Ko Im always thought she would live in New York forever. She knew every corner of Manhattan and had worked hard to build a community of friends. Living in a small apartment, she found her attitude changed when the coronavirus pandemic began. After her brother accepted a job in Seattle in the summer of 2020, she decided to move there as well.
“It was okay until it wasn’t,” Im, 36, said of her time in New York. “The pandemic has really changed my attitude towards how I wanted or needed to live.”
Eight of the 10 largest cities in the US lost population in the first year of the pandemic, with New York, Los Angeles and Chicago leading the way. Between July 2020 and July 2021, New York lost more than 305,000 people, while Chicago and Los Angeles shrank by 45,000 and 40,000 people, respectively.
San Francisco suffered the largest rate of decline, losing nearly 55,000 residents, or 6.3% of its population, in 2020, the highest percentage of any US city.
Population estimates released Thursday by the US Census Bureau capture a time early in the pandemic and reflect no changes since last summer. Whether the virus has permanently changed America’s urban landscape remains an open question.
William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, said he believes the population decline in most of the largest US cities from 2020 to 2021 was “short-lived and pandemic-related.”
Of the 10 largest U.S. cities, only San Antonio and Phoenix have added new residents, but they each added only about 13,000 people, or less than 1% of their population, according to the bureau’s 2021 population estimates.
Justin Jordan’s move to Phoenix a year ago was motivated by a job offer that made him more money than the one in Moundsville, West Virginia, where he had lived. He had to adapt to temperatures of 43.3 degrees Celsius and unwieldy traffic.
“I love the weather, the atmosphere and all the things there are to do,” said Jordan, 33, a senior operations manager at a business services company.
The largest US cities include Austin and Fort Worth in Texas; Jacksonville, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Columbus, Ohio also saw modest population increases.
In March, the Census Bureau released estimates for metro areas and counties, showing changes from mid-2020 to mid-2021. Estimates released Thursday offer a more accurate perspective. For example, March data showed Metro Dallas had the largest population increase of any metro area in the US, adding more than 97,000 residents, but Thursday’s estimates show the city of Dallas lost nearly 15,000 residents. The growth took place in Dallas suburbs like Frisco, McKinney and Plano.
The reasons for population changes vary from city to city and are determined by housing costs, jobs, births and deaths. The pandemic and lockdown that followed in spring 2020 made life in a crowded city less appealing for a time, and those who could leave – for example workers who could do their jobs remotely – sometimes did.
Daniel Akerman, a New York real estate agent, said the Census Bureau data, which does not extend beyond July 2021, does not capture how people have returned to the city over the past year. He said real estate transactions had skyrocketed and available rental housing had fallen.
“People have definitely returned to the city. There are a lot more people on the streets,” Akerman said. “In July 2021 people were still being watched over COVID and a lot of that is gone. People are much freer. They are out and about and going to restaurants.”
When it came to growth rates, the fastest-growing cities of at least 50,000 people were in the suburbs of the booming Sunbelt metropolitan areas. These included Georgetown and Leander outside of Austin; the town of Queen Creek and the towns of Buckeye, Casa Grande and Maricopa outside of Phoenix; the town of New Braunfels, outside of San Antonio; and Fort Myers, Fla. They had growth rates between 6.1% and 10.5%.
As Metro Austin has grown by leaps and bounds, Georgetown, which is more than 25 miles north of the Texas capital, has also grown by leaps and bounds, said Keith Hutchinson, the city’s communications manager. The city grew 10.5% last year, the fastest in the country, and now has 75,000 residents.
“It’s not really a surprise,” Hutchinson said. “People move here for jobs”
The estimates also showed population declines of 3% to 3.5% in New Jersey cities outside of New York, such as Union City, Hoboken and Bayonne. There were similar declines outside of San Francisco in Daly City, Redwood City and San Mateo, and Cupertino in Silicon Valley.
Lake Charles, Louisiana, which was devastated by Hurricane Laura in 2020, lost almost 5% of its residents, the second-highest rate in the US after San Francisco.
Though the Category 4 storm was the driver there, the pandemic created opportunities to move elsewhere. Andrew Mazur, 31, had wanted to leave Philadelphia for South Florida, where he grew up, for some time, and in November 2020 he was given the opportunity to work remotely at his job at a large professional services firm. He joined nearly 25,000 residents who left Philadelphia between 2020 and 2021.
Although he now needs a car to get around, Mazur loves to play golf and go to the beach every weekend. He recently moved out of his parents’ house and into his own apartment in Fort Lauderdale. He made the move official three weeks ago by obtaining a Florida driver’s license.
“I’m not going back. It was great,” Mazur said. “Philly, New York, Chicago – tons of people move here from there.”
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Mike Schneider, The Associated Press