Sun Belt towns explode as big cities bleed population

More than half of U.S. cities saw population loss over the past year as people flocked to suburbs and suburbs in what demographers say are among the first signs that attitudes in the age of the pandemic have changed for good.

New numbers from the US Census Bureau and real estate tracking firm Zillow show that smaller suburbs were more likely to add new population over the past year, at the expense of the larger metropolitan cities they border.

The two fastest growing cities last year, Georgetown and Leander, Texas, are both suburbs of Austin. In both cases, their populations increased by 10%. New Braunfels, Texas, south of Austin and north of San Antonio, saw its population jump to 98,857, up 8.3% from a year ago.

The Phoenix suburbs of Queen Creek, Buckeye and Maricopa, Arizona, as well as the suburb of Casa Grande, all landed among the top 10 fastest growing cities. The same was true for North Port, Florida, between Sarasota and Fort Myers, and Spring Hill, Tennessee, south of Nashville.

Boise, Idaho, added just 1,617 residents last year, but three suburbs — Meridian, Caldwell and Nampa — all saw population increases of more than 5%.

San Antonio, Phoenix, Fort Worth, Texas and Port St. Lucie, Florida all added more than 10,000 residents last year, more than any other place in the country, as Americans continue to flock to the states of the Sunbelt. These cities are large enough that their overall increase in population does not place them on the list of fastest growing cities.

Population figures from the Census Bureau show that some of the nation’s largest cities also saw the biggest population declines last year. More than 305,000 people left New York, a greater total population decline than any other city. San Francisco saw the largest percentage drop in population, dropping 6.3% to a drop of 54,000 people.

Los Angeles and Chicago each lost more than 40,000 residents. Of the nation’s 10 largest cities, only San Antonio and Phoenix saw growth.

At the same time, suburban areas outside of these major metropolitan cities are among the fastest growing housing markets in the country, according to Zillow data.

While Seattle’s population fell by 4,200 last year, two of the five most popular real estate markets in the country are in Seattle’s northern suburbs of Edmonds and Woodinville. Populations in Washington, DC, and Alexandria, Va., both fell, but Burke, Va., just outside the Capitol Beltway, ranked as the nation’s second hottest market.

The suburbs of Tampa, Florida, Denver, Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis were also among the most popular markets; among their metro areas, only Tampa grew last year.

For the first time in recent memory, house prices in many inner suburbs have risen faster than prices in central urban areas, said Nicole Bachaud, economist at Zillow.

“People don’t necessarily have to live close to work anymore, and that’s really opened the door,” Bachaud said in an interview on Friday. “Now that we are entering the third year of the pandemic, people are making these longer-term decisions now that they have this clarity.”

A total of 424 of 795 U.S. cities with more than 50,000 residents have lost population over the past year.
Some demographers say they are not surprised by the decline in urban populations and the shift to the suburbs.

“When Covid hit, deaths in some urban cores increased, while births fell slightly. So there’s been less natural increase and less immigration,” said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. “In contrast, internal emigration from many urban cores has increased because more people were leaving – in some cases for rural areas or small towns – and the influx of young people to the cores has likely slowed.”

Six of those 795 major cities recorded more than 100,000 residents for the first time, according to Census Bureau figures: along with Goodyear and Buckeye, Ariz., the populations of Bend, Ore., Fishers and Carmel, Ind., and Tuscaloosa , Ala., now measure in six figures.

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