Goodbye NYC; Estimates show big city losses Sunbelt wins

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FILE — New York’s Lower Manhattan skyline, including One World Trade Center, left, is reflected in water on April 6, 2013, as seen from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J. Eight of the top 10 cities in the U.S. lost population during the first year of the pandemic, with only Phoenix and San Antonio getting new residents from 2020 to 2021, according to new estimates released, Thursday, May 26, 2022, by the U.S. Census Bureau. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, Archive)

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Ko Im always thought she would live in New York forever. She knew every corner of Manhattan and had worked hard to build a community of friends. Living in a small apartment, she found that her attitude shifted early in the pandemic. After her brother accepted a job in Seattle in the summer of 2020, she also decided to move there.

“It was fine until it wasn’t,” said Im, 36. “The pandemic really changed my mindset about how I wanted to live or how I needed to live.”

Eight of the top 10 cities in the U.S. lost population during the first year of the pandemic, with New York, Los Angeles and Chicago leading the way. Between July 2020 and July 2021, New York lost more than 305,000 people, while Chicago and Los Angeles fell by 45,000 residents and 40,000 people, respectively.

Although San Francisco is not among the top 10 cities, nearly 55,000 residents left that city, or 6.3% of the population in 2020, the highest percentage of any U.S. city.

Among the top 10 U.S. cities, only San Antonio and Phoenix gained new residents, but they only added about 13,000 people each, or less than 1% of their populations, according to 2021 vintage population estimates.

Justin Jordan’s move to Phoenix a year ago was motivated by a job offer that paid him more money than the one in Moundsville, West Virginia, where he had lived. He has had to adapt to 110 degree Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) temperatures and unmanageable traffic.

“I love the weather, the atmosphere and all the things to do,” said Jordan, 33, a senior operations manager for a business services firm.

Austin and Fort Worth in Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Columbus, Ohio also recorded modest population gains.

In March, the Census Bureau released estimates for metro areas and counties showing changes from mid-2020 to mid-2021. The estimates released Thursday provide a more detailed perspective. For example, the March data showed that metro Dallas had the largest population growth of any metro area in the U.S., adding more than 97,000 residents, but Thursday’s estimate shows the city of Dallas lost nearly 15,000 residents. The growth occurred in Dallas suburbs such as Frisco, McKinney and Plano.

The causes of population changes vary from city to city, driven by housing costs, jobs, births, and deaths. The pandemic and lockdown that followed in the spring of 2020 made it less attractive to live in a crowded city for a period of time, and those who could leave — workers who could do their jobs remotely, for example — sometimes did.

Brookings Institution demographer William Frey said he believes the population decline in most of the largest U.S. cities from 2020 to 2021 is “short-lived and pandemic-related.”

When it came to growth rates, as opposed to crude numbers, the fastest-growing cities with populations of at least 50,000 were in the suburbs of thriving Sunbelt metro areas. They included Georgetown and Leander outside austin; the town of Queen Creek and the towns of Buckeye, Casa Grande, and Maricopa outside Phoenix; the city of New Braunfels, outside San Antonio; and Fort MyErs, Florida. They had growth rates of between 6.1% and 10.5%.

As Metro Austin has grown by leaps and bounds, Georgetown, located more than 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Texas’ capital, has also grown, said Keith Hutchinson, the city’s communications manager. The city grew by 10.5%, the most in the country last year, and now has 75,000 inhabitants.

“It’s not really a surprise,” Hutchinson said. “People are moving here to get jobs.”

The estimates also showed population declines of 3% to 3.5% in New Jersey cities outside of New York, such as Union City, Hoboken and Bayonne. Similar falls occurred outside San Francisco in Daly City, Redwood City and San Mateo, as well as Cupertino in Silicon Valley.

Lake Charles, Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Laura in 2020, lost nearly 5% of its residents, the second-highest rate in the U.S. behind San Francisco.

Although the Category 4 storm was the driving force there, the pandemic elsewhere created opportunities to move. Andrew Mazur, 31, had wanted for some time to leave Philadelphia for South Florida, where he grew up, and the chance to work remotely in his job at a large professional service company arrived in November 2020. He joined nearly 25,000 residents who left Philadelphia between 2020 and 2021.

Although he now needs a car to get around, Mazur loves to play golf every weekend and go to the beach. He recently moved out of his parents’ home and got his own apartment in Fort Lauderdale. He made the move official three weeks ago by getting a driver’s license in Florida.

“I’m not coming back. It’s been amazing,” Mazur said. “Philly, New York, Chicago — lots of people from there are moving down here.”

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