Where Americans Are Moving

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The red states may have lost the presidential election, but they are winning new residents, largely at the expense of their politically successful blue counterparts. For all the talk of how the Great Recession has driven people — particularly the “footloose young” — toward dense urban centers, Census data reveal that Americans are still drawn to the same sprawling Sun Belt regions as before.

An analysis of domestic migration for the nation’s 51 largest metropolitan statistical areas by demographer Wendell Cox shows that the 10 metropolises with the largest net gains from 2000 through 2009 are in the Sun Belt, led by Phoenix, and followed by Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.; Atlanta; Dallas-Ft. Worth; and Las Vegas.

Migration has slowed from a high of nearly 2 million annually in 2006 to less than 800,000 last year, but the most recent numbers show that the Sun Belt states, though chastened by the recession, are far from dead, as often alleged. This part of America, widely consigned to what the Bolshevik firebrand Leon Trotsky called the “dustbin of history” by Eastern pundits, somehow manages to continue to draw Americans seeking opportunities, in particular from the large coastal metropolitan regions.

Migration data for the most recent one-year period available, July 2010 t0 July 2011, show the Great Recession has shaken the rankings up quite a bit within the circle of fast-growth regions. The biggest winner has been Texas. The Lone Star state boasts four of the 10 metro areas with the largest net migration gains for the past two years. Dallas ranks first, followed by Austin in third place, Houston in fifth and San Antonio in eighth. In contrast, some of the growth leaders over the 2000-09 period, notably Las Vegas, and to a lesser extent Phoenix, have tumbled considerably in the rankings. The lesson here: a strong economy has to be based on something more than gaming, tourism and home construction. Energy, technology, manufacturing and trade are far preferable as an economic base.

Also posting strong net migration gains for 2010-11 were Miami (second place), Washington, D.C. (sixth), and Seattle (ninth). In each of these areas, economic conditions appear to have improved. The once disastrous condo glut in the Miami area, which includes Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, has begun to clear up as foreign buyers pour into the region. Taxpayer-funded Washington is surging with new jobs and the highest incomes in the land. Seattle continues a long-term evolution toward the healthiest of the blue-state private economies. San Francisco, a consistent big loser for the last decade, jumped to 19th, presumably as a result of the current dot.com bubble.

Another huge turnaround can be seen in New Orleans, which ranked a dismal 43rd for 2000-09 as residents fled not only Katrina but a stagnant, low-wage, corruption-plagued economy. But in our 2010-11 ranking, the Crescent City surged to a respectable 16th, one of the biggest migration turnarounds in the country.

How about the biggest losers? From 2000-09, the metropolitan areas that suffered the biggest net domestic migration losses resemble something of an urbanist dream team: New York, which saw a net outflow of a whopping 1.9 million citizens, followed by the Los Angeles metro area (-1,337,522), Chicago, Detroit, and, despite recent improvements, San Francisco-Oakland. The raw numbers make it clear that California has lost its appeal for migrants from other parts of the U.S., and has become an exporter of people and talent (and income).

And despite the cheap money Bernanke-Geithner policies of the past few years that have benefited giant banks centered in the bluest big cities, people continue to leave these areas. The 2010-11 numbers show the deck chairs on the migratory titanic have stayed remarkably similar, with New York still ranking first among the 51 biggest metro areas for net migration losses, followed by Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia. In most of these cases only immigration from abroad, and children of immigrants, have prevented a wholesale demographic decline.

What can we expect now? It seems clear that the urban-centric policies of the Obama administration have not changed Americans’ migration patterns. The weak recovery has slowed migration, but expensive, overregulated and dense metropolitan areas continue to lose population to lower-cost, less regulated and generally less dense regions. This may speed up as recent tax hikes squeeze the hard-pressed middle class and if, as appears likely, the social media bubble continues to deflate.

If the economy somehow gains strength, it may only serve to further accelerate these trends. The incipient recovery in housing prices seems likely, at least in places like California and the Northeast, to create yet another bubble. This will give people more incentive to move to less expensive areas, particularly those who can cash in by selling a house in a pricier city and moving to a less expensive one. The differential in housing costs between New York and Tampa-St. Petersburg now stands at historic highs, and near peak bubble highs between Los Angeles and Phoenix; the traditional growth states are looking more attractive all the time for people looking to make quick money in an economy with shrinking opportunities elsewhere. This includes the massive wave of aging boomers, many of whom may see selling a house in California or the Northeast as a way to make up for less than adequate IRAs. The combination of low prices and warmer weather in the past has proven an irresistible one for those retiring or simply down-shifting their careers. This appeal is likely to grow as the senior population expands.

Other demographic factors could further drive this trend. As the millennial generation ages and starts looking for places to buy homes and raise families, many will seek out places that are both affordable and offer better economic opportunities. These will tend to be in the South and Southwest, particularly Texas, and Plains States metro areas such as Oklahoma City.

Finally we can expect immigrants, particularly from Asia, to continue to seek out housing bargains and new opportunities primarily in the Sun Belt states, as our recent study of changing Asian settlement patterns revealed. More will be shifting from the high-priced, low-growth big metros for opportunity cities such as Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Raleigh and Charlotte.

Overall we can expect domestic migration to pick up, and to follow the well-trodden path from the great cities of the Northeast and California to the Sun Belt’s resurgent boom towns. This may be bad news to many urban pundits and big city speculators, but it also should create new opportunities for more perceptive, and less jaded, investors.

2010-2011 Net Domestic Migration for the Nation’s 51 Largest Regions
Rank by Net Flow Metropolitan Area Net Flow Rate Per 1,000 Residents Rank by Rate
1 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 39,021 6.04 10
2 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 36,191 6.43 9
3 Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos, TX 30,669 17.47 1
4 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 27,157 9.68 3
5 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 21,580 3.58 16
6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 21,517 3.80 15
7 Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 19,565 7.59 7
8 San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 19,515 8.97 4
9 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 17,598 5.07 13
10 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA 15,131 3.54 17
11 Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 13,778 7.74 6
12 Raleigh-Cary, NC 13,262 11.53 2
13 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 12,419 2.33 18
14 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 11,388 5.07 12
15 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 10,394 4.82 14
16 New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA 10,153 8.59 5
17 Nashville-Davidson–Murfreesboro–Franklin, TN 9,323 5.81 11
18 Oklahoma City, OK 8,746 6.90 8
19 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 5,880 1.35 22
20 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 5,585 1.32 24
21 Pittsburgh, PA 3,740 1.59 20
22 Jacksonville, FL 2,911 2.15 19
23 Sacramento–Arden-Arcade–Roseville, CA 2,856 1.32 23
24 Columbus, OH 2,219 1.20 26
25 Indianapolis-Carmel, IN 1,940 1.10 27
26 Louisville/Jefferson County, KY-IN 1,886 1.46 21
27 Richmond, VA 1,546 1.22 25
28 Salt Lake City, UT 915 0.80 28
29 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 816 0.26 29
30 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 536 0.16 30
31 Baltimore-Towson, MD -1,341 -0.49 32
32 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH -1,627 -0.36 31
33 Birmingham-Hoover, AL -2,452 -2.17 35
34 Buffalo-Niagara Falls, NY -2,558 -2.25 38
35 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA -2,704 -1.46 34
36 Kansas City, MO-KS -2,820 -1.38 33
37 Memphis, TN-MS-AR -2,933 -2.22 37
38 Rochester, NY -3,320 -3.15 40
39 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT -4,749 -3.92 45
40 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI -4,862 -3.12 39
41 Providence-New Bedford-Fall River, RI-MA -6,254 -3.91 44
42 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV -6,353 -3.24 41
43 Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC -7,086 -4.22 47
44 Cincinnati-Middletown, OH-KY-IN -7,149 -3.35 42
45 St. Louis, MO-IL -10,260 -3.64 43
46 Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor, OH -12,521 -6.04 51
47 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD -13,133 -2.20 36
48 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI -24,170 -5.64 49
49 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA -50,549 -3.92 46
50 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI -53,908 -5.68 50
51 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA -98,975 -5.22 48