Study: Residents left big metros during pandemic for family

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FILE - Rows of homes, in suburban Salt Lake City, on April 13, 2019. Utah is one of two Western states known for rugged landscapes and wide-open spaces that are bucking the trend of sluggish U.S. population growth. The boom there and in Idaho are accompanied by healthy economic expansion, but also concern about strain on infrastructure and soaring housing prices. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Cece Linder was living in a 770-square-foot apartment outside Washington, D.C., last spring when the area went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In May 2020, after a few months of both living and working in the small space, Linder decided to leave the capital area and move into the 2,000-square-foot (186-square-meter) beachside home she jointly owns with her parents in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Now she gets to see the sunrise over the water each morning before work.

“If I’m teleworking anyway, why not move to this other place that is more visually attractive, it’s beachside, and someone can occasionally cook for me?" Linder said. “Though that didn’t exactly work out. My mom has me cooking for them.”

Linder was not alone in her thinking. According to a new study and data from the U.S. Census Bureau, she was one of thousands of people who migrated out of the nation's largest metropolitan areas and into smaller ones during the pandemic.

The study found that, like Linder, many of the migrants weren’t driven by new jobs or weather — or even a fear of the virus — but a desire to be closer to family and a freedom to make it happen because of remote working. Although the pattern of people moving from larger to smaller cities has been going on for several years, the pandemic exacerbated that trend, said Peter Haslag of Vanderbilt University, who conducted the study on migrant motivations with Daniel Weagley of Georgia Tech. Their paper has not yet been published.

The data adds to understanding of how the pandemic has changed where and how Americans live. The moves were most common among those with higher incomes and more job flexibility. If the trends continue, it could have long-term implications for real estate markets, tax bases and the wealth inequality in cities, according to researchers.

“For us, the question is, is this a temporary blip or is it going to continue?" Haslag said. “If work-from-home really is going to be a factor in job and company decisions, and by allowing work and location to be separate decisions, people are going to be able to optimize their locations, if they have the right jobs."

The Census Bureau data shows that the New York metro area — which was hit early by the new coronavirus — declined by about 108,000 residents, or 0.5%. Roughly 216,000 residents moved out of the metropolitan area, but the natural increase from births and gains in international migration offset the departures. The New York metro area has experienced decelerated growth over the past several years, but last year's decline was a bigger bite of the Big Apple than in 2019, when it lost 60,000 residents.