12 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the US in 2021 were Sunbelt suburbs

The 15 fastest growing communities – percentage-wise – the United States between July 2020 and July 2021 included 12 suburbs:

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  1. Georgetown, TX – suburb of Austin
  2. Leander, TX – suburb of Austin
  3. Queen Creek, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  4. Buckeye, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  5. New Braunfels, TX – suburb of San Antonio – see earlier post about growth in the community
  6. Fort Myers, FL – a central city in Cape Coral-Fort Myers MSA
  7. Casa Grande, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  8. Maricopa, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  9. North Port, FL – a central city in North Port-Brandenton-Sarasota MSA
  10. Spring Hill, TN – suburb of Nashville
  11. Goodyear, AZ – suburb of Phoenix
  12. Port St. Lucie, FL – central city of Port St. Lucie MSA
  13. Meridian, ID – suburb of Boise
  14. Caldwell, ID – suburb of Boise
  15. Nampa, ID – suburb of Boise

This is not just about the Sunbelt continuing to grow, as I saw in several headlines, but also about suburban and metropolitan growth in the Sunbelt. Many of these regions continue to grow, such as Austin, Phoenix, San Antonio, Nashville, and Boise, on the edges.

The list of the fastest growing communities by the absolute number of new residents was also weighted toward suburbs.

2020 Census shows increasing number of Black residents in the suburbs

A trend continues in the 2020 Census data: Blacks continue to move from big cities to the suburbs.

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The two enclaves of roughly 30,000 people reflect how Black migration patterns in the 21st century are changing the makeup of metropolitan areas nationwide. For decades, Black residents have been leaving some of the nation’s largest cities while suburbs have seen an increase in their Black populations. Those two trends have now spread to even more areas of the country, according to the 2020 U.S. census.

The patterns echo the “white flight” that upended urban landscapes in the 20th century. Like those who left cities before them, Black residents often move because of worries about crime and a desire for reputable schools, affordable housing and amenities. But there are key differences: Leaving Black city neighborhoods that are starved for investment is often more of a necessity than a choice, and those who do settle into new suburban lives often find racial inequities there, too.

From 1990 to 2000, 13 of the United States’ biggest cities lost Black residents. By 2020, it was 23. According to the census, roughly 54% of Black residents within the 100 biggest American metro areas were suburbanites in 2020, up from 43% two decades ago, according to Bill Frey of the Brookings Institution.

While New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia all lost Black residents from 2010 to 2020, the change was especially notable in Chicago, which gained population but lost 85,000 Black people, the highest number after Detroit, according to the 2020 census. Those numbers could vary slightly, as the Census Bureau reported last week that 3.3% of the Black population was undercounted in the 2020 census, a rate higher than in 2010.

To summarize from the data presented above: among Black residents in the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, the majority now live in the suburbs.

This trend is several decades in the making. Traditionally, a move to the suburbs in the United States is interpreted as finding success in the land of single-family homes and middle-class and above life. Yet, not all suburban lives or communities are created equal. From the banning of Black and other minority residents from suburbs in the past to more informal methods today to exclude residents, residential patterns are uneven in the suburbs.

This also adds to the ongoing complexity of the suburbs where populations and communities are changing. The suburbs are not static even as they might as a whole adhere to similar ideals and ways of life.

The factors affecting housing in the Chicago region in 2022

Several experts suggest housing prices will continue to rise in the Chicago area in 2022 but not at the same rate as they did in 2021:

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Rather, changes in home price growth, the supply of homes for sale and upticks in rock-bottom interest rates are more likely to stabilize the market after an unpredictable 2021, they said. That likely won’t mean an end to competition or high prices — and it doesn’t bode well for first-time homebuyers — but the market could ease up compared with 2021…

In the nine-county Chicago metro area, the median home sale price from January to November was $300,000, up nearly 12% over the same months in 2020, according to the Illinois Association of Realtors…

Prices are likely to rise next year, but won’t continue the exponential growth of 2021, said Daniel McMillen, head of the Stuart Handler Department of Real Estate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Without an influx of new residents to the area or big increases in incomes, that growth will become unsustainable, he said…

Homebuyers are continuing to look for amenities like home offices and workout areas, Melbourne said. Kitchens are a priority. Condo-buyers are looking for bigger units, rather than one-bedrooms.

The pressure from COVID-19 moves will hopefully subside. Then, the more regular patterns in Chicago area real estate might take over again. There are at least several interrelated factors:

  1. Limited population increases in the Chicago region. This reduces demand.
  2. Uneven development within the region where some neighborhoods and suburbs will be popular and others not. Prices will go up in desirable places.
  3. Construction of new residences has been down. What kind of units will be built? If recent trends hold, it will be housing aimed more at wealthier residents. Additionally, these units will be constructed in some locations and not others.
  4. If there is a long-term shift in what homebuyers and renters want from units, does this significantly shift demand? Continued or more working from home has the potential to affect the individual and collective experience of places.
  5. The particulars of certain communities. Communities understand themselves as having certain characters and prioritize particular goals. Local regulations could incentivize or discourage certain kinds of development.

There are numerous factors affecting housing to pay attention to amid changing conditions.

Median home values in Austin more than double in one decade

In the last decade, housing values have jumped a lot in Austin, Texas:

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A decade ago, Austin, the capital of Texas often deemed a liberal oasis in a staunchly conservative state, was among the most affordable places to live. Now, according to a forecast prepared by Zillow, a real estate company that tracks affordability, the Austin metropolitan area is on track to become by year’s end the least affordable major metro region for homebuyers outside of California. It has already surpassed hot markets in Boston, Miami and New York City…

Home sale prices in the city of Austin skyrocketed to a record median of $536,000 in October, up from about $441,250 a year ago. And they have more than doubled since 2011, when the median sales price was $216,000, according to the Austin Board of REALTORS, a trade group. Rentals, too, have surged, with the average cost of an 864-square-foot apartment now $1,600.

Much of this article addresses the effects on the city and residents. The rapidly rising costs have consequences for many.

Thinking beyond this particular city, I wonder at the convergence of people, business, and real estate in the last decade in one city and region. Particular communities, including cities and suburbs, have experienced this before during boom times. Is Austin’s case unique or is it simply the latest American community to go through such growth? Austin has a unique mix of tech industry, cool culture, it is the capital of an important state and home to the flagship university in the state system, and once had cheaper housing.

At some point, the pace will slow down in Austin. This could happen because of the rising real estate values or other factors. What community and region is next? Based on what made Austin successful, I could venture some guesses. The first places that come to mind are on Richard Florida’s lists of creative class havens in The Rise of the Creative Class. Or, perhaps the tech industry gathers in a new yet unlikely location that offers similar advantages.

The ten fastest growing American communities are all suburbs, all in South or West

Growth in the United States continues to occur in suburbs in two regions of the country:

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The 2020 Census listed Meridian as one of the 10 fastest-growing large cities in the country. All the cities on the list grew at rates of more than 44 percent. They are all in the South and the West. And they are all suburbs…

Meridian and the nine other cities represent a trend, according to U.S. Census Bureau officials. As the country’s biggest cities grow and become increasingly unaffordable to many, their suburbs have ballooned, taking on their own identities…

The Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth metro areas have had suburbs on this list every decade, he said. “Sizable amounts of empty land for construction of housing” encourages this population growth, and that land is more commonly available in the West and South. Now, people are often going farther and farther from city centers to search for empty lots, especially in cities that have been growing for the past half-century, Perry said…

Meridian and suburbs like it, Perry said, are “a reminder that there are still some pockets of rapid population growth in certain areas of the country,” despite the past 10 years being the second slowest growing decade for the U.S. population. What the Census data makes clear is that many suburbs are taking on a life of their own.

This is a continuation of several longer trends. The population growth in the United States has generally shifted to the South and West and away from the Northeast and Midwest. Certain suburban communities continue to grow rapidly, driven by expanding metropolitan areas, a quest for cheaper land, and the celebration of sprawl and single-family homes. Many big cities are still growing but they are no longer the fastest-growing places.

At the same time, these ongoing patterns might be surprising for several reasons. First, the suburbs have endured critiques for decades yet the same pattern seems to keep repeating: small towns outside hot metro areas balloon in size and population over the course of several decades. As the article notes, this can bring a lot of change that is not universally liked by the residents there before sprawl or even some of the residents who join the sprawl. The rapidly-growing suburbs are no longer places like Naperville but the descriptions of what is happening are very similar. What have Americans learned in the seven-plus decades of postwar suburban growth?

Second, are these growth patterns sustainable in areas with water and other environmental concerns? Communities in the West are reconsidering growth amid water shortages. Is the land converted to subdivisions stable and have good drainage? Does the emphasis on driving contribute to smog and the use of land that was once more open?

Third, population increases are often accompanied by a gain in status. Larger communities are better-known, have more business activity, and become destinations. Will these rapidly-growing suburbs suddenly be put on the map (also suggesting that other places decrease in status)?

Put together, will there be cheap enough open land outside attractive cities for explosive suburban growth? Or, because there will always be some suburban land somewhere cheaper than properties in the most expensive markets, think New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, there might always be a market for sprawl.

What explosive growth looks like, Austin and New Braunfels edition

It is not a coincidence to see two recent articles about effects of growth in Texas communities as this part of the country – and the Sun Belt more broadly – is growing fast. One is the story of a big city where housing is in high demand while the second is a small town that is now a booming suburb.

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First, thousands of Austin properties are going for far above list price:

Nearly 2,700 homes in the Texas capital have sold this year for $100,000 or more above their initial listing price, according to an analysis by Redfin Corp. that examined sales through Aug. 11. While a few other U.S. cities have had more properties sell at that premium to the asking price, none have experienced as big a percent rise in homes transacting at that lofty an increase, Redfin said…

The number of homes sold year-over-year for at least $100,000 over asking price has grown nearly 10-fold in Seattle, and fivefold in Oakland, according to Redfin. In Austin, that figure grew by 57 times the number for last year at this time.

The jump in these sales at six figures above the listed price shows how Austin, which has attracted young professionals for years, has become an even more competitive place to buy in recent months.

Second, the community of New Braunfels between San Antonio and Austin is going through growing pains:

Today, the cattle are gone, replaced with clusters of sleek apartments, gated communities and big-box stores. And New Braunfels, the third-fastest-growing city in America, tucked in one of the fastest-growing regions, finds itself at a crossroads…

A once quaint town known for its German roots and the Schlitterbahn water park, New Braunfels grew a whopping 56 percent over the last decade, adding about 32,500 residents…

Newer residents to New Braunfels have been drawn to the region for its affordable cost of living and by larger employers who have settled there, including several distribution centers and technology companies. Over the past decade, the median salary has jumped to $90,000 from $65,000 in Comal County, which includes much of New Braunfels, one of the highest averages in the state…

The community has also grown more noticeably diverse, with the presence of Latinos particularly evident on the city’s West Side. Residents flock to eateries like El Norteño for typical Mexican dishes, such as menudo, a spicy stew known colloquially as a hangover remedy. This week, a server took orders wearing a red T-shirt that read “Menudo Para La Cruda” or “Menudo For the Hangover.”

The emphasis on growth is a long-term pattern. When Census data is released, many like to highlight the fastest growing areas of the country. This can shine a spotlight on places that are changing but it also reinforces a consistent American narrative: growth is good for communities. Indeed, discussion of the opposite trend – losing population (or somehow not losing residents) – reinforces the notion that growth is good.

At the same time, focusing on population numbers is worth considering alongside what is happening to the character of communities with population growth or loss. These two articles highlight both phenomena. In Austin, what happens to a local housing market when so much competition drives up prices? At the least, this means some are priced out of the adjusted values, existing community members may see their property values rise, and builders, developers, and local officials respond to the changes. And the rising prices are often interpreted as a sign that Austin is a desirable place to live.

In New Braunfels, this is both a common American story – small town outside big city turns into a sprawling community in a relatively short time – and a story with particular traits as the community has a particular character. The German roots of the community now sit among a more diverse population. A quaint town is now much bigger and there is a lot of building activity. The businesses there for a long time are now joined by new ventures.

Even as population growth is usually viewed as a good thing, it comes with costs and changes. Few communities would reject growth just to avoid change but there can tension over how to respond to growth. Many cities and suburbs have struggled to match their existing character to changes and what the community will end up being once a construction boom and/or sprawling subdivision growth subsides.

Chicago’s population grew in the 2010s!

Census 2020 data shows Chicago’s population increased in the last decade:

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The decennial population count put Chicago’s total at 2,746,388 residents — a 1.9% increase over the 2010 census. The six-county region grew to 8,445,866 people — a 1.6% increase over a decade ago.

But perhaps the most stark statistic was Chicago’s plummeting Black population, which decreased by 84,738, a drop of nearly 10%. The number of Black Chicagoans now stands at 787,551 down from more than 1 million 20 years ago…

Chicago’s overall population gain is in striking contrast to the previous decade, when the city lost 200,000 residents, a 6.9% decrease. Just as eye-catching are the stagnant suburban numbers, as population growth in suburban Cook and the five collar counties stalled to what is easily the slowest rate since 1950, the data showed…

“Today’s census info shows Chicago’s resilience in the face of unprecedented challenges: privacy concerns, the Trump Admin’s fear-inducing policies targeting immigrants and a global pandemic,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a statement. “We’re digging into the data, but today we celebrate the growth of our incredible city.”

As Mayor Lightfoot notes, growth is good. Population growth implies thriving, more business, an attractive location. Chicago has faced a declining population since the start of the postwar era. From the second most populous city to third and now with Houston growing quickly…but for now Chicago’s status has improved.

The rest of the article includes interesting hints of other related population changes including a lower percentage increase in the Chicago suburbs, a shrinking Black population in Chicago, and a declining population in Illinois. There will be more to find out, discuss, and formulate plans in response to with more specific data.

American population change by the second

In searching for housing data this week, I came across a small animated widget on the Census website:

I like this presentation for three reasons.

First, a static image does not do this graphic justice. The different bars, all four of them, moved in time with the passage of time. It is one thing to read that something happens every few seconds or minutes; it is another to see it count down or up next to other markers.

Second, while a larger presentation might help display the gravity of the population changes – imagine a map filling with new people – this is a pint-sized graphic with lots of information going into it. Population losses and gains can be complicated with lots of different inputs. This graphic boils it down to three major demographic factors: births, deaths, and immigration.

Third, this highlights the large American population and its growth. Given all the social, cultural, and political issues of recent years, I have wondered what role the size of the US population plays. Addressing any major issue might be more difficult given all of the people groups and experiences, regional differences, and more.

Of course, any graphic aims to simplify and this graphic does as well. At the same time, in a world awash in information, simple yet well-design presentations can go a long way to conveying helpful information.

Lamenting small town growth in Idaho

Star, Idaho is dealing with what many communities in the United States have experienced at one time or another: the change to the community that comes with a growing population.

Since then, Star, about 30 minutes west of Boise, has become the fastest-growing city in Idaho—one of the fastest-growing states in the nation. Over the past nine years, Star’s population has doubled to more than 10,000. Most of the growth has come from people like the Turnipseeds who uprooted from the West Coast to the greater Boise area—known as the Treasure Valley—drawn by the promise of less stressful and more affordable living. By 2040, Star’s population could surpass 35,000, according to city projections.

Now Star is grappling with some of the same problems the Turnipseeds left California to escape. The town’s main drag, where ranchers once drove their cattle, is clogged with traffic during rush-hour commutes. Sprawling subdivisions have sprouted up around farmland, as have new chain stores. The median home price has more than doubled to nearly $400,000 since 2010…

According to a September 2019 survey by Boise State University, 75% of Treasure Valley residents said that growth was occurring too fast, up from 50% in 2016…

The debate over Star’s transformation mirrors the rest of the region, as disputes in neighboring cities have erupted over whether to approve major housing developments. A public meeting in Star this week on a proposed apartment complex is expected to draw a large crowd, officials said.

Growth is generally good for American communities. To not grow is to stagnate (or even decline).

But, this story presents one of the acceptable situations in which residents and leaders can argue their community should not grow. The typical argument goes like this: our community (or neighborhood) is unique because it is small, tight-knit, not over-developed and more people coming would ruin the character and atmosphere.

It gets more complicated when the community is full of relatively recent arrivals. In cases of suburban sprawl, people might choose a community to move to because of its particular features and then find in ten or twenty years that the community changed because other people had similar ideas. At what point do community members get to discuss and possibly enact drawing up the proverbial moat and saying they want no more growth?

Pretty much all communities change over time. Instead of thinking in binary terms of change versus no change, it would be helpful to think of community change on a continuum from slow change to major quick change. Some people do really want to live in communities that change relatively little and such places can be found. Others might want to be in dynamic places and they can find those. How many people will move when a community changes a lot? Hard to say as this might be dependent on personal circumstances or the direction of change.

Working out these tensions in a community can be difficult. Much public conversation and listening are needed. And some residents might move away seeking something else and others might still come as they see something attractive and exciting.

Consequences of suburbs growing, back to city movement declining

Willing Frey at The Brookings Institution sums up recent trends in growth rates among cities and suburbs:

As we approach the end of the 2010s, the biggest cities in the United States are experiencing slower growth or population losses, according to new census estimates. The combination of city growth declines and higher suburban growth suggests that the “back to the city” trend seen at the beginning of the decade has reversed.

These trends are consistent with previous census releases for counties and metropolitan areas that point to a greater dispersion of the U.S. population as the economy and housing market pick back up, perhaps propelled by young adult millennials who may be finally departing dense urban cores as they make a delayed entrance into marriage and the housing market…

Primary cities vs. suburbs growth rates

In both regions, city growth exceeded suburban growth in the early years of this decade, where Sun Belt growth in both cities and suburbs exceeded Snow Belt growth. As the decade wore on, city growth declined in both mega-regions while suburban growth remained higher. This is evident when looking at the individual metro areas in each region (download Table C). In 2011-2012, city growth exceeded suburb growth in 19 of the 34 Sun Belt metros, and in eight of the 19 Snow Belt metros. However, in 2017-18 the city growth advantage appeared in just nine Sun Belt metros and two Snow Belt metros. Among these 11 areas that still registered city growth advantages are: Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Denver, and Boston.

It is helpful to see the longer trends in the data, particularly when lots of media outlets want to jump on one-year estimates (such as Chicago’s recent population loss).

While it is helpful to compare cities and suburbs (and these changes do matter for a lot of reasons, including perceptions), I wonder how much this covers up larger changes across metropolitan regions or feeds narratives that cities and suburbs are locked in mortal competition. All of the above data could be true while Sun Belt regions continue to grow at a strong rates. Regions could think about policies as a whole that would enhance conditions for many more people than just those in cities or suburbs.

Finally, I’ve written before about how it would likely take decades to unseat the primacy of suburban life in the United States. Was the back to city movement or great inversion just a blip on the radar screen? Or, will it cycle back at closer and closer frequencies? The global economic system may have something to do with this – what happens with the next major downturn? – yet overcoming decades of expressed preference for suburbs will not be easy.