities, but that they may opt for an “extension cord” into the suburbs where they can get more space, more outdoor areas and, of course, a home office.

To be honest, I’m not sure I like either term that much. “The Great Reshuffling” could apply to all sorts of population changes. Suburbs as “extension cord” implies that suburbs could not exist without cities; this has some truth to it but is also open to some scholarly debate.

All of this is fairly speculative at this point. Yet, given the tendencies of Americans toward the suburbs, it may not take much to push people out of cities and to more property for their money. Cities appeal to many Americans but the suburbs are the places many default to.

It is also interesting to consider what cities might benefit the most from people fleeing high prices in particular places. If the residents of Manhattan or the Bay Area or Seattle could go anywhere, where would they go? Would other locations in those metro areas prove attractive (people get to maintain their connections, access culture and familiar places) or would they leave for cheaper housing markets, family elsewhere, or locations with other kinds of amenities (warm weather, access to nature, etc.)? The ultimate winner here might the ever-expanding Sunbelt.

More on the wealthy leaving cities, San Francisco edition

The flight of some out of New York City amid COVID-19 has attracted attention. This may also be happening in San Francisco:

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Amid the depths of a global pandemic and financial downturn, the demand for real estate is unexpectedly rocketing in wealthy regions outside San Francisco, reports Bloomberg. Agents say that demand is soaring in affluent areas around the Bay Area such as Napa, Marin and further afield in Carmel, as people who have the means look to get away from the city. Meanwhile, the market in San Francisco and Alameda County is still well below where it was last year.

Elsewhere, Lake Tahoe has also seen a surge in real estate interest. The prospect of living out of the city on an alpine lake while maintaining a career is appealing for a new generation of young buyers, as many tech companies have signaled that remote work may be the new norm for a long time…

Meanwhile, the rental market in San Francisco has dropped significantly, with rates for one-bedroom apartments in the city dropping by 9.2% since June 2019, and hitting a three-year low.

However, buying a new home in an isolated haven in a nearby bucolic county is not an option for lower-income San Francisco residents, and some believe the trend is only exacerbating the wealth divide.

And, as noted in the final paragraph of the story, it is hard to know whether this is a long-term trend. But, this is one of the advantage of wealth and resources: residential options during times when many others are limited in where they can live. And this is not just limited to where they can live; it includes being able to travel back and forth easily, owning or renting multiple properties at the same time, and having all the resources for working from home.

More broadly, the evidence cited above is interesting in that people moving out of the city are not said to be moving very far. They are still within a drive of San Francisco/the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. Are people in the Bay Area more willing to stay close by or do they have to due to work (a need for at least some in the tech industry to be at meetings, see people and products, etc.)? Does this differ from New York City where many of those moving ended up in the suburbs while others left the metro region all together? Staying in driving distance changes the moving experience.

I am also imagining the possibility of a more significant migration than some wealthy people heading for the suburbs or other cool metro areas. What if Facebook said they want to get out of the petri dish of Silicon Valley, be a different kind of tech company that really wants to connect people, and picks up for Omaha or St. Louis or another smaller big city in the middle of the country? Clusters of organizations have particular synergies and efficiencies but if more workers are going to be at home, is there still the same need to locate near everyone else?

Related earlier post: the evidence for this happening in Washington D.C. may not be as strong.

The Chicago area’s net migration is not bad but it can’t attract new residents

The newest Census data suggests both Chicago and the Chicago region are losing residents. But, it may be less about people moving away and more about an inability to attract new residents:

ChicagoAreaPopulationChange2019

Some experts note the metro region also isn’t attracting enough newcomers to make up for people who move away. Immigration from other countries also has long helped stem population loss, but in recent years this influx has been less robust, according to census estimates. Meanwhile, birthrates are slowing statewide, which means there are fewer new residents to make up for other losses…

“We don’t have a particularly high rate of just out-migration, but very few people come here relative to our population, compared to the rest of the country,” said Daniel Kay Hertz, research director at the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Using numbers from the 2015 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. census, his agency found that Illinois ranked in the middle of the pack nationally on the rate of people leaving the state, but was third from the bottom on the rate of people coming in…

“The narratives around the state matter and can shape people’s decisions,” Hertz said. “And the ones in Illinois are really, really, really negative in ways that I think overstate some of the issues relative to other places.”

Any major metropolitan area is going to have some people moving out as they get new job opportunities, see greener pastures elsewhere, move for family reasons, and so on. The goal then is to also attract new residents even as some are moving out. Population increases come from new residents plus more births than deaths.

This one expert cited above hints at an interesting conundrum for any city or region beset with population loss or narratives of decline: how do you reverse the trend once it starts picking up steam? As noted, the narratives both within and outside the Chicago region and Illinois are not good: pension debts, inequality, corruption, social issues that have lasted decades, higher taxes, a lack of innovation, not a business-friendly climate, harsh winters, important but bottlenecked infrastructure. If Chicago was the exemplar American city at the turn of the twentieth century, that is no longer the case. Other cities are on the rise, particularly in the Sunbelt stretching from Washington D.C. (with the expansion of and attention paid to the federal government, perhaps now truly the second most important American city) to Houston (whose population keeps growing and may soon surpass Chicago).

It is hard to know exactly how much the larger narrative pushes people to avoid the Chicago area in favor of other places. At the same time, status matters. People and businesses want to go to places that are on the way up, that are gaining people, that have an energy moving toward the future. Chicago and its region still have a lot to offer. For example, millennials still like portions of Chicago for their thriving cultural scenes plus relatively cheap housing compared to other major cities. Perhaps Chicago’s long-term fate is to roughly stay the same at the center of the Midwest region, a significant portion of the country that may also be losing population and status.

Secondary cities attractive but have a ways to go to catch biggest US cities

New data from Redfin suggests Americans are moving to secondary big cities:

Nashville, Sacramento, Atlanta, Phoenix, Austin and Dallas are among the top-10 cities with the largest influx of new residents, according to new data from the Redfin real estate brokerage…

“People in the coastal markets are just fed up with double-digit price increases, and they’re moving to a commuter town or to the middle of the country,” said Daryl Fairweather, chief economist for Redfin. “In our most recent ‘hottest markets’ report, Indianapolis tied for third place with Boston among the cities where homes go under contract fastest. People are moving there from Chicago, Los Angeles and the Bay Area because it’s affordable.”…

“It’s the combination of affordable housing and jobs that are causing people to move,” said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions, an Irvine, Calif.-based property database.

“In places like Tampa, Dallas and Las Vegas, there’s a booming economy, with lots of jobs, along with relatively affordable homes. You can cut your housing costs in half if you move to Dallas from Los Angeles and there are jobs there, too.”

The United States has now had a decades-long hierarchy of the largest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. It would be interesting to see if other regions could challenge those top three in terms of population or status/importance. I have written before about the case that could be made for Washington, D.C. but it also has relatively expensive housing and may be considered a secondary city. In population, Chicago has lost ground compared to Toronto and Houston may overtake it soon. But, does Houston or Toronto have the same status? Most of the locations on the list above of secondary cities are Sunbelt cities with relatively recent population growth and/or importance. Can a place like Phoenix or Nashville or Dallas translate these changes into global city status? It would take a lot of work and changed perceptions.

More evidence of “peak millennial” reached in major American cities

Time suggests 2016 Census data shows a number of American cities have plateaued in terms of millennial residents:

After years of growth, the population of millennials in Boston and Los Angeles has fallen since 2015, with more young people leaving the cities than arriving last year, according to the latest Census data. And millennial growth has slowed in large hubs like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C.

Dowell Myers, professor of demography at the University of Southern California, first suggested in 2015 that cities would begin to see declines in millennials. With the largest birth group turning 27 this year, Myers says it’s only a matter of time before millennials head to the suburbs for more space.

To see which cities have reached “peak millennial” — a term Myers coined —we analyzed a decade of Census data through 2016. We found that while tech hubs like San Francisco and Seattle are still drawing young people, large East Coast cities, like New York and D.C., are fast approaching peak millennial, with plateauing populations of those born between 1980 and 1996. And then there are cities like Boston, which already appear to have reached their peak. Boston lost roughly 7,000 millennials in 2016, after a record high of 259,000 the previous year…

But they won’t live with roommates forever, Myers says. Eventually, he expects millennials to follow the generations before them and move to the suburbs. “They’re waiting for the recovery to happen,” he says “for new housing and job opportunities open up — so they can move out.”

If this continues, cities will have to think about how to continue to grow their populations. And cities generally do not want any residents; they desire professionals and high-income earners who can contribute to their tax base. But, to some degree they are fighting against demographics as household sizes have shrunk in the United States and birth rates have been steady or declined slightly since 1990. Perhaps their best bet these days is to attract highly-skilled immigrants but this may be an uphill battle as well considering national conversations about immigration, competition between cities, and the significant number of immigrants to the United States that move directly to the suburbs.

Read earlier posts on this topic here and here.

While all other major cities grow, Chicago loses population

According to the latest Census figures, Chicago continues to be an outlier among the largest US cities:

Of the country’s 10 largest cities, the Chicago metropolitan statistical area was the only one to drop in population between 2015 and 2016. The region, defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, includes the city and suburbs and extends into Wisconsin and Indiana.

The Chicago metropolitan area as a whole lost 19,570 residents in 2016, registering the greatest loss of any metropolitan area in the country. It’s the area’s second consecutive year of population loss: In 2015, the region saw its first decline since at least 1990, losing 11,324 people.

By most estimates, the Chicago area’s population will continue to decline in the coming years. Over the past year, the Tribune surveyed dozens of former residents who’ve packed up in recent years and they cited a variety of reasons: high taxes, the state budget stalemate, crime, the unemployment rate and weather. Census data released Thursday suggests the root of the problem is in the city of Chicago and Cook County: The county in 2016 had the largest loss of any county nationwide, losing 21,324 residents…

While Chicago suffered the largest population loss of any metropolitan area, the greatest metropolitan population gains were in Texas and Arizona. The Dallas-Fort Worth- Arlington, Texas, metropolitan area gained more than 143,000 residents in 2016, and the Houston region gained about 125,000. The Phoenix area gained about 94,000 residents and the Atlanta region gained about 91,000 people.

The ascendance of the Sunbelt continues. While this demographic shift has been in the works for decades, at what point can we declare that America is a Sunbelt nation? Granted, there is still significant power in other parts of the country – for example, New York, Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania – but the swath of America from Virginia to southern California both covers a lot of residents and has an increasing amount of influence.

Why Americans do or do not move

An article about the most and least mobile cities in the United States includes some discussion of what pushes people to move or to stay put:

“There are two main determining factors whether people move or not,” says Nathalie Williams, a sociology professor from the University of Washington. The good: “The better people feel their lives are going, the less likely they are to move elsewhere.”  The bad: Lousy economies can force people to head for greener pastures.

But of course, economic insecurity can also keep people in the same place.

After the housing bust in 2007, migration slowed down, because uncertainties about the job market had made people nervous about changing jobs and deciding to move on. They were less likely to upgrade to a bigger and nicer home. Plenty even found their homes deep underwater, and were unable to sell.

Now that the recession is over, mobility is finally picking up again, says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire. And jobs lure people, especially younger ones who haven’t put down deep roots, to new centers of employment.

The short explanation is that economic factors are influential. But, there may be three caveats to this: (1) movement can occur because of either a good or bad economy, (2) it may depend on people’s stage of life, and (3) perhaps there is more to this than economics. Regarding the first point, the article juxtaposes Detroit and Honolulu, the two cities that are least mobile. These are two very different places: one is doing well, the other is not. Later, it is noted that several of the most mobile places are college towns with populations that are more transient (this involves students but also others whose jobs in academia and related industries can lead them from college town to college town). Finally, the description of life in Honolulu cites some economic factors (low property taxes) but also includes a unique cultural setting that some enjoy.

In the end, I’m not sure this article does much to help explain why people move. They move less when economic times are good and bad. Certain places are more mobile because of institutions that encourage transience (colleges) while other places have quality of life traits that discourage moving. Does this mean the most mobile places are somewhere in the middle of these rankings? Or, is it all relative to what people in the region have experienced in recent years?

The flow of young adults to cities has slowed, leading to the idea of “peak millennial”

Have we reached “peak millennial” for America’s cities?

Dowell Myers, a professor of demography and urban planning at the University of Southern California, recently published a paper that noted American cities reached “peak millennial” in 2015. Over the next few years, he predicts, the growth in demand for urban living is likely to stall…

The debate is full of contours and caveats, but it really boils down to this: Are large numbers of millennials really so enamored with city living that they will age and raise families inside the urban core, or will many of them, like earlier generations, eventually head to the suburbs in search of bigger homes and better school districts?

Their choices — and it will be at least a few years before a definitive direction is clear — will have an impact on city budgets and gentrification fights. It could change the streetscape itself as businesses shift. It will affect billions of dollars’ worth of new apartments built on the premise that the flood of young people into cities would continue unabated.

It could also have a big impact on the American landscape more generally. For the past half-century, the trend toward suburbanization has continued with no real opposition. Even in the 1990s and 2000s, when urban areas were starting to turn around, subdivisions continued to expand. Have millennials ended that trend?…

Stay tuned. A few quick thoughts:

  1. One underlying issue here is the idea that cities need to keep growing in population in order to be vibrant or relevant. Can all American cities grow at significant rates? Should they?
  2. As noted in this article, the pull of suburbs is still strong. Any reversal from suburbs to cities is likely to happen over decades, not within a short span or a single generation.
  3. If cities are affected by a small generation after millennials as well as a declining rate of millennials staying in cities, who will they try to attract next? The article also notes that immigration levels have stabilized. Will there be a new plan from mayors and other urban leaders to bring in more residents?