Make Sun Belt Cities More Like New York and Los Angeles

Add this to the pandemic lesson book: People may be willing to give up their homes in high-cost, densely packed coastal cities, but they still want their coastal lifestyles — just with a little more space, cheaper real estate and warmer weather.

Two years after fears of Covid-19 unleashed a wave of migration across the country, U.S. communities are still struggling to adapt to the demographic changes. We’re beginning to see signs of recovery in cities like New York and San Francisco that saw an exodus of high-income knowledge workers who had the ability to work remotely. (Even though office occupancy suggests they may never come close to pre-pandemic norms.)

But it's the places where those workers settled that are experiencing the growing pains of a new cohort of migrants. Former coastal residents who left for cheaper pastures still want the same kinds of major-metro amenities to which they’ve become accustomed — and the Sun Belt destinations they’ve flocked to don’t have enough of them. To put it another way, we need more Whole Foods stores — and other types of cosmopolitan consumption outlets — in the Sun Belt.

Recent population data from the U.S. Census Bureau confirmed the anecdotes: The biggest population outflows over the past year were from coastal cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And a recently released study from Vanderbilt University and Georgia Tech shed more light on who was leaving and why: high-income households, and mostly for lifestyle reasons. The migration patterns of low-income households have been relatively unchanged.

Of course, people have been moving from the Northeast to Florida for decades, but the pandemic migration was a distinct phenomenon and it has important implications for developers and city planners. The stereotypical migrant has been someone approaching retirement, maybe a public-sector worker with a pension, moving from a state like New Jersey or Illinois to Florida or Arizona in search of cheaper housing, lower taxes and warmer weather. Though the new migration is prompted by some of the same reasons, it’s different kinds of people moving with different kinds of lifestyle preferences.

People moving to take advantage of their ability to work remotely tend to be well-educated, high-income and mid-career. And while they’re moving to lower-cost locations, they still want to live like they did in those higher-cost cities. Unlike with retiree migration, good schools are also likely to be a factor.