Roots versus mobility: living a whole life in one suburban house

Offered money for her suburban home for a new industrial project, an 86-year-old woman responded this way:

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“She said, ‘Where will I go?’ How do you start your life again when you’ve lived your whole life in one house?” Kristie Purner said.

What I found interesting in this comment is comparing it to the more regular mobility of Americans in the suburban era. The US government has tracked this since 1947. For several decades after World War Two, the percent of Americans who moved each year hovered around 20%. During mass suburbanization and relatively prosperity, more people moved regularly. Many metropolitan regions, including the Chicago area, boomed during this time. Some of this suburbanization and prosperity was present before the Great Depression as well.

Given all of this, how many Americans can say they lived same place for decades? How many suburbanites stayed in one home? My guess is that it is a relatively small number of people.

Perhaps this might change in the coming decades with decreased levels of mobility among Americans. At the same time, it is hard to imagine a suburbia that is marked by permanence rather than continued growth and change.

Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

Both wanting to be and limit the effects of being the next popular city

The case of Spokane, Washington highlights how communities want to grow and be popular but they do not necessarily want what comes with the growth:

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Whether it’s Boise, Idaho, or Reno, Nevada, or Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, the American housing market is caught in a vicious cycle of broken expectations that operates like a food chain: The sharks flee New York and Los Angeles and gobble up the housing in Austin and Portland, whose priced-out homebuyers swim to the cheaper feeding grounds of places like Spokane. The cycle brings bitterness and “Don’t Move Here” bumper stickers — and in Spokane it has been supercharged during the pandemic and companies’ shift to remote work.

No matter how many times it happens, no matter how many cities and states try to blunt it with recommendations to build more housing and provide subsidies for those who can’t afford the new stuff, no matter how many zoning battles are fought or homeless camps lamented, no next city, as of yet, seems better prepared than the last one was…

All of this happened fairly recently. In the years after the Great Recession, when homebuilders were in bankruptcy or hibernation, migration to the Spokane area plunged. That pattern shifted in 2014 when, as if a switch had been flipped, waves of migrants started arriving as already high-cost cities like Seattle and San Francisco saw their housing markets go into a tech-fueled frenzy…

Five years ago, a little over half the homes in the Spokane area sold for less than $200,000, and about 70% of its employed population could afford to buy a home, according to a recent report commissioned by the Spokane Association of Realtors. Now fewer than 5% of homes — a few dozen a month — sell for less than $200,000, and less than 15% of the area’s employed population can afford a home. A recent survey by Redfin, the real estate brokerage, showed that homebuyers moving to Spokane in 2021 had a budget 23% higher than what locals had…

Last year, Woodward declared a housing emergency, and her administration has put in place initiatives that mirror those of housing-troubled cities on the West Coast. The city has built new shelters, is encouraging developers to repurpose commercial buildings into apartments, is making it easier for residents to build backyard units, and is rezoning the city to allow duplexes and other multiunit buildings in single-family neighborhoods.

The primary focus here is on housing and the increase in prices. From what is described above, a good number of long-time residents now struggle to find decent housing. This is indeed a problem to consider.

I would guess there are other changes as well: increased business activity, more traffic, newcomers operating in local civic organizations and institutions. Many of these changes are assumed to be good in most communities: growth means status, activity, and increased tax revenues. Sure, there are some externalities – sprawl and what comes with it, changes to how things have been – but these are often viewed as growing pains. Growth is good.

The implication in this story is that this could happen to any community: people from the outside discover an undiscovered location and their moves drive up housing costs. Yet, I wonder how true this is. Will people in overheated housing markets really go anywhere or only to certain locations? Spokane is within a particular region plus has its own features and its own history. Would people from the coasts end up in Youngstown, Ohio or Fargo, North Dakota, Jackson, Mississippi, or Detroit, Michigan where there is plenty of cheaper housing and distinct local character? The housing game may not just be an endless one where those with resources are always searching out the next cheaper market; there are limits to where people go and invest their resources.

Targeted incentive programs – described here – might help with this issue as communities seek out particular kinds of residents they would like. If those programs turned into floods of people, how many would really want to turn that down?

Data on whether Americans are moving due to politics

NPR reports on Americans moving to new locations because of politics. Here is some of the evidence presented:

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Residents have been fleeing states like California with high taxes, expensive real estate and school mask mandates and heading to conservative strongholds like Idaho, Tennessee and Texas.

More than one of every 10 people moving to Texas during the pandemic was from California, according to the Texas Real Estate Research Center at Texas A&M University. Most came from Southern California. Florida was the second biggest contributor of new Texans…

Political scientist Larry Sabato posted an analysis on Thursday that shows how America’s “super landslide” counties have grown over time.

Of the nation’s total 3,143 counties, the number of super landslide counties — where a presidential candidate won at least 80% of the vote — has jumped from 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020…

Bishop’s book explains how Americans sorted themselves by politics, geography, lifestyle and economics over the preceding three decades. Sitting in a Central Texas café, Bishop says that trend has only intensified in the 14 years since the book’s publication.

I have read a lot of similar stories in recent years. All of this data, at face value, seems to make some sense: population flows from one set of states to another, the concentration of politically similar people in certain locations, and an ongoing sorting by politics.

At the same time, I am not completely convinced that it is politics driving moves. How often does a person, family, or business move solely because of politics or politics is the clear #1 reason? Politics might factor in an ultimate decision but I suspect jobs, retirement, and the locations of family are more often prime movers and/or large factors. Plus, the organization or sorting or residents has been going on for decades due to race/ethnicity (see the example of the suburbs) and social class (again, the suburbs). And could we consider how political patterns are related to race and class?

We can always find at least a few people who will describe moves undertaken to be closer to their political allies. I am not sure we are at the point where many are moving primarily or solely because of politics.

In a society devoted to driving and business, what alternatives are there to rental cars?

The rental car industry has had a difficult year, customers are unhappy, and some companies are still making money. In a country that likes driving, has planned around driving, and has oodles of cars plus encourages business activity, what could be done to not depend on rental cars? A few options:

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  1. Car sharing services. There are more of these around today. Cut out the middle-man business and just deal with a private car owner for your transportation.
  2. Taxis and/or ride share companies. These are more available in some places than others and do not allow the same freedom as being able to drive a rental car wherever and whenever you would like.
  3. Public transportation. Even less available outside of denser urban areas. And even in places where mass transit is plentiful, many people still opt for private vehicles.
  4. Walking or bicycling. Very difficult and possibly dangerous in many locations.
  5. Borrowing a car from family or friends or doing without it for a time. It could be done but the location and time frame is very important.

Thinking back, I can recall multiple trips where a rental car was a necessity in order to get where we wanted to go. At the same time, some work trips did not require a vehicle because the location of the meeting was in a large city with public transit options. And if you are in a suburban or more rural setting and your car is in the shop for more than a day, a car rental may be very necessary.

Does this mean Americans must put up with rental cars forever? Perhaps someday there will be fleets of electric vehicles for all to access. Until then, renting a car may be a necessary evil.

Some hints about the effectiveness of relocation incentives offered by American communities

A number of American communities are offering monetary incentives to bring in residents and workers. Do the incentives work? Here are some recent clues:

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Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents by offering cash, covering moving costs or providing other incentives, according to makemymove.com, an online directory of such programs. They largely seek remote workers from expensive coastal areas. Though the idea started before the pandemic, COVID-19 fed the movement by quintupling the number of remote workers and dampening some of the conviviality millennials sought in big cities.

So far, many areas have failed to bring in significant numbers of remote workers despite offering incentives. Most don’t have the staff and money backing the Tulsa Remote program, which is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even so, smaller areas have found advantages in remote worker programs. Natchez, Mississippi, a river town north of New Orleans where the population has been declining for decades, saw home sales double to 700 in the past year, even though only 12 people have used a $6,000 incentive for remote workers, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc. Economic Development, which operates the Shift South remote worker incentive plan…

Tulsa’s program is often cited as a rare success story. It moved 100 people in its first year, 2019, and despite the pandemic it projects another 950 moves this year. Along with cash incentives up to $10,000 for living in Tulsa at least a year, the program offers a free trip to check out the area and intensive social networking in person and online…

A new study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, found the new workers created almost $14 in new local labor income — a measure of earnings by employees and business owners — for every dollar spent on relocating workers, adding $62 million in earnings by the workers themselves and the jobs created to support them in 2021.

It sounds like more data and time is needed to figure out whether the incentives lead to increased populations and, if they do, how and/or at what cost or benefit.

But, I could imagine many communities and their leaders would be interested in offering such incentives even if the data suggests they do not do much. Why? It is an actionable step that sounds like it should work. The community can lead with the incentive in their marketing. If people or businesses are looking to move, wouldn’t an incentive help encourage a particular decision? At the least, such an effort would get the name of the community out in front of the public or other interested parties.

Some of the other tidbits from the article cited above are interesting. Incentives could target particular kinds of residents or businesses. Increased housing costs could make an incentive worth very little. Could we imagine a future where potential residents negotiate with several communities in order to get a better deal? Just as businesses negotiate for tax breaks and communities compete with each other, why not residents?

If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

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Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Americans continue to move from one address to another less and less

By one measure, American mobility is down to its lowest level since 1948:

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New data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows just 8.4 percent of Americans live in a different house than they lived in a year ago. That is the lowest rate of movement that the bureau has recorded at any time since 1948.

That share means that about 27.1 million people moved homes in the last year, also the lowest ever recorded.

The number of Americans who move from one home to another has been falling for decades, said Cheryl Russell, who authors the Demo Memo blog on demographic trends. In the 1950s and 1960s, about one in five Americans moved homes in a given year. That dropped to 14 percent by the turn of the century, and to 11.6 percent a decade ago.

The more sedentary population is a product of a handful of demographic factors that have grown as the American population gets older, as fallout from the Great Recession a decade ago continues to play out and as the pandemic put the brakes on many people’s plans.

The postwar era was one of a lot of mobility, particularly as those who could moved to the growing suburbs. The car and expanding networks of highways made it possible to access many destinations and workplaces did not necessarily have to be near homes.

Since then, mobility has declined for the reasons cited above. People can still move about on a daily basis but they are not moving addresses as much. Even as parts of the United States are growing in population and others are not, fewer people are moving overall.

Even as I have watched reports on this trend in recent years (see earlier posts here and here), I have seen little discussion of what this means or whether reduced geographic mobility is desirable or not. In a society that often celebrates mobility more broadly – social, economic, geographic – does this trend signal something troubling? Or, does this mean more Americans have an opportunity to develop roots and relationships within their communities?

Is there another possible explanation? Technological change, particularly smartphones and the ability to work from home, reduces the need for moving locations. More and more can be experienced and interacted with from anywhere with Internet and data access.

Americans celebrate moving away from their small home town

An excerpt from a new book presents an American conundrum: many Americans like the idea of small towns yet celebrate moving away from them.

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I was humiliated, not just because I’d left school, but because I’d glaringly stumbled off the traditional path everyone I knew had taken: If you move away from home, you don’t move back. That’s not how young adults do it. We leave. We find our way.…

So there’s this push and pull, where fulfilling this Americanized ideal of being out on one’s own and forging one’s own life comes at the real cost of contributing to families and communities in tangible ways, Katsiaficas explained. “For so many young people that I’ve talked to, they’ve narrated that hyperindividualism as a real sense of loss,” she said. Rarely, if ever, had I heard that sense of loss, or even homesickness, described as anything other than something we’re supposed to grow out of…

Because moving is so ingrained in how we think about this time of life, even though not everyone can “achieve” that milestone, staying seems like it is rarely celebrated. With going-away parties to celebrate new adventures and graduation parties to mark the close of one chapter and the beginning of another, staying in one place can feel boring…

In our conversation, Warnick pointed out that there is a stigma in America against not only small towns, but staying in the same place at all. We tend to think of it as representing “the abandonment of our big dreams,” Warnick said, a feeling of escape that some young people feel acutely. I felt called out, and with good reason: I’d clung to the belief that life would really begin once I left wherever I was. It kept dreams I was too scared to say aloud at arm’s length; it allowed me to imagine, and reimagine, the “best life” I’d finally find with a new zip code, conveniently forgetting that my real life was happening wherever I happened to be. I could participate, or I could wait. And for years, I waited.

There is a lot to consider here: the particular stage of life in the discussion here (from roughly college to settling down as an adult), mobility, frontiers, cities versus other settings, and larger American narratives about success. A few quick thoughts in response:

  1. I wonder how much these narratives differ across places. Is this more prevalent in rural areas where the allure of trying the big city is strong or is it also present in big cities where young people want to experience other places, including other appealing big cities? This could help untangle whether this is more about small towns or a general theme that emerging adults need to strike out on their own somewhere else.
  2. This reminds of some marriage advice I once read that suggested newlyweds should move hundreds of miles away from both families to establish themselves as a couple before moving back near family. Does such a narrative go against most of human history?
  3. Could all of this help explain the enduring appeal of the suburbs? They are not quite small towns but they are not cities. Americans can feel better about returning to suburban municipalities and making a home there because it feels in between.
  4. This all seems to beg for a more robust theology of place in the United States.
  5. It would be interesting to know how social media and the Internet either help connect people to home towns from afar or present just a poor and ultimately unsatisfactory substitute.
  6. Plenty of Americans do stay in the community in which they grew up or stay nearby. What is different about their stories? What are the factors that help explain why some commit to staying and others leave?
  7. How do Americans process their experiences with and understandings of place? If the emphasis is largely on mobility or making do where you are, this might discourage positive memories or investing too much in a particular place.

Graphic options for illustrating where Americans moved during COVID-19

I appreciate the effort at CityLab to take all of the data regarding where Americans moved during the COVID-19 pandemic and put it into graphs and charts. Good graphs and charts should help illustrate relationships between variables and help readers see patterns. Here are several choices that I thought succeeded.

First, start with patterns in metro areas across the United States.

The two colors plus the size of the circle show the percentage change in population. The percentage is a nice touch yet the comparison to the previous year might slip past some viewers.

Second, another way to look at metro areas on the whole regarding population changes.

The side-by-side of central cities and suburbs quickly shows several differences: lower ratios for cities, more variability among suburban counties, more losses for cities during COVID. The patterns among suburban counties are a little hard to pick up; there are a number of counties that lost people even as the general trend might have been up.

Third, where did all those people moving from New York City, specifically Manhattan go?

In absolute numbers, there are patterns this map displays nicely: a lot of moves in New York City and in the region plus moves to other metro areas (including Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and more). The inset of the Southwest at the bottom left is a nice touch…presumably New Yorkers did not move in large numbers to anywhere roughly between Nashville and Seattle.

Fourth, which New Yorkers moved?

Looking at zip codes, neighborhoods with higher incomes had more people moving while the numerous neighborhoods with lower incomes had smaller changes in inflow.

All together, this is more than just a series of pretty graphics. These choices – first about what data to use and second about how to present one variable in light of another – help clarify what happened in the last year. Each choice could have been a little different; emphasize a different part of the data or another variable, choose another graphic option. Yet, while there is certainly more to untangle about mobility, cities and suburbs, and COVID-19, these images help us start making sense of complex phenomena.