What We Actually Know About Where Americans Are Moving During Covid

Are people in the U.S. migrating during the coronavirus crisis in different ways than pre-pandemic? Are they leaving cities? Moving to the suburbs? These are popular questions without definitive answers — yet. But there is some data emerging that can paint a better picture of Americans’ geographic response to the pandemic. 

One thing’s for certain: So far, there is little support for the dramaticclaims that people arefleeing cities writ large. In fact, available data indicates that overall, fewer people moved at all since the beginning of stay-at-home orders and through June — even with interest in moving on the rise again. 

Among those who have moved, it’s unclear how many of those moves will be only temporary. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting migration takeaways worth following. A select few cities including New York City and San Francisco do seem to be seeing more out-migration than most. But guess where many of those people are going? Other very large metropolitan areas, like Seattle and Los Angeles. Here’s what else we know so far. 

Americans moved less 

If there is a perception that the pandemic has ushered in a mass migration, it is not supported by the data. According to figures from two national moving companies, Americans moved less during the pandemic than they normally would have, not more. 

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These drops were not spread evenly across all states: Data from moving company platformHire A Helper found that moves decreased the least in states with no stay-at-home orders, like Nebraska (where they even increased a little, by 1.8%). But overall, almost every state saw drops, ranging from 1.3% in Arizona to 66.1% in New Hampshire.

 

United Van Lines, which focuses on long-distance hauls, also reports fewer moves during the pandemic. But both companies are seeing interest starting to rebound with gusto during the summer months. In June, United Van Lines said interest in moving was 14% higher compared to same month last year, after several months of being down.

There are caveats to these numbers, of course: They show trends only among people who used movers, and these particular moving services at that. But home sales and apartment searches have also shown similar trends.

Sales of existing homes have been down in 2020: In June, they were 11.3% lower than the same month last year. But that was still an increase from May, which was the weakest month of sales since October 2010. And in July, those sales hit a historic record increase.

It’s unclear so far what these increases from historic lows will mean. It’s possible that these recent sales and moves represent the pent-up demand of people who didn’t move or buy at the height of the pandemic. “It’s not unusual for [the summer] to be peak moving season,” said Igor Popov, the chief economist at Apartment List, which also saw record drops in apartment searches before they picked back up this summer. “I think it was just a little bit more intense this summer, because of the nature of the pandemic, and the nature of shelter-in-place preceding high moving months.” 

 It’s also possible that moves will continue to increase for the rest of the year. What we know so far: A mass migration hasn’t happened yet. 

Most people didn’t move for Covid-related reasons

Several surveys have found that the great majority of people who did move during the first months of the pandemic did so for reasons unrelated to the coronavirus. In one such survey of 1,300 individuals conducted by Hire A Helper, just 15% said they had relocated because of Covid-19. Out of these pandemic-induced migrations, 37% of respondents said they moved because they could not afford current housing due to a Covid-related income loss. Thirty-three percent of the respondents said that they moved to shelter in place with friends or family, and 24% that they didn’t feel safe where they were.

APew Research Center survey in June looked more closely at Americans who said they did make pandemic-induced moves. It found that overall, young people between the ages of 18 and 29 were moving because of Covid-19 in higher numbers, whether permanently or temporarily (college closing for in-person education might be to blame, at least partially.) Only 3% of the respondents said they had moved because of Covid-19, and 6% said someone else had moved in with them because of it.

Those who are moving aren’t trying to “flee” cities

As for the popular claim that peopleare “fleeing” urban areas, several recent analyses have tackled this question head-on. The conclusions from both Apartment List and fellow real estate aggregator Zillow: There isnot a widespread movement of people prospecting to move out of urban areas to less dense environments.

A thorough Zillow report published in mid-August found that the share ofsearch traffic for properties in suburban areas was slightly down compared to last year. Apartment List found similar results in a July report. Nationwide, it even found that the share of people looking to move to a higher-density city increased by a little over one percentage point, concluding that “the data show subtle regional shifts, but no overwhelming evidence of a large scale urban exodus.”

“I think there’s certainly a socioeconomic pocket that is maybe making these moves and is able to make these moves,” said Popov, of Apartment List. “But in terms of the entire rental market, when you look at the data from a bird’s-eye view, there is not this flee that people are necessarily engaged in.”

One important caveat: Both platforms looked at demand for suburban versus urban areas based on searches for homes, not actual moves. But if history is any indication, predictions of a mass urban exodus are unlikely to come true. As many scholars have noted, cities have recovered and thrived after past disease outbreaks. The 1918 Spanish flu episode in New York City had a death rate of 452 per 100,000 New Yorkers. Yet as urban scholar Richard Florida hasnoted in CityLab, “In the decades that bracketed that pandemic, spanning 1910 and 1930, greater New York’s population surged from 4.8 to 6.9 million.” In 1849, over 10,000 Londoners died of cholera within three months. A year later, a fire decimated the city. But “that city’s role as the world’s leading financial center of the time actually expanded in the wake of its deadly cholera epidemics,” writes Florida. 

None of this is to say that population patterns haven’t shifted in the past, and won’t again now. Look closer at particular geographic areas for a more complex picture. 

A few specific cities like San Francisco and New York City tell their own story

In a few of America's largest, densest, most expensive coastal cities — namely, San Francisco and Manhattan — several metrics do suggest that there are some changes in people’s migration patterns.

According to Hire a Helper’s data on its own clients, 80% more people sought help to move out of a home in San Francisco and New York City than to move in between mid-March and the end of June. United Van Lines also found more moves out of these two cities than last year. According to its data, between May and August 2020, move requests out of New York City to any destination were up 45%, and in San Francisco, up 23%, compared to the same time last year. 

But what’s just as interesting about these datasets is where the people who left were going: Among those requesting long-distance moves through United Van Lines, the company found that the top destinations for people leaving these cities were other large metropolitan areas. 

Topping the list of destinations for people leaving San Francisco between May and August 2020 were the Seattle, Austin and Chicago metropolitan areas. (For context, during the same period in 2019, the top destinations for people moving out of San Francisco were New York City, Seattle and Boston.)

New Yorkers were most likely to move to the Los Angeles, Atlanta and Tampa metropolitan areas between May and August 2020. Last year, during the same period, their top destinations were Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

It’s important to be clear: We shouldn’t deduce from these findings that there are droves of New Yorkers migrating west to L.A., or that Seattle is the new San Francisco. (Although these two migration patterns were both trends that were happening even before the pandemic.) In fact, these top ten destinations still only make up 25% of moves out of these cities, and we still don’t have full data on where everybody went. 

What this data does suggests is that it may not be cities per se that are losing people to the pandemic. Rather, these moves vary significantly by city and region — and in many cases likely accelerate trends already in effect before the pandemic. 

“We do see a lot of city-level variation,” said Rob Warnock, research associate at Apartment List. “I think that it’s where the conversation about an urban exodus really should be lying: in this discussion about local markets and whether people are interested in staying in or leaving their local market, rather than just a huge nationwide dispersal from cities.” 

The same goes for moves within these metro areas. In New York, a recent study by Miller Samuel Real Estate Appraisers & Consultants found that home sales in Manhattan dropped by 56% compared to last year, while they increased by44% in suburban counties located around the city. But many experts and real estate agents have observed that this is largely the result of people (mostly white, wealthier people) who were already planning to move to the suburbs simply accelerating those plans. 

“In many metros what we’re seeing, and it’s early in the days that we’re seeing that, is that there are indicators of more demand for the less expensive, further out inner suburbs as opposed to the central city of metros where we’ve seen growth in jobs,” said Susan Wachter, professor of real estate and finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “That’s what was happening even before Covid,” she said, referring to population growth rates in the suburbs and exurbs that have beenspeeding up over the last several years.

In San Francisco, Apartment List found that the share of users looking to move to a nearby secondary city increased by 9% compared to pre-pandemic levels. In and around the city, data on shifts in rent prices tell a very Bay Area-specific story. In an August release byZumper, the real estate aggregator found that rent increases and decreases varied considerably across the metro area. In the city of San Francisco, rent prices were down 11% year over year. The neighborhoods normally home to a large portion of tech workers, like Menlo Park, Santa Clara and Milpitas, saw prices go down 16%. On the other hand, in Daly City, rent prices went up 8%, and in Livermore, on the very outer edge of the Bay area, up 14%.

Many Bay Area tech companies have announced some of the most liberal work-remote policies that allow employees to work from home until at least 2021, or indefinitely (Twitter and Slack), easing the relocation of a workforce whose rent and home prices have skyrocketed at anunsustainable rate over the last decade. Whether similar trends continue, or spread to other places, may depend in part on other remote work policies and trends, says Arpit Gupta, an assistant professor at the New York University Stern School of Business.

“A big question in my view is: How much will the secondary/tertiary cities gain, relative to just the suburbs of major cities?” Gupta wrote in an email to CityLab. “A lot of this depends, I think, on how work-from-home norms establish.”

The kinds of cities Gupta is talking about could be residential cities in the outskirts of the San Francisco Bay Area, like Livermore. But they are also places like Cleveland, Ohio, orTulsa, Oklahoma, where attracting remote workers is viewed as a potential resilience strategy. 

 Working from home, like a lot of other factors that make it easier to move, is a luxury that many Americans do not have. In fact, many of the patterns captured in this data are skewed toward people of means: those who can afford to hire moving companies or buy homes. People who can afford to move, period.

In Manhattan, where new listings were down 56% year-over-year from the start of the pandemic through August, it’s the luxury real estate market that seems to be most impacted. For homes priced over $4 million, sales plunged 67%, according to UrbanDigs, a real estate data site.

The apartment vacancy rate in Manhattan exceeded 5% for the first time in August since real estate firm Douglas Elliman started recording it 14 years ago. A data analysis by the New York Times may capture where some of those vacancies are coming from. Smartphone data collected by the Times between March and May 1found that the richest ZIP codes emptied out in Manhattan during the height of the pandemic. This likely includes large numbers of college students, and people with second homes or family homes to move to, in many cases temporarily. 

As with much of the rest of the pandemic’s toll, this wealth and racial inequality may emerge as a dominant narrative of migration patterns. If current trends hold, the inequality may be geographic, too. But overall Wachter doesn’t expect to see anything like the death of the city. “Cities have had the power to draw, and will continue to have that power to draw job growth,” she said. “And hence for the long run, I expect that there will be recovery.” 

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