Weekend Long Reads: The 2020 Urban Exodus — It’s Complicated

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend’s Long Read comes to us from the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.  The network of Federal Reserve Banks do a large amount of research to inform their work in planning the nation’s monetary policy. This particular research report looks at the reported “urban exodus”: the flight of people from urban neighborhoods of cities.

We should start by being clear about what we mean by “urban neighborhoods.” In this case, the researchers define it as “census tracts in metro areas with populations of more than 500,000 that have either a population density of more than 7,000 people per square mile or the majority of their housing stock built before World War II.” The inclusion of neighborhoods built before World War II is because they were primarily designed for pedestrians, with a close-in combination of residential, retail, and commercial buildings.

Migration in and out of urban neighborhoods is very seasonal: high from March through September and dropping off in the winter months. Generally speaking, “in-flow” and “out-flow” follow the same pattern.

Estimated Gross Migration into and from Urban Neighborhoods (via Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland District Data Brief 02/05/21)

From 2010 to 2016, this resulted in a fairly low level of net migration out of urban neighborhoods. From 2017 to 2019 there was a lot more total migration in both directions and a slightly higher level of net out-migration. Then 2020 happened.

Estimated Net Out-Migration from Urban Neighborhoods (via Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland District Data Brief 02/05/21)

But if you look carefully at the above charts, you’ll notice that the pattern changed: Out-migration continued its summer peak, but in-migration fell off. So what happened last year wasn’t so much a larger than usual number of people leaving urban areas (there was a small increase) but far fewer people moving in.

The research report breaks down what happened last year by a few different demographics. It turns out that there wasn’t that much difference across income groups, but the increase in net-outflow was much more driven by renters (with a moderate increase for homebuyers), by GenZ and millennials, and by larger cities.

Estimated Net Migration from Urban Neighborhoods by Neighborhood Income, Migrant Characteristics, and Metro Area Population (via Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland District Data Brief 02/05/21)

But COVID-19 wasn’t the only thing that happened last year, and some of the data suggests that it may not have been the biggest driver of the outflow in some cities — specifically the ones that saw large protests and civil unrest, including Seattle. Here’s a chart from the report that marks the start of the protests in some of those cities; it gives the strong impression that the protests were a major factor. The researchers also looked at cities without major protests and civil unrest and didn’t see  this kind of pattern.

Estimated Net Migration from Urban Neighborhoods for Six Metro Areas, by Central City (via Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland District Data Brief 02/05/21)
Note: The red vertical line is placed at the end of May, when nationwide protests began.

The appendix of the report includes detailed charts of dozens of U.S. cities, including the Seattle metro area (inclusive of Tacoma and Bellevue). It confirms that Seattle showed the same pattern as the national one: Outflow was on the high end of the expected range, but inflow was much lower.

Estimated Gross and Net Migration into and out of Urban Neighborhoods: Seattle–Tacoma–Bellevue, WA (via Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland District Data Brief 02/05/21)

So what can we learn from all of this? First, there wasn’t a huge exodus from urban neighborhoods; instead there was a huge drop of people moving in to replace the typical number who moved out. Second, the drop was concentrated in younger renters in larger cities. Third, it was exacerbated by last summer’s unrest — though COVID was still likely a factor.

Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Cause an Urban Exodus?

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

Featured image is attributed to Serolynne under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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