This is the year that officially ended the boom of cities that started in the 1990s. The mirage of cities buffeted by white collar jobs and supported by wealthy citizens willing to take on just one more tax increase is officially kaput. It is easy to blame the deluge on the coronavirus, but in reality a unique combination of factors heralded the end of the growth in places like New York while introducing population booms in medium-sized cities and suburbs across specific regions of the country. Significant populations of each social class decided it was no longer worth living in major metropolitan areas.
What developed this year is a cascade of residents leaving large cities in blue states. Among the biggest losers this year, in terms of total population loss, were New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and the District of Columbia. New York lost at least 300,000 residents this year. San Francisco saw 90,000 postal changes of address out of the city, while its median apartment rent took a nosedive of 20 percent in 2020. Los Angeles recorded more than 25,000 moves out of the city while Chicago logged over 20,000. Even the District of Columbia lost 15,000 residents. Other cities that had sustained growth in the last decade also face severe drops in interest.
Residents who fled large cities in blue states overwhelmingly relocated to red state cities, mostly in the Sun Belt or the West outside of California. Phoenix, already booming before the coronavirus, retained its spot as the fastest growing city in the country; its metro population now displaces Boston. The other overall winners in the demographic game this year are Nashville, where home prices continue to surge while real estate inventory is down 40 percent; Las Vegas, which tempted Bay Area techies to follow the Raiders to Sin City; Charlotte, which now has a larger population than San Francisco; and the greater Charleston area, which is likely the home of Boeing’s next expansion, and has benefitted from manufacturing jobs moving south.
As people of many professions increasingly telecommute during the age of the pandemic, many are relocating to small or medium-sized cities, either in close to their original homes or in low tax states. Places like Louisville, Buffalo, Burlington, Little Rock, Tulsa, Greenville, Knoxville, and Syracuse are all seeing population influxes of nearly double their 2019 rates or better. Polls show that about two-thirds of tech workers would leave Seattle or New York if they could. The shift from New York to Syracuse, or Boston to Burlington, may have seemed impossible a generation ago for many white collar workers, but is the new norm that is eating away the professional middle class that made those big cities previous leaders in economic growth.
The trend is comprehensive: Mega cities that have been traditionally led by the Democratic Party face the steepest loss in population while mid-level cities either stemmed the decline or have booming populations. For young people leaving college, or those entering into the middle of their careers, there is little allure left in these concrete jungles. The safe cities inspired by Rudy Giuliani that emerged in the 1990s are no more, with surging poverty and violent crime.
The pandemic brought nightlife and culture to a near halt, and for many there is little desire to stay in a city that lost 1,000 restaurants and counting. Combine these factors with a plethora of new taxes and regulatory schemes that soak middle and high income earners, and it’s obvious why the former titans of population growth seem to have feet of clay. The decline of liberal cities in blue states during a crisis is perhaps the clearest judgement on a raft of poor tax and regulatory policies. It will also accelerate the demographic shift changing the political calculus in traditionally red states, as seen in Georgia and Arizona in the presidential race.
The 2020 census data will be a treasure trove of information for demographers and historians alike. But much of our current picture will likely be told and retold through family tales for generations. 2020 will likely be an inflection point for families, similar to how 1977 was the breaking point for many working New Yorkers facing the blackout, an economic crisis, and crime personified by the Son of Sam. Every person who pulled up stakes had a eureka moment in which they ditched the big city for greener pastures. It turned out that this year was that juncture where millions of Americans had their own epiphanies.
Kristin Tate is a libertarian author and an analyst for Young Americans for Liberty. She is a Robert Novak journalism fellow at the Fund for American Studies. Her newest book is “The Liberal Invasion of Red State America.”