Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Many megaregions would be in Rust Belt mode if they weren’t buoyed by an influx of international job-seekers, Census numbers show. What happens if those people stop coming?
The big headline that came out of Thursday’s Census release: Chicago is shedding population. In 2016, an estimated 22,000 souls left the blustery shores of Lake Michigan* (and its surrounding 14 counties). They seemed to be bound for warmer climes. In continuing with a dominant post-recession migration trend, the Sunbelt picked up new residents at breakneck speed, with Phoenix and Orlando making some of the biggest gains.
But as sharp eyes in the Twitter-sphere noticed, the numbers also reveal another trend: Growth in America’s megaregions slowed significantly. Nine out of ten of the country’s largest combined statistical areas—the largest unit by which you might judge an anchor city’s orb—came in well short of the population gains they’ve averaged since 2010. Most dramatically, the New York City-Newark CSA gained roughly one third of the number of new residents that it averaged, annually, between 2010 and 2016. The chart below reveals that stumble. Washington, D.C.’s CSA also registered a serious slowdown, as did the San Jose/San Francisco area. Only the Dallas-Fort Worth region outpaced its average gains, netting close to 150,000 people in 2016.
What explains the slowdown? Denizens are leaving in higher numbers than in the past. New York-Newark lost 223,000 people in 2016, compared to an average of 158,000 between 2010 and 2015. Los Angeles-Long Beach lost 76,000, compared to an average of 50,000 in past years. Only a handful of CSAs have averaged gains in domestic migration (that is, folks coming in from other parts of the U.S.) over the past several years: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston-Woodlands, Miami-Fort Lauderdale, and San Jose-San Francisco. Of those, only Dallas-Fort Worth outpaced its average. The Miami and SJ/SF regions registered net migration losses in 2016—seriously behind, in the Bay Area’s case.
These dips in urban migration could be a blip. But in some of these cities, these numbers are consistent with smaller-level trends we’ve heard about already. We know, for example, that even as Silicon Valley continues to add jobs, it is losing people due to the incredible shortage of affordable housing. Workers are living further and further from their offices, putting a stranglehold on traffic and straining transit systems. It is astonishing to imagine that, at at the much-larger CSA level—which, in this case, includes San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland—the same pattern may hold. Folks are not simply moving out to the suburbs. Some may be moving way, way out out of even the widest bounds you’d normally ascribe to the area.
Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning, the director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation, and expert on all things New York, believes that this dynamic is playing across the New York City CSA, based on his research about super-commuting. Largely because of New York City’s housing crunch, “our population is not growing at the level that our jobs are,” he says. “So you see a growth of people traveling into work at much longer distances, from eastern Pennsylvania, and further out in Connecticut.” The rise of telecommuting also probably contributes, he says.
It’s hard to tease out the influence of local housing markets from these numbers, since they reflect such a wide swath of urban space. New York’s CSA, for example, includes Newark, New Jersey, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, two distressed cities that have been hemorrhaging residents for decades—and not for lack of affordable housing. The new Census estimates don’t include city-level numbers.
But MSA counts (the slightly smaller unit to gauge city populations) show very similar trends. Moreover, looking more closely at the five counties that make up housing-crunched New York City, every borough registers a serious slowdown in growth, thanks to major increases in out-migration. For example, Kings County, New York—also known as Brooklyn—netted just over 4,000 new residents last year, compared to 12,000 in 2015. That was largely because more than 43,000 people migrated out of the borough in 2016, compared to an annual out-migration of 25,000 in previous years. Manhattan lost more than 21,000 last year, compared to a recent average of 16,000.
Yet with the exception of Chicago, all of the major CSAs are still growing. The flight of residents to the exurbs and to warmer states has not thrown these metros into Rust Belt mode yet. What keeps them afloat? A steady influx of immigrants from other countries. Indeed, New York City continues to be the magnet for international job-seekers, as the chart above shows. The new president’s efforts to ban immigration from certain countries suggests that it, and other major CSAs, could lose a critical source of demographic energy in the future. If the Statue of Liberty is forced out of a job, those cities could shift into a state of a Chicago-like decline.
*A previous version of this article misnamed this lake.