Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
An Apartment List report reveals the cities apartment-hunters are targeting for their next move—and shows that tales of a California exodus may be overstated.
According to a growing pile of headlines, hordes of Californians are fed up with their expensive coastal dystopia-state and are fleeing for cheaper, less-flammable places like Idaho, driving up housing costs, ruining the local culture, and spurring a new building boom.
But U.S. Census Bureau data tells a more complex story: Though California outmigration leaped 38 percent in 2018, that was only 1.8 percent of the huge state’s population. The state still ranks in the bottom three for proportional departure rates. And Americans overall are moving at the slowest rate since 1947.
The factors limiting big moves are demographic (more older Americans are aging in place) and, more powerfully, economic (with unemployment low and remote work increasingly common, fewer people are finding jobs good enough to move for). Some worry that our reluctance to pull up stakes is deepening regional economic inequality.
But plenty of stuck Americans do wish they could move. And Apartment List, a rental property search engine, has opened a window into the nation’s mobility dreams, as people browse for new apartments in far-flung cities or neighboring towns. This week, the company released a new analysis of where it sees renters hoping to move, based on their search habits over the second half of 2019. Better (or comparable) jobs and more affordable living seemed to be prime motivators for making a switch.
While there’s no way to determine how many of these searchers actually followed through on the transitions they pursued through the platform, Chris Salviati, Apartment List’s housing economist and the author of the report, says that the site’s long registration process helps weed out those who aren’t as serious about finding a new apartment. Users’ origin city was pulled from their IP addresses; if they searched for properties multiple different areas, Salviati says he used the first place they started searching for. This is the second such report the company has released, and the first that takes two quarters into account—that could cut down on some of the seasonality reflected back in June.
Based on the results, California’s mass exodus appears to be overstated, says Salviati. While about 22 percent of Bay Area renters are peeking at Seattle, Denver, New York, and Austin, mostly, people based in San Francisco want to move somewhere nearby in California, like San Jose or Sacramento, which offer similar employment opportunities and lifestyles. (San Joseans want to move right back to San Francisco, for what it’s worth.)
Other Californians, too, feel Western ties. In Riverside, California, where 50 percent of outbound searches are for places out of the city, 40 percent of them are to nearby Los Angeles. Nearly 20 percent of Angeleno apartment hunters are interested in moving to Phoenix, Arizona; 12 percent are looking at Las Vegas, and another 12 percent are scoping out Riverside. “Phoenix is also a car-centric city, but lacks L.A.’s traffic issues,” the report notes. Nashville, Apartment List’s “most changed” metro of the decade, keeps 71.6 percent of its renters searching within the city, but of the remainder, Los Angeles tops their wish list.
People in Boston seem to be similarly wedded to the New England area—two-thirds of Boston searches focus on the Boston; most of the remaining third are considering three slightly more affordable cities nearby; Providence, Rhode Island; Hartford, Connecticut; and Manchester, New Hampshire.
It’s a similar story in Washington, D.C.: Of the 38 percent of users who are interested in moving outside the increasingly unaffordable D.C. metro—where median incomes for families of four are $40,000 less than the salaries the Economic Policy Institute estimates will allow you to live comfortably—about 15 percent are hunting in nearby Baltimore, Maryland, which is in commuter range. Another 15 percent are looking at Philadelphia.
“What you’re seeing is really people who are moving from D.C. to find more affordable housing and probably, in the vast majority of those cases, maintaining their jobs in D.C.,” said Salviati.
There are a few cities that appear to be luring long-distance migrations. Among the top 25 largest cities, Denver, with its snowcapped mountains and tech jobs, tops the list of cities drawing far-flung inquiries: Almost half of the people looking at Denver apartments were from outside the metro area. (Between this report and the last, Denver overtook Tampa as number one.) D.C. people are the most interested in heading to Denver, a phenomenon for which techlash could be blamed, Salviati posited: “Over the past year or two, the tech industry has been subject to a lot more scrutiny generally. It might be the case that early-stage tech companies are trying to get a little bit of a jump on that by being more interested in hiring folks that have policy background.”
Ringing in second for most out-of-metro interest is Baltimore, thanks to its D.C. neighbors; third is San Diego, thanks to Riverside, L.A., and San Francisco.
On the other end of the spectrum stands Detroit: Despite the Motor City comeback hype, the Michigan city ranks dead last for share of people looking to move there from outside the metro, and it has the third-highest share looking to leave. Tourism-heavy Orlando, Florida, ties Riverside for first in renters trying to escape. But they, too, aren’t looking to make major cross-country moves, instead drawn to other economies in the Southeast; meanwhile, they’re still drawing 34 percent of their search traffic from out of the city.
As CityLab’s Laura Bliss noted in her coverage of the previous Apartment List report, this portrait of American wanderlust doesn’t necessarily line up with actual urban growth patterns, and the data reflects only the users of a single apartment-hunting website—a group that’s younger, more affluent, and more female than the overall population. Still, the report seems to confirm one overarching narrative about the state of American mobility: Most of those who yearn to move are not looking to get very far.