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.

Losing friends when moving from the city to the suburbs

When people move from the city to the suburbs, do they lose their friends in the city? Here is one recent example from an advice column:

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Q. Not urban, not yet suburban: One of my best friends just informed me, after I called him out on avoiding me for weeks, that because I am moving from the city where we both live to suburbia, he is no longer “feeling the friendship” and wants to end it. The TL;DR is that he has an enormous fear of being abandoned, and I think proactively decided to abandon me so I couldn’t do it to him—except that I had no intention of abandoning him, and was caught completely off guard.

He is single; I’m married with a preschooler, who adores him, by the way, and will definitely notice the lack of his presence—and he talked about how now I could be a “suburban mom” and forget all about my city friends. He gaslit me, making it sound like I had told him I wouldn’t miss him, wouldn’t come visit the city ever again (I’m moving 20 miles and a direct train ride away; it’s hardly a hardship to come see friends!), and because he doesn’t have a car and can’t come see me, there was no point to staying friends at the same level we have been. I never said or even came close to any of this! I admit that I’ve been talking a lot about my move very positively—it really does feel like a fresh start to me, having a home and yard after living in 750 sq. ft. apartment for the pandemic with a toddler—but he claims I’m just too happy about leaving the city and he loves the city so much that we can’t be friends the same way.

I’m so angry at him right now that I can’t see past any of this to consider contacting him again, but to not contact him would mean that he’s right, I moved away and abandoned him. But…is this a friendship worth salvaging? And if so, how? This all feels like so much bull to me. We’re in our 40s, by the way!

A: I can very much imagine getting a letter here from a single man saying, “One of my best friends moved from the city to the suburbs and all she talks about is countertops and lawn care and finding a nanny and it’s so boring and I just don’t feel like we connect anymore and don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” I would probably tell him to make an effort to talk about things that interest him, to give you a little space to be excited about your new life, to be deliberate about making plans together, and to hold off on declaring the friendship dead until trying these things.

But instead, he just cut you off. To me, that’s a sign of being a bit immature, selfish, and inflexible—and that he only valued you for the way you fit into his current life rather than who you are. If you don’t feel like contacting him, don’t—after all, he’s basically ended the friendship without your input. But maybe, like you said, this is just a tantrum over feeling abandoned. If once you get settled, you decide you’re still thinking about him and want to be the bigger person (and the person who rides the train to meet for dinner), tell him you miss him and offer to meet up somewhere convenient to him. If he accepts, you can feel out whether you enjoy the new iteration of your friendship and what it takes to maintain it. If he declines, you have your answer and you can live your suburban life in peace.

There are multiple factors at work here:

  1. Even in an era of social media, video calls, and the Internet, proximity matters for friendships and relationships. Being further away makes it more difficult to get together. Twenty miles from city to suburb is not insurmountable but it is not necessarily easy depending on transportation and traffic. People can often form relationships with neighbors, people at work, and others they see regularly at groups and places even as they have the option to date and meet people through apps.
  2. Suburban life is often focused on different things than urban life. The priorities can be different. Here is my list of why Americans love suburbs: single-family homes, family life and children, race and exclusion, middle-class utopia, cars and driving, local government and local control, and closer to nature. This leads to an everyday experience centered on private homes and family lives, driving, limited diversity and cultural opportunities compared to many cities, and distance from the big city. This could be contrasted with what residents of cities often say they value: being close to activity and cultural opportunities, more people around, less driving, and more diverse populations. Life in the suburbs and cities can look very different, though some of the things people like in each kind of place can be found in the other.
  3. Possibly losing a close friend is hard. Social media makes it possible to hang on to relationships for a long time without much interaction but that is not the same as regular, in-person interaction.
  4. Individual preferences and actions. The letter above speaks to a particular situation between two people even as it hints at broader patterns (#1-3 in the factors above).

Can city/suburbs relationships work? Yes. Does it have particular obstacles? Maybe. Do people like it when their friends move away? No.

Changes in housing costs in metropolitan regions are more easily navigated by some

Rents may be down in parts of San Francisco but some people moving within the region or outside of it have encountered higher housing prices:

While rents in San Jose have fallen 6 percent since January, tech havens in Santa Clara County — including Mountain View, Sunnyvale and the city of Santa Clara — have seen rents fall by at least 11 percent during the covid pandemic, according to a new study by Apartment List. Rents also declined in the East Bay.

The exodus of now working-from-home techies from the Bay Area has left openings and rent discounts at complexes near the tech giants. The uncertainty of the pandemic has driven renters back home, to spacey outer-suburbs or to remote towns and resort communities such as Lake Tahoe…

The demand for more living space and the shortage of homes for sale has driven up single family home prices in Silicon Valley, with suburban buyers pushing median prices to $1.33 million in Santa Clara County and $1.63 million in San Mateo County in September, according to CoreLogic data…

Popov said rent declines have generally decreased the farther away you get from San Francisco. Outer markets in Salinas and Sacramento, for example, have seen rents climb.

The effects of COVID-19 illustrate how housing prices within a region or within contiguous regions do not necessarily all follow the same patterns. Even as one area might experience less demand in one part of the market – rental units in particular neighborhoods communities, other portions of the market – such as single-family homes – may be more expensive.

In a market like this, those who can move around have some advantages. First, those with resources and particular occupations can move away from areas with more cases of COVID-19. This could have a direct effect on health. Some of these workers might return when COVID-19 is no longer a concern but for now they can be in less dense areas and work from home.

Second, some people are more able to move than others. Even if prices are going up in desirable locations, they can pay more. They have particular occupations that allow them to work from home, an option that is less possible certain job sectors. Perhaps their social networks and connections to local institutions are more fluid and accessible remotely.

This discussion occasionally comes up when people look at available jobs throughout the United States. The question will arise: how come more people do not move to go where the jobs are and take advantage of the economic opportunities? Moving is not a simple task. It involves more than just having a good job or not.

The same can be true of housing costs. The price of renting or buying a home can vary dramatically from place to place. Yet, a large number of people may not move one way or the other for a variety of reasons. And since jobs and housing prices are linked for many, it can be hard for many to simply leave the expensive Bay Area or move within the region to take advantage of lower rents or costs in some areas.

Four hidden costs of moving to the suburbs

A financial adviser warns people moving from the city to the suburbs about several costs they might not consider:

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A larger house equals larger monthly bills…

More space requires more furniture…

You may need a car…

It’s more expensive to commute to work.

A few thoughts on each of these:

  1. The larger monthly bills could vary quite a bit across suburban homes depending on the size of the home, the costs in each municipality, and whether the home is updated (think insulation, efficient appliances, etc.). Best to check on these costs in each possible residence.
  2. There are multiple ways to get cheaper furniture to reduce costs. Not all rooms have to be fully furnished (perhaps less entertaining during COVID-19 helps with this). Rather than focusing on furniture, why not buy a smaller house? Wait, Americans need somewhere to put all their stuff (including furtniture)…
  3. Yes, most suburban living will require a car unless living within walking distance of needs and work or living in an inner-ring suburb with great public transportation. Cars are not cheap once you add up car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance. And cars need parking and storage space with many desiring a garage on their property for that, adding to property costs. But, Americans like their driving in the suburbs.
  4. Commuting can be financially costly as well as stressful. The time might not be as much of an issue (though certain routes in certain locations certainly add up) as the inability to do much else while driving.

Thinking more broadly about suburban costs, I wonder if presenting potential suburban residents the full array of problems with suburbs – financial costs, exclusion, limited cultural amenities, moral minimalism – would change people’s minds. The suburbs have a certain appeal in American life and the suburban single-family home is a strong draw to many.

Another claim that COVID-19 will push people to the suburbs

I have seen a version of this argument several times already and here is the most recent one: according to the New York Times, more New Yorkers are moving to the suburbs.

Cooped up and concerned about the post-Covid future, renters and owners are making moves to leave the city, not for short-term stays in weekend houses, as was common when the pandemic first arrived, but more permanently in the suburbs.

While some of the fresh transplants are accelerating plans that had been simmering on the back burner, others are doing what once seemed unthinkable, opting for a split-level on a cul-de-sac after decades of apartment living. Others seem to have acquired a taste for country life after sheltering with parents in places with big lawns or in log cabins.

But there’s also a sense that in today’s era of social distancing, one-person-at-a-time elevator rides to get home and looping routes to avoid passers-by on city streets has fundamentally changed New York City…

For starters, people seem to be packing their bags. Between March 15 and April 28, moves from New York to Connecticut increased 74 percent over the period a year ago, according to FlatRate Moving. Moves to New Jersey saw a 38 percent jump, while Long Island was up 48 percent.

Also, suburban towns not really known for their rental stock have had huge spikes in activity, which is being driven in part by escaping New Yorkers, according to brokers in those areas.

There is both a short-term and long-term view of this possible trend:

1. COVID-19 might lead to a sudden change in New York City and possibly other locations that are very dense (which does not necessarily apply to Los Angeles). For example, one report suggests denser cities and places with lower levels of educational attainment will struggle to recover.

2. The population of the big three cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – had already plateaued or started decreasing. COVID-19 may just be accelerating what was already happening.

Only time will tell which is more correct. In moments like these, it is easy to suggest cities will decline or people will have long-term fears – and I have seen these pieces as well – but Americans have preferred suburbs for decades. In the meantime, it is probably safe to say that life in cities has changed. What is often attractive in cities is the street life, the culture, the opportunities all within a short distance. COVID-19 is a unique problem in that it limits social interaction, the lifeblood of numerous city neighborhoods and gathering places. In contrast, the suburbs prize private spaces like homes and privilege driving. When people need to isolate, they are already used to it to some degree in suburbs.

A third option might end up being closer to reality: New York City, with all of its COVID-19 cases and its unique features, might suffer more from the pandemic than anywhere else in the United States. At the same time, this leading city will still have a lot going for it after COVID-19 fades and it will continue to be attractive to many.

Social science tips for “how to make friends in a new city”

An advice piece in Harvard Business Review about making friends in an unfamiliar place includes several connections to social science research:

Rediscover weak or dormant ties. As we go through life, relationships fade in and out of view. You may have stayed in the same city up until now, but your friends and  former colleagues may have not. As you look toward your new destination, consider the weak ties (acquaintances) and the dormant ties (old friends or colleagues) in your existing social circle. Check your social media channels and alumni databases from school or past employers. You may find that you already know someone who lives in your new city. With this knowledge, you’ll have the opportunity to reach out to them before you move, and set a date to reconnect once you arrive.

Ask existing friends and colleagues for help. This one may sound obvious, but many of us only reach out to our closest friends when we need help making new connections. To get the most out of your current network, make sure you cast a wide net. One of the most powerful questions you can ask is, “Who do you know in ______?” In this case, the blank space is your new city, but it can also be an industry, a company, or anything you’re looking to explore. Before you move, take the time to ask many friends and colleagues if they know anyone worth meeting in your new city. Most people will be able to think of a few names. Even if each person can only think of one, you’ll still walk away with a good list of potential contacts.

Seek out shared activities. Once you land in your new city, it may be tempting to seek out meetups, networking events, and the like. But research shows that events structured around meeting new people often fail. Attendees generally spend time conversing with people they already know, or with people who are similar to themselves. A better option is to participate in a “shared activity,” an event where there is a bigger objective at hand and achieving that objective requires interdependence. You’re much more likely to make new and diverse connections at events that give you a reason to get to know the person next to you. So, how do you find a shared event? They come in all shapes and sizes, from community service to classes to amateur sports leagues. Choose what you’re most comfortable with.

The key emphasis in the advice above is to activate old networks and work your way into new ones. Making use of weak ties, people you may know from the past or acquaintances or friends of friends, could help ease your way into new social circles. It may not necessary be easy to reach out to those weak ties, particularly the extent of a connection was a social media friendship or following, but this would still probably be preferable to cold calling people. To start participating in a new network, the advice suggests finding an activity which allows people to organize themselves by interest. This draws on the homophily often present in social networks: people tend to congregate with people like them. This particular advice about common interests is likely even more true today than in the past; rather than joining civic organizations or relationships based on geography and proximity, people today tend to sort by interests.

Even with these tips, it is likely a disorienting experience for many when they move to a new community. Americans are fairly mobile people and I wonder if the American tendencies toward extroversion and public friendliness are intended to help make these social transitions easier.

Why doesn’t everyone leave Chicago or Illinois?

With the recent news of Chicago’s continuing population decline as well as population loss in some suburbs, some critics have suggested this all makes sense with the problems facing Chicago and the state of Illinois. The argument goes like this: when social, economic, and political conditions are bad, people vote with their feet and leave. Look at all the people moving to Texas and the Sun Belt!

However, there are multiple reasons people stay in Chicago and Illinois. Among them:

  1. It is costly financially to move. It takes time and money to move to a new location. Having a good job on the other hand is needed.
  2. It is costly socially to move. Finding new friends and social connections can be difficult, particularly in today’s society where Americans tend to stick to themselves.
  3. They have a good job in Illinois or Chicago. There are still plenty of good jobs here; Chicago is the #7 global city after all and there are lots of headquarters, major offices, and research facilities alongside large service and retail sectors.
  4. They have families or ties to the area. The Chicago region is the third biggest in the country – over 9 million residents – and there are lots of residents with long histories and/or many connections.
  5. Both places have a lot of amenities. One of the busiest airports in the world? Impressive skyline? Access to Lake Michigan? Good farmland? Located in the center geographically and socially in the United States? Land of Lincoln?

All that said, for the vast majority of Chicago and Illinois resident, there are not enough negatives outweighing the positives of staying. (This is not the same as saying current residents are happy or wouldn’t prefer to live somewhere else.) Compared to other American locations which are growing more quickly, it doesn’t look good but Chicago and Illinois also aren’t emptying out like American major cities did in the postwar era or some rural areas.

Examining neighborhood diversity and cohesion in England

A study published in European Sociology Review examines the effect of ethnic diversity on community cohesion:

A 17 year study of over 10,000 people found Britons felt less attached to their neighbourhood when communities become more multi-cultural.

Yet those who moved out to areas where they were surrounded by their own kind were happier, the Manchester University research found.

But the same was not true for Britons moving into already mixed places as relocating there had no harmful effect on how people viewed their surroundings or levels of happiness.

More explanation from the article abstract:

This article provides strong evidence that the effect of community diversity is likely causal, but that prior preferences for/against out-group neighbours may condition diversity’s impact. It also demonstrates that multiple causal processes are in operation at the individual-level, occurring among both stayers and movers, which collectively contribute to the emergence of average cross-sectional differences in attitudes between communities.

It sounds like the attitudes of those moving and staying are important. I would guess that younger residents – more used to diversity – are more open to diverse neighborhoods compared to their elders. Could the effect of moving – which was more positive either way – be related to residents feeling like they have options as opposed to having to stay where they are at? It is one thing to choose a neighborhood that fits your preferences as opposed to feeling like your community is changing without you being able to do anything about it.

This reminds me of Putnam’s study about neighborhood diversity:

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Given the historic salience of race and ethnicity – centuries both within England and the United States – finding consistently positive feelings about increasing neighborhood diversity may just take more time.

Therapy for those making the city to suburb move

For families that are having a hard time leaving the city behind, the move to the suburbs can be easier if others help:

People move for many reasons. Brokers, however, see a familiar thread: Couples move to the suburbs after having kids. And, as people marry later and live in the city longer, moving becomes more than just packing. Mentally and emotionally, experts say, people wrestle with changing from city dweller to suburbanite.

“I see this all the time with my practice,” said David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center, which has offices in Chicago and Skokie. “Where we live gives us a sense of identity.”

Swapping city life for the suburbs is different from moving to another town or neighborhood. Real estate agents say city-to-suburbs folks often need special hand-holding…

In September, Alison Bernstein launched Suburban Jungle in Chicago, which she started after moving from New York City to the surrounding area and feeling lost on which neighborhood would best fit her family. The company’s sole purpose is helping families transition from, for example, Lincoln Park to Lake Forest. Employees meet with shoppers, aiming to best match a town to their personality. They connect clients to suburb experts and locals at no cost, taking a commission from the sale.

“Our job is literally 98 percent therapy and not real estate,” Bernstein said. “It’s like, ‘Am I making the right move?’ It’s a lot of stress, and it’s a big change.”

Even as Americans move quite a bit (see evidence here and here), it can be a stressful process. However, two things strike me about this particular article:

  1. All the people cited here are on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The moves invoked include going from Lincoln Park to Hinsdale or Lake Forest. These are people who can afford to use a company like Suburban Jungle.
  2. Some of the fear of the suburban life might be driven by negative stereotypes of the suburbs. Some of these may have some truth – such as having fewer entertainment spots in the suburbs – but the typical suburban critiques (which have a long history dating back nearly a century) present a very one-sided view.

All together, being able to move to these kinds of suburban communities – wealthy, safe, good schools, clean, high property values – would be a dream for many people. On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, people often move to the suburbs seeking necessities such as work or cheaper housing but can end up in suburbs that have many problems that cities feature.