(The Hill) — Two million people fled America’s largest cities from 2020 to 2022, new research shows, signaling that a retreat from urban centers to suburbs, exurbs, and smaller cities in the early months of the pandemic has hardened into an enduring and potentially worrisome trend.
More than 1.2 million people left the nation’s large urban counties between July 2020 and July 2021, according to a report published this month by the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization. Another 860,000 people departed between July 2021 and July 2022.
Only a fresh influx of immigrants saved big cities from dramatic population declines. Even with the immigrants, 17 of the nation’s 25 largest counties suffered population losses between April 2020 and July 2022, according to census data tabulated by The Hill.
“The metros, as a group, lost population for the first time since at least 1990, and probably for decades before that,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.
The historic exodus, combined with chronic office vacancies and surging crime, pose profound and potentially existential challenges to America’s great cities.
For big-city leaders, the nightmare scenario would be a gradual unraveling of the social fabric that made big cities attractive places to live and work in the new millennium, and a return to the urban decay of preceding decades, an era of high crime, spiraling poverty and inadequate schools in many large cities.
In some ways, the recent exodus echoes the decades-long flight of prosperous families from cities to suburbs that began after World War II, which hobbled many cities into the 1990s. In those years, some urban downtowns felt depopulated. Today, many city centers feel just as empty, especially on Mondays and Fridays, the peak days for virtual work.
In 10 of the largest U.S. cities, half of all offices sit empty, according to weekly data from Kastle Systems, a company that manages office-access security.
Remote work has transformed the nation’s downtowns, and not in a good way.
“It’s the offices that are empty,” said Chris Fowler, associate professor of geography and demography at Pennsylvania State University.
“And what that does is, it brings down the number of people who are there during the day, and who are eating there in the evenings. Vibrant social spaces are healthy, and when we pull people and money out of those places, they don’t do as well.”
The virtual work exodus comes at a time when urban crime rates are rising, invoking memories of a much worse urban crime problem in the last millennium.
Big-city homicides rose by two-fifths between 2019 and 2022, from 6,406 to 9,138, according to data from the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a professional organization of police executives.
New York recorded 438 homicides in 2022, up from 319 in 2019. That is a dramatic increase, but both numbers pale next to the 2,262 homicides the city logged in 1990.
To Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the parallels between today’s remote-work boom and the urban exodus of earlier decades “are maybe stronger than a lot of people would like to admit. It’s as if the speed limits had doubled. People can live twice as far out.”
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a slow exodus of Americans from big cities, a trend driven not only by remote work but also by soaring urban housing costs and the perennial search for space.
According to the Economic Innovation Group analysis, large urban counties have lost residents in steadily growing numbers each year since 2013, a trend that coincided with the nation’s recovery from the Great Recession.
In 2019, the year before COVID, large counties lost more than 450,000 people to domestic migration, Americans moving within the United States. The pandemic pushed the annual exodus to 1.2 million in 2021.
Before the pandemic, two other demographic forces combined to cancel out the annual exodus. One is natural population change, the surplus of births over deaths. The other is immigration.
The urban population crisis hit when the pandemic descended. Between 2020 and 2021, almost no one immigrated, and deaths outnumbered births. Because of COVID-19, “we had the lowest natural population growth in over 100 years,” Frey said.
In 2022, COVID-19 deaths eased, and immigration resumed. Together, those positives more or less canceled out the losses from urban flight.
Yet, most of America’s big cities remain less populous now than they were at the pandemic’s start.
Los Angeles County lost nearly 300,000 people, or 3 percent of its population, between April 2020 and July 2022, Census data show.
Cook County, encompassing Chicago and suburbs, lost 166,000 people in that span, about 3 percent of its population.
Kings County, N.Y., better known as Brooklyn, lost nearly 150,000 residents, 5 percent of its citizenry.
New York County, or Manhattan, lost nearly 100,000 residents, a 6-percent hit.
“It’s not big cities in general. It’s a very small number of extremely large cities,” Fowler said. “What you see is that migration is moving down the urban hierarchy,” from larger cities to smaller ones.
Many urbanites are fleeing big cities in search of space. More than that, though, they are seeking less expensive space.
An average one-bedroom apartment now costs upwards of $2,000 in monthly rent in 14 of the nation’s 100 largest cities, by one recent analysis: $3,550 a month in New York, $3,000 in San Francisco, $2,370 in Los Angeles and $2,300 in Washington, D.C.
Fowler ascribes some blame for rising rents to real estate investment trusts, companies that buy up properties in hot markets and raise rents according to sophisticated algorithms, pushing lower-income renters out of the market.
Buying a big-city home, in the current market, may seem even more daunting than renting one. One recent analysis rated only two of the 50 largest U.S. cities, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, as affordable for first-time buyers.
The remote-work era allows many Americans to leave expensive homes in cities for cheaper ones in suburbs and smaller cities. Demographers say the revolution is only beginning.
One large-scale survey, published last year, found that 19 million Americans planned to move because of remote work, vastly outnumbering the 4 million Americans who had already moved.
“The offices are empty because people don’t need to come to the office,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist at the Economic Innovation Group. “And if you don’t need to come into the office, you don’t need to live in that labor market.”
The challenge for city leaders, urban experts say, is to adapt to remote work: by converting empty offices to affordable housing, managing public safety in struggling neighborhoods, and by working with public schools to preserve tax-funded education as a viable option for urban parents.
“Policy has a role to play here,” Ozimek said. “The last thing you want is politicians and local policymakers who just assume everything is going to work out.”