As of this writing, it has been a week or so since the World Health Organization declared the active coronavirus pandemic over, closing a long and painful chapter of modern history. Nearing the end of Q2 2023, and with the benefit of robust datasets and improved learning models, we are now able to reflect upon and interpret with clarity the Covid era’s effect on United States migration patterns.
To conduct our research, we began with migration patterns datasets for the contiguous U.S. from Q1 of 2019 through Q4 of 2022. We segmented that into three buckets for examination: Pre Covid (2019), Peak Covid (2020 - 2021), and Early Recovery (2022).
We then further segmented data from the state level all the way down to the zip code level and laid all that out on a map within our Unacast Insights visualization product, from which we also generated many of the images used in this report. In examining the data, we found some interesting stories that we will use to illustrate what’s still happening in the states, cities, counties and neighborhoods we highlight.
First, we will look at an apparent migration whiplash effect in play in a number of areas. Specifically, some places where inbound migration boomed during the peak of Covid are now losing population, while others have been snapped into a state of rapid growth by Covid and remain in that mode.
Secondly, we’ll examine a group of noticeable anomalies that tell a collective tale of the transient nature of Covid era migration in Austin and the state of Texas. Finally, we will turn our attention to New York City and find out if there’s any truth to the theory that the city and its most affluent neighborhoods are recovering population in the wake of Covid.
Covid’s National Migration Whiplash
Rapid Covid-era growth was the norm in some states and cities. But 2022 brought a whiplash effect that threatens billions in sunk investments in real estate and infrastructure.
We analyzed United States migration patterns data from Q1 2019 to Q4 2022 to find out which states and cities have experienced the most extreme changing rates of growth and decline related to Covid-era migration.
What we discovered was a trend of fast and furious growth in many areas from 2020 to 2021, followed by rapid decline and/or negative growth in 2022. What follows are highlights of the states and cities with the most severe population swings of the Covid era.
Covid’s whiplash has resulted in a wild ride for several states. In some cases, the effect has been to accelerate population gain temporarily. In others, 2022 has seen a slowing or acceleration of pre-pandemic growth rates. In each case, net migratory patterns have been significantly altered, with serious implications for real estate investment, retail, and a range of other industries.
As of this writing, only four states are in a period of sustained growth since 2019: Arizona, Delaware, Florida and South Carolina. Nevada has gone from growth to recent decline. North Carolina has gone from pre-pandemic decline to sustained growth. The rest of the states we examined were shrinking before Covid, grew in a burst during the pandemic, and have since returned to a state of decline.
Whiplash States - Net population change by period
Growing in spurts: Arizona, Delaware, Florida and South Carolina
All four states have shown population growth since 2019 but individual rates of growth have vacillated significantly over the Covid era.
Long a growth state, Arizona’s net inbound migration of ~116k from Q1 2020 to Q4 2021 is actually inline with pre-Covid growth rates. However, in 2022, that rate of growth slowed to ~33% of pre-pandemic growth rates, indicating that the migratory tide here has changed.
Delaware, which had a modest growth rate in 2019, saw inbound migration swell nearly 4x during the peak of Covid, before falling back to around 2x of 2019 levels in 2022. Similarly, Florida’s growth rate from Q1 2020 to Q4 2021 was ~2.5x 2019’s rate of growth, but in 2022 fell back down to right around 2019 levels.
South Carolina has seen the most sustained growth of the Covid era, growing at ~3.5x 2019 rates during the peak of the pandemic, and maintaining ~2.5x rate of growth in 2022 vs. 2019. While South Carolina’s growth is notable, it’s not the only Carolina with something to sing about.
Opposite States: North Carolina and Nevada
North Carolina was in a period of migratory recession in 2019 when the state lost ~5,900 of its population. That changed wildly through 2020 and 2021 as some 60,000 new people moved to NC; an unprecedented figure. In the early recovery period of 2022, North Carolina has continued to grow, with a net population gain of ~22k vs. 2019 levels, with future projections calling for continued growth.
Nevada, on the other hand, is trending in the wrong direction. After growing steadily from 2019 and through the peak of the pandemic to the end of 2021, Nevada’s net population flow suddenly went negative in 2022 to the sum of ~12,000 fewer people, essentially wiping out pandemic gains. A strange migration trend in Las Vegas is the culprit. We’ll get into that in the Whiplash Cities section, below.
Worst Whiplash: Idaho, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia and Maine
Tiny Idaho sure is having a weird few years. Not much changed in 2019 when migration was minus ~8,000 in the state. That shifted in 2020, when Boise became a popular ‘smaller city option’ for many looking to escape the pandemic, and the population swelled by nearly 4,600. Fast forward to the end of 2022, and those people have since left, with current rates of decline ~150% above what they were before Covid. Was 2022 a preview of what’s to come in Idaho, or a sign of a return to normal here?
Texas was shrinking before Covid, grew like mad at the peak of the pandemic, and has since returned to almost its exact pre Covid state of decline, losing ~32,000 people in 2022, despite growth in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. Why? It’s mostly Austin’s fault (see below). Tennessee follows a similar pattern to Texas, though 2022 losses are actually greater than they were in 2019.
Georgia and Maine are on similar paths in that both were net population losers before Covid, net gainers during Covid, and have returned to a negative growth state as of 2022, though their individual rates of decline have slowed vs. 2019, perhaps portending a return to growth down the line, or at the least a flattening decline curve.
The five whiplash cities we profile here have different characteristics of size, geography, culture and politics, but each is a key influencer in broader statewide migration trends. In other words, as Atlanta, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Boise and Austin go migration-wise, so go their home states.
Whiplash Cities - Net population change by period
A big city by any definition, the Atlanta area’s population growth was slightly negative in 2019, before spiking sharply to rise by ~15k during the peak of the pandemic. These gains, however, gave way to a sharp decline of ~6,700 in 2022, wiping out 40% of Covid era gains and accelerating the rate of decline to 4x what it was in 2019. Seemingly a hotspot destination during Covid, Atlanta has become just one more big city with an outbound migration problem in 2023.
Las Vegas, NV
A lot of investors gambled on Las Vegas’ growth during Covid, but those bets may now be off. A net population gainer for some time before Covid, Sin City added about 10,000 new souls in 2019. Contrary to popular narrative, while growth continued through 2020 and 2021, it actually slowed by a third compared to pre-Covid figures. In 2022, the trend turned net negative with nearly 5,500 leaving the city. The reality of these findings is that the narrative that Las Vegas is a booming town in 2023 is, from a net population growth perspective at least, hyperbole.
Phoenix’s migration trend as a city is almost identical to Arizona’s as a state, indicating the extreme influence of this large urban center’s population. A net gainer of population well before Covid, Phoenix grew by nearly 44k people in 2019 — one of the fastest growth rates in the nation. Contrary to popular belief, that rate of growth did not grow but remained flat during the peak of Covid, and has since dropped to less than 30% of pre Covid levels. This is a clear indication of declining growth. Don’t be surprised if net migration in the city and/or state turns negative some time in 2024.
Boise’s story is Idaho’s story: a ho-hum 2019, explosive growth from 2020 to 2021, and a precipitous drop off in population in 2022. Truly there may be no better example of a Covid-era ‘escapist’s city’ suffering a more pronounced whiplash effect. Though the absolute numbers of people here are small, the economic impact of some 5,000 people joining and then turning around and leaving this small community over a 36-month period has been jarring to local retailers and real estate markets.
Austin is a bit of an enigma. A popular destination for blue state migrants even before Covid, Austin gained some 11,700 citizens in 2019. Contrary to popular opinion, that rate of growth did not incline, but remained flat during 2020 and 2021. In 2022, however, that trend sharply reversed with ~5,350 people leaving the city. This makes Austin an outlier among Texas cities in that Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, which had all seen a degree of negative decline from 2019 to 2021, all grew in 2022. Why?
As it turns out, there’s so much unique about Austin’s whiplash story, and indeed that of the whole state of Texas, we are going to dedicate the next section of this report to it: Lost in Austin.
Texas Population Trends: Lost in Austin
Austin, Texas, proudly I think, is a bit of an oddity. In a state characterized by steak, Lone Star beer, and country and western music, Austin is all about sushi, craft whiskey, and alt-rock.
A net migration winner during Covid, when similar-sized cities saw an exodus, Austin is now defying trends again, this time losing population as larger cities around it record net 2022 gains. Why the unique backlash? How come it’s so severe? What, exactly, is up with the anomaly that is Austin?
Texas cities by population growth and voting tendency
The Austin anomaly
That Austin’s population shrank in 2022 is unusual on a few levels. First of all, Austin is the only major urban area in Texas to have experienced contraction in this period: Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio all grew in 2022.
Secondly, this contraction followed a period of sustained growth from as far back as our data goes through the end of 2021 and the peak of Covid. Finally, the whiplash effect in Austin, while still allowing for net Covid era gains, has been severe enough to put the Austin area into negative growth territory in 2022 and early 2023.
The question arises: What is the cause of this notable whiplash? Based on a deep-dive into the data, it seems the demography of Covid era migrants to San Antonio may have something to do with it.
One distinguishing characteristic of the typical Covid era migrant to San Antonio is their comparatively lower income for the area, i.e. people who moved to San Antonio from 2020 through 2022 earned about $12,500 or 17% less in median income than the typical area resident. That’s 17% less buying power for everything: rent, food, gas, healthcare, entertainment etc. In other words, it may be some people came here looking for more of a life, but on arrival, found they could afford comparatively less of it; certainly less than can be had in other Texas cities.
Austin is, by all measurements, a relatively expensive place to live, especially by Texas standards. Wages are lower here than in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, while the cost of living is almost uniformly higher. To illustrate this, below we compare average costs in each city to live in a one bedroom apartment in the city center, using public transportation to get around.
The net effect of the average Covid era migrant’s lower income and the higher relative cost of living in Austin may well have been a key driver of San Antonio’s whiplash effect. Certainly, a relative cost of living 20 to 50% higher than larger nearby cities is likely not helping, which becomes clear when we look at where the people who leave Austin go next.
Big city clawback
Here is another very unusual thing about Texas: the state’s three largest cities are all growing again as of 2022 (Houston +11,118 , Dallas +4,355 , San Antonio +1,699 ). We can not find that same condition in any other state as of April 2023. And what is one place all these Texas cities are today consistently drawing new migrants from? You guessed it: Austin.
Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are the top landing spots for people who leave Austin for other Texas locations. Those who leave Austin and the state entirely often head for Los Angeles, New York, Denver, Chicago, Seattle or Washington D.C. So, they’re not moving to rural areas; they are purposefully bouncing to larger, more metropolitan urban areas.
It’s also worth noting that most of the top destination points for people who left Austin in 2022 are democratic strongholds, suggesting politics may have had a role in their decision to move to, or ultimately leave the city. Perhaps politics was not a determining factor for Covid era migration trends here, but it is reasonable to conclude it was, and remains, a contributing factor.
So is Austin a negative growth city for the future?
It seems unlikely that Austin’s migration pattern will remain net negative for very long. First of all, natural compression from the cities’ geography alone denotes both regular inbound flow from nearby urban centers, and an annual crop of new workers migrating to Austin from nearby College Station.
Secondly, while net migration flow in Austin is down in 2022, people are still moving to the area. Top origination points for migrants to Austin in 2022 included all the big Texas cities and out of state metropolises mentioned above, as well as a couple of areas nearby: Killeen and Mission. These places have been Austin’s chief source of inbound migrants since at least 2019 — before, during and in the wake of Covid. It is unlikely to see the tap turning itself off.
Finally, we come back to the subject of Austin’s core demography and how that has and has not changed over the Covid era. The sociologist in me looks at it this way: Austin is a vibrant, culture-rich city with a diverse cultural lens. The average person there is younger - mid 30s - and perhaps just getting their feet under them financially after Covid caused an early disruption to their career. They moved to the city center from another city with democratic leanings and that was a factor in their decision making.
But those who arrived in the last few years may have found San Antonio different than what they imagined before moving here. It’s expensive, it’s busier than they thought it might be, and they don’t have to travel many zip codes over to encounter views about politics and culture that are well outside their own. In this modern WFH world, there are other cities and other options available that are perhaps closer to the mark.
As a result, some of the newer migrants to San Antonio have chosen to leave, and that may continue to happen, but the long term view is that the gravity of the city will continue to draw this demographic, of which there is plentiful supply. For these reasons, I think the whiplash effect in San Antonio is likely to lessen in 2023 vs. 2022, and a return to growth is on the horizon in ‘24 or ‘25.
The same can not be said for the final subject of this quarterly report: New York City. Spoiler alert: New York is back to normal — slowly shrinking.
New York Population Trends
It’s a myth that New York was growing before Covid. In 2019, New York County aka ‘The City’ had a net population flow of minus about 35,000 people. The five counties combined (NY, Queens, Kings, Bronx, and Richmond) lost around 95,000 people.
The overall rate of population decline grew about 4x from Q1 2020 to Q4 2021, during the peak of the Covid pandemic. The city was hardest hit, netting a loss of more than 225,000 people at around $82,000 per head — that’s ~$18.5 billion in lost income on the balance at the end of 2021.
In 2022 though, the entire New York area, city included, has returned to its pre Covid state: slow population decline. Does this mean things are ‘back to normal,’ or is this just the quiet eye of the storm for human migration from the Big Apple?
We’ll try to answer those questions by exploring the available data with a look at each county, and wind up with a spotlight on New York County and the city proper, including a closer look at one of the Big Apple’s most prestigious zip codes: Tribeca.
New York Counties population change during Covid era
The least populated of the New York area counties, Richmond County and Staten Island, are nonetheless important feeder communities to New York City, and they are not doing very well. Total population loss from the start of 2019 through the end of 2022 sits at minus 8,874, at around $79,000 per person, for a total area income loss of about $700 million.
More distressing — and this is a common theme in many urban environments in the U.S. today — new migrants to Richmond County are earning about $16,500, or 20%, less than the average Richmond citizen of 2019, so they are ill prepared to absorb cost of living increases, including rent and food.
The Bronx is getting less densely populated but much more affluent. After losing about 14,000 people in 2019, the Bronx’ rate of decline accelerated by ~40% during the peak of Covid. In 2022, that bounced back to within 7% of the 2019 figure, an indication of a return to more normal rates of population decline. What’s abnormal is the incoming migrants to the Bronx in the same period, and the pronounced impact their collective income is having.
Prior to the onset of Covid, the median income for Bronx County was a little more than $38,000. As of this writing, the average median income for new migrants to the Bronx is more than $70,000 — a whopping 84% more. No surprise, many of the people that moved to the Bronx between 2020 and 2022 were from neighboring boroughs, where the average median income is uniformly higher.
Given this inflow of income to the area, the Bronx is, on the balance sheet, approaching breakeven on Covid era income loss. If the average median income continues to improve at the current rate through 2023, the Bronx will be the first New York area county to emerge stronger than before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic.
The rate of population decline in Queens has remained pretty steady before, during, and in the wake of Covid. 20,773 people left the Bronx in 2019; that spiked to 78,186 between 2020 and 2021 — an increased outflow of about 90%. In 2022, net migration flow in Queens dropped back within 10% of pre Covid levels. This pattern is consistent with the rest of the New York area and indeed many urban metropolises.
Like the Bronx, Queens is getting wealthier, though not at the same rate. Average median income of newcomers to Queens in the Covid era was a little less than $70,000. That’s about 7% more compared to an average of $65,000 for people who already lived in the area. While this is not a huge jump, as in the Bronx, it is high enough to merit increases in rent, lease rates, and the prices charged by local businesses.
Kings County lost about 24,000 people in 2019, nearly 5x that over 2020 and 2021, and fell back to within about 8% of 2019 levels again in 2022, when net population flow was about minus 27,000. Many new migrants to the area during the Covid era have been New York City transplants, perhaps seeking fewer crowds and a lower cost of living. In any case, they brought their income with them.
The average median income of Covid era migrants to Kings County is about $12,500 (22%) more than that of the average resident in the same period. While this relative affluence is notable, it’s not the most striking demographic characteristic of newcomers. In short, Kings is aging, and the area may change as a result.
At an average of 38 years, Kings is now the oldest county in New York. That indicates fewer singles, more couples , more young families, and ultimately more retirees. These demographics have different requirements for accommodations, amenities, and services than most of the citizens of Kings that pre-date them. That portends significant shifts in the nature of real estate development, and will certainly inform retail site selection strategy in Kings for many brands.
New York County
No, New York is not growing in 2023. There has been some recovery since the peak of Covid, but that recovery only goes so far as to climb back to 2019 levels of population loss. The bottom of the NYC market dropped out beginning in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic.
Things stayed ugly until April of 2021 when there was some glimmer of hope as population flow turned almost flat. But that was short-lived: regular trends resumed by mid 2021 and the slow trickle of decline noted in 2019 settled in again in 2022, when the county lost a little fewer than 35,000 people — right in line with 2019’s figure.
New York County population change 2019 to 2022
While New York County on the whole has seen a drop in average median income of new migrants — about $16,000 per year, or 19% less — that’s not really indicative of what is happening in many of the cities’ tonier areas. To illustrate this point, let’s zoom in on one of the most affluent neighborhoods in New York, and indeed all of the United States: Tribeca.
Spotlight: Tribeca | 10007
From a population flow standpoint, Tribeca has weathered Covid pretty well. After recording slight gains in 2019, total population here fell by a little more than 1,000 or ~14% over 2020 and 2021. Tribeca regained its pre Covid form again in 2022, adding back about 500 more people to the population, leaving the community down about 500 people, or 7%, over the whole of the Covid era.
The problem is that the new migrants backfilling Tribeca’s population earn on average less than a third of what longer term residents of the neighborhood do ($72,278 vs. $246,813). That is an enormous income disparity to develop in just a few short years and a very worrying sign for the future of real estate markets in Tribeca, where a one-bedroom apartment rents for $4,000 per month, nearly 20% more than the already high NYC average.
It’s difficult to see Tribeca making a full comeback unless people with money suddenly again decide that a vertical, city-bound lifestyle is preferable to the sunny climes of Miami or Los Angeles, and that does not seem likely. The more probable scenario is that Tribeca continues to slowly grow in the long term, but that average income here will continue to drop, portending significant changes in the neighborhood.
Let’s be clear. Tribeca 10007 is not the only NYC zip code dealing with this set of circumstances. There are similar indicators hidden in human migration data for the Upper West Side, Lower East Side, and other iconic NY neighborhoods. The recurring trend is the demographics of a newer, younger population of decreasing economic means entering the market.
United States Migration Patterns in 2023
In reflection upon the data we have examined, it is clear that the Covid era has had a meaningful impact on the nature of human migration in the United States. The narrative around urban exodus has proven generally factual — America’s largest cities are mostly depleting. At the same time, one can not miss the obvious exceptions to the rule.
Some of Covid’s initial escape destinations have proven temporary. Others seem to have been set on a whole new trajectory as a result of the pandemic. Certainly, future growth seems predictable in the Carolinas and elsewhere, as does future decay in Las Vegas and Atlanta. The party seems over in Boise, and things are strangely cooling in Phoenix and Arizona.
Yes, Austin is shrinking after three straight years of impressive growth. No, New York is not growing again, in fact, it hasn’t for some time. The boroughs are changing, perhaps for the better. The city is changing, too. How that goes remains to be seen.
What’s clear from our analysis is that America has been changed by Covid, and is still changing. What is also clear is that there are early winners and losers — states, counties and cities that have gained or lost both people and economic power because of Covid.
Covid has made whole industries and individual persons reexamine commitments to place, productivity, happiness, and how they all fit together. As this new definition of the American dream crystallizes, the country’s landscape will evolve, and her people’s use of it will dictate the rest.