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Post-Pandemic Migration Habits: Where Do People Want To Live?

a group of people stand in the shape of the United States

Whether we move a couple of streets over to a larger house or across the country for a new job opportunity, the patterns of human migration can tell us a lot about where Americans want to live, where they’re priced out of, where opportunities lie, and what is to come in the future.

Disruptive cultural events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, can change a lot, including the direction of existing trends. As we analyze the patterns of our recent past, some begin to wonder — did the pandemic alter the course of American domestic migration? With the Comprehensive Plan process underway, now is the time to understand citizens’ living preferences to create a stronger foundation for Bellingham’s future generations.

In this article, we look at national and local data to see if people are more likely to live in urban centers or rural areas, and what — if anything — this data tells us about how to prepare our communities to thrive in the decades ahead.

A Brief Look at American Domestic Migration

The U.S. Census Bureau has collected information on migrations since the 1940s. The nearly century’s worth of data that exists on patterns of American movement may surprise you. Migration, both local and long-distance (think further than within your own county or city), is at a historic low. Demographer William H. Frey breaks down the history of migration data in an article in Brookings:

“The drop in U.S. migration from 9.2% in 2019-20 to 8.4% in 2020-21 should be looked at in the context of a fairly consistent decline since the late 1940s to 1960s, when approximately one-fifth of Americans changed residence annually. This was a period of economic growth and robust housing consumption, with a younger population than today. Afterward began a gradual but sustained downturn in migration due to a variety of demographic and economic forces, including the rise of dual-earner households (making them less footloose), an aging population, and more homogenous labor markets emerging across the country. By the late 1990s, only about 15% to 16% of the population moved each year, dropping to 13% to 14% in the early 2000s.”

Before the Industrial Revolution, people tended to live in smaller towns and rural areas. Once job opportunities began to concentrate in urban centers, so did humans. Now it’s expected that by 2050, more than 70% of the world’s 9 billion people will live in cities.

We’re no longer hunters and gatherers, so it makes sense that it’s not necessary for our survival to spread out across larger spaces — and it’s undeniable that cities come with significant economic mobility, conveniences, and more. However, the so-called “American Dream” typically features a single-family home with a white picket fence, and anecdotal stories in the media highlight people moving to rural areas or small towns. So, where is the truth?

What, if Anything, Changed with Migration Patterns Post Pandemic?

Data clearly shows us that in the years leading up to the pandemic, migration was at its lowest since the 1940s (8.4% from March 2020 to March 2021). In general, however, reports around domestic migration before, during, and after the pandemic are much less clear.

According to the New York Times, findings indicate that the pandemic did result in a flow of residents leaving super cities like New York and San Francisco. The article continues:

“But about 30 million change-of-address requests to the U.S. Postal Service in 2020 show that with these two very visible exceptions — and a few smaller ones — migration patterns during the pandemic have looked a lot like migration patterns before it. Some smaller regional metro areas and vacation hubs benefited. But in general, areas that were already attracting new residents kept attracting them. Those that were losing migrants lost more. And there are few examples, at least in the data so far, of previously down-and-out regions drawing people in.”

While there has been a lot of buzz and hypotheses in recent years about an urban exodus, there are some key nuances to whether or not this buzz is true. An article in The Hill summarizes findings from the Economic Innovation Group: “more than 1.2 million people left the nation’s large urban counties between July 2020 and July 2021.” The article goes on to state that, “another 860,000 people departed between July 2021 and July 2022,” and a rise in immigration prevented a massive drop in city’s populations.

However, as Census data released earlier this year found, the trend of people leaving coastal cities in massive numbers isn’t necessarily holding. Earlier this year, another piece in The New York Times explored this exodus from coastal cities, and found that a lot what drives people away is affordability — and a quote in the article does an excellent job of summarizing what makes migration data seemingly so contradictory:

“For every move that anecdotally points to these trends — and the pandemic produced many such anecdotes — it’s trickier to capture these patterns nationwide. The census doesn’t publicly track moves between metro areas by demographic cohorts.”

Yet another article, this one from Bloomberg, called the urban exodus “overblown,” and asserted that the question of the pandemic’s impact on cities should be more in line with  “where we work” versus “where we live.”

While the move to remote work damaged some cities' business centers, ultimately, many remote workers still prefer the conveniences of cities large and small. The Bloomberg article goes on to state that the pandemic’s most significant geographic change is an unfortunate one: “But the biggest shift of all was one that few predicted: There has been a massive spike in housing prices and rents, a metastasizing problem of housing affordability that is plaguing communities of all shapes and sizes — big cities, small cities, established cities, upcoming cities, suburbs, and rural areas.”

One migration trend is specific to millennials, a generation that, by and large, seemed more prone to moving to urban centers and remaining there. However, the pandemic drove some millennials out of cities to the suburbs in search of more space. In many instances, the matter of where exactly they moved, the suburbs or the further-out exurbs, was determined largely by price instead of factors like education, an important consideration of past generations’ decisions to leave the city.

Millennials prefer cities because of their walkability, their “buzzy-ness” with coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. According to an article in Business Insider, “an analysis published last year found that homebuyers in the 35 biggest American metropolitan areas paid 34% more to live in walkable neighborhoods, while renters paid 41% more.” But for those that moved to the suburbs or exurbs and found themselves unhappy, they might not have a choice but to stay … at least until mortgage rates come down.

The Business Insider article mentions another group, Black families, that have been leaving cities due to high prices: “It's part of a broader trend, dubbed a "New Great Migration," of Black families leaving expensive northern cities for the suburbs and for the South, where the cost of living is lower.”

Migration in Washington; Accounting for Future Growth

Certainly, we feel the housing affordability crisis here in Washington as acutely as anywhere in the country. What about the rest of the migration patterns? How do we compare? In general, Washington’s net migration rate was -0.12% from 2021 and 2022, meaning our state lost 9,430 people to domestic migration. Seattle, for instance, has not returned to pre-pandemic migration levels, and economist Stephan Whitaker guesses that part of the reason might be because Seattle is close to smaller cities, like Bellingham.

Despite the losses resulting from domestic migration, Washington’s population grew to nearly 7.9 million people as of April 2023. According to the Washington Office of Financial Management, “Migration continues to be the primary driver behind Washington’s population growth. From 2022 to 2023, net migration (people moving in minus people moving out) totaled 72,300, down by 11,300 from last year. Net migration accounted for 83% of the state’s population growth.” Whatcom is the fastest growing county, and Bellingham is in the top five of fastest growing cities.

The big question is — is housing supply keeping up with this growth? We’re in the midst of a housing crisis, and unless we plan for an increase in population, the crisis will only continue to get worse. More than one million people are expected to migrate to our state in the next 20 years, the same window of time that the Comprehensive Plan is meant to account for. We can’t ignore the statistics — people are coming and we need to have the homes, parks, schools, and other supporting infrastructure to accommodate them.

It’s the City’s job to work for its people. If we plan for a city that does not match the needs of our residents, not only will Bellingham fail to thrive, but we will also waste a significant amount of resources, losing potential tax revenue. National migration patterns may be confusing, but local statistics are quite clear. People want to live in Bellingham — but due to geographic constraints, Bellingham currently has only so much land to support the growth. As data from across the country shows, people are torn between cities, suburbs and rural living, so it stands to reason that places that check all of the boxes, places like Bellingham, will be increasingly appealing to move to.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing-related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities.



Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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