Americans are moving away from built-up urban areas : The Indicator from Planet Money Remember all the predictions about the pandemic pushing people to quit big, expensive cities? Six months in, the data is providing some clues about which cities Americans are leaving, and where they're moving to. An update on the "urban exodus."

Where's Everyone Moving To?

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There have been all kinds of stories lately about people moving - moving because of the pandemic and because so many people are now able to work from home.


Yeah, and a lot of people are buying houses right now. We know that. And we know that they are moving. But where are they moving to? Where are they moving from? The data gets fuzzier there. And then there are all these stories kind of swirling around about this stuff.

GARCIA: Yeah, like when people say that the streets of New York City are just jam-packed with moving trucks or that San Francisco's emptying out. And, I mean, I've heard people are buying houses like crazy in places like Seattle and Austin and Chicago. And, Stacey, in my own apartment building, by the way, I've gone through long stretches where I don't see any of my neighbors 'cause clearly they're gone (laughter), you know? I just don't know where they are.

VANEK SMITH: One of my neighbors is moving out right now. Like, today, as I'm talking, they're moving out. I saw the blankets in the hallway and the wheelie things.

GARCIA: It's New York City, so I guess you didn't wave them goodbye?

VANEK SMITH: No, I have no idea who they are.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: I think I nodded. I do think I nodded, you know?


VANEK SMITH: I've been living here a long time, Cardiff. I'm local. I don't know my neighbors. But, yeah, I mean, the other things I've heard are like, no, no, no, actually, people aren't leaving cities; in fact, right now people are buying because there are all these deals - that's another thing that I've heard.

GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, there's so many anecdotes but not a lot of actual data. And this is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. We love data. That's kind of our thing.

VANEK SMITH: We love data. We do.

GARCIA: Yeah, so what we did was we started looking around for some clearer data about where Americans are moving to.

MARIE PATINO: So hello. My name is Marie Patino, and I'm a data journalist at Bloomberg CityLab. Yeah, just so you know, I have a pretty - like, I have a French accent that is very obvious. So please do tell me if at any point it is too strong.

VANEK SMITH: Are you kidding? More French accent is always better.

PATINO: (Laughter).

GARCIA: Yes, more French accent is absolutely always better.


GARCIA: And I'm Cardiff Garcia. Today on the show, we dive into the moving data. Where are we going? Where are we leaving? Why are we here? OK, we don't do that (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Why are we here feels like a different show, but we would definitely need someone with a French accent to talk about (laughter) why are we here.

GARCIA: A French philosopher - perfect.

VANEK SMITH: We're going to need some cigarettes and turtlenecks for that show.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: But for now - moving data.


VANEK SMITH: Marie Patino from Bloomberg CityLab, thank you so much for joining us. You recently wrote an article kind of looking at a bunch of the moving data because we've definitely been hearing a lot of things about, you know, this great migration and all these people moving from COVID. And you kind of took a dive into this question.

PATINO: Yeah, exactly. We've seen a lot of anecdotal evidence about a so-called urban exodus. So we thought that it'd be interesting to try to do a summary of all the interesting data points we could get our hands on.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, where did you look to get this data?


VANEK SMITH: 'Cause we're really into data at THE INDICATOR. I don't know what to say.


PATINO: No, no, it's a really good point. So we do get a fair amount of research coming from moving companies and real estate aggregators like Zillow. And we did find a quite more nuanced story.

VANEK SMITH: What did you find? I mean, I feel like the story has been - at least the anecdotal story has been, like, people are fleeing cities, they're moving to the country and sort of settling down. Like, there's this exodus. So what did you find? When you actually looked at actual data, what story did it tell?

PATINO: Yeah, so we found that, overall, it seems like people actually during the during the stay-at-home orders between March and June, people moved way less than they usually do. And that's what the moving data told us. But, overall, we also saw really interesting, you know, regional nuances. We have seen a lot of people moving out of especially Manhattan, but also a lot of people moving out of San Francisco.

VANEK SMITH: And where are they going?

PATINO: It's kind of a story that keeps evolving, but what we've seen is that a fair amount of people who move out of San Francisco and New York City tend to go to, actually, also pretty big cities, like Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, also Seattle.

VANEK SMITH: And so it seems like people are moving maybe from the - well, Los Angeles is a bigger city. I don't know 'cause - yeah, it was, like, not the story that I expected 'cause I was like, oh, they're moving from the biggest cities to smaller cities, but Los Angeles isn't a smaller city. I think in Los Angeles, people can have a little more space. It seems like people are maybe not necessarily leaving urban places but going to urban places where they can maybe have more space or something like that.

PATINO: Yeah, that is definitely interesting. And we have data from a real estate consultant, and they saw that in Manhattan, home sales had dropped by 56% year over year.


PATINO: But in the suburban counties around the city, they had increased by actually 44% year over year.

VANEK SMITH: The other thing that I really loved in your article was that you took a look at history, which I thought was such a fascinating perspective. You kind of looked back in time a little bit at past pandemics and sort of big issues in big cities in the U.S. And what did you find?

PATINO: Well, a thing we did see is that in previous pandemics - and, you know, we mentioned the Spanish flu but also the cholera - cities have always been historically resilient and have managed to kind of recover from all the hardship that has happened.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, 'cause you looked at - I think in London, back in 1849, they had 10,000 people die of cholera within a few months, and then a huge fire destroyed a lot of the city. But right after that, the city's role as sort of the world's leading financial center at that time actually grew.

PATINO: So a few experts we've talked to kind of expect the same thing to happen with the current pandemic, even though a pretty big shift that has happened and maybe wasn't there before is the whole working from home, you know, movement that is happening. So it kind of depends how - what the norms regarding this turn out to be, you know? Like, will people return to the office, or will people kind of stay working from home?

VANEK SMITH: Right. So this time might be a little different because we are establishing a protocol now where we don't need to necessarily be at work. So we all still might be working jobs that are technically based in, you know, New York or San Francisco, but we could be living elsewhere.

PATINO: Yeah. And I think another important thing is that there was an overall trend of population in dense urban city centers growing less fast than people in, you know, suburban areas.

VANEK SMITH: So this is a trend that was already happening.

PATINO: Yes, exactly.

VANEK SMITH: And, basically, it may have been accelerated. So you are based out of London, from what I understand. Is that right?

PATINO: Exactly, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: What's happening in London? Are people leaving London? Is it the same thing as New York? Are people saying, like, London is over?


PATINO: No, that's definitely a good question. I live in London, and rent has dropped quite a lot recently.

VANEK SMITH: Has your rent dropped?

PATINO: Yeah, it has dropped, actually.

VANEK SMITH: By a lot or just, like, a little bit or...

PATINO: By a fair amount 'cause I feel like people are - people tend to, at least from what I see, be kind of leaving the center.

VANEK SMITH: So, yeah, I guess we'll have to see. Well, Marie, thank you so much for talking with me today.

PATINO: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Brittany Cronin. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.


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