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Sun Belt cities boom as major cities bleed population

More than half of American cities registered a loss of population over the last year as people flocked to suburbs and exurbs in what demographers say is among the first signs that pandemic-era attitudes have shifted for good.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the real estate tracking firm Zillow show that smaller suburbs were more likely to add new population over the last year, at the expense of the big metropolitan cities they border.

The two cities that registered the fastest growth in the last year, Georgetown and Leander, Texas, are both suburbs of Austin. In both cases, their populations grew by 10 percent. New Braunfels, Texas, south of Austin and north of San Antonio, saw its population grow to 98,857, up 8.3 percent from last year.

The Phoenix suburbs of Queen Creek, Buckeye and Maricopa, Ariz., along with exurban Casa Grande, all landed among the 10 fastest-growing cities. So did North Port, Fla., between Sarasota and Fort Myers, and Spring Hill, Tenn., south of Nashville.

Boise, Idaho, added just 1,617 residents last year, but three suburbs — Meridian, Caldwell and Nampa — all saw their populations grow by more than 5 percent.

San Antonio, Phoenix, Fort Worth, Texas, and Port St. Lucie, Fla., all added more than 10,000 residents in the last year, more than any other place in the country, as Americans continue to flock to Sun Belt states. Those cities are large enough that their overall population increases did not land them on the list of fastest-growing cities.

The Census Bureau population figures show that some of the nation’s largest cities also registered the largest population declines last year. More than 305,000 people moved out of New York City, a larger total population decline than any other city. San Francisco registered the largest population decrease by percentage, dropping 6.3 percent for a decline of 54,000 people.

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

At the same time, suburban areas outside those major metropolitan cities are among the hottest housing markets in the country, according to data from Zillow.

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

Suburbs of Tampa, Fla., 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, housing prices in many close-in suburbs have been rising faster than prices in core urban areas, sad Nicole Bachaud, an economist at Zillow.

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

In total, 424 of the 795 American cities with more than 50,000 residents lost population in the last year.
Some demographers said they were unsurprised by the drop in urban populations and the shift to the suburbs.

“When Covid hit, deaths in some urban cores went up, while births diminished modestly. Thus, there was less natural increase and less immigration,” said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. “In contrast, domestic outmigration from many urban cores picked up because more people were leaving — in some cases for rural areas, or small cities — and the influx of young people to the cores likely slowed.”

Six of those 795 large cities registered 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., are now measured in six figures.

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