Pandemic moving study: How remote work spurred moves out of big cities

Joe Supan

May 27, 2021 — 10 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated many patterns that demographers have tracked for years, but the ability to work remotely introduced some new trends.

man carrying box with mask on

Seemingly overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic launched millions of Americans into a massive work-from-home experiment, with roughly 7 in 10 workers who could work remotely doing so in May 2020. 

But from a bird’s eye view, the way Americans moved in 2020 looks pretty much the same as it has for years. More people moved out of the biggest cities than moved in, while smaller cities and suburbs grew — especially in Arizona, Florida and Texas.

The number of people who moved increased a bit — about 1.4% more than in 2019 — but that’s still one of the lowest figures we’ve ever seen. Until the late 1960s, about one-fifth of Americans moved every year, compared to 9.3% before the pandemic. 

But zoom in and you’ll start to see the pandemic’s impact. Movers who were mostly young, affluent and highly educated left the densest neighborhoods in the biggest cities in dramatic numbers and increasingly went to smaller cities and suburbs where they’d be close enough to return to the office if needed. 

“These are areas that are outside the urban core, but within an hour or two drive from the area,” said Eric Willett, the research director at CBRE, a commercial real estate services firm that also analyzed USPS data for its clients. “People have a desire to stay within the economic and social orbit of where they started, but maybe are moving for more affordability or more space.”

Our methodology

The MyMove data team analyzed over 70 million United States Postal Service change-of-address requests from 2019 and 2020 to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on moving trends. USPS processes these requests from people looking to have their mail forwarded to a new address. While you can file these requests for businesses, we only used data from residential requests.

We partnered with MyMove to analyze over 70 million United States Postal Service change-of-address requests from 2019 and 2020 to evaluate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on moving trends. USPS processes these requests from people looking to have their mail forwarded to a new address. While you can file these requests for businesses, we only used data from residential requests. In addition to these change-of-address requests, the Allconnect team analyzed internal data from speed tests performed on our site.

Movers left big cities in large numbers

By and large, the biggest cities in the country were the ones that people left in droves in 2020. Some of that is due to their larger size — higher populations mean more people available to move — but many also had the highest proportion of people leaving vs. coming in.

In New York City last year, 183K more people moved out than moved in — a massive increase from its 34K net loss in 2019. That was the most dramatic exodus in the country, but the story was largely the same for almost every big city in the U.S. 

The 10 cities that lost the most movers in 2020 all lost more than they did the year before. Brooklyn’s net departures increased by 55.7K, San Francisco’s by 38.9K and Chicago’s by 32.5K.

In these cities, people leaving drove the huge swings, rather than moves to them slowing down. Except for Chicago, all of the cities that saw the most net losses had more people moving to them than the year before. It was people moving out of the city that brought their total numbers down.

While the pandemic kicked these trends into overdrive, they follow the same trajectory that our cities have been on for the past decade. Moves to large, expensive cities have slowed down, while suburbs and mid-sized cities have become more popular. 

As Brookings Institute demographer William Frey noted, “The nation’s three biggest metropolises — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — began the decade with positive growth rates that turned negative over the past several years. In fact, seven of the 11 largest metropolitan areas — including Washington D.C., Miami, Philadelphia, and Boston — registered their highest growth rates of the decade in either 2010 to 2011 or 2011 to 2012.” 

Starting with the 2008 financial crisis, there had been a trend of people moving to cities’ downtowns, with an explosion of high-rise buildings to house them. There was a return to the urban cores of cities, reversing a decades-long trend. 

“That was something that the pandemic pressed pause on,” Willett told us. “People didn’t want to live in a studio apartment when they had to work from home. People didn’t want to live in downtown L.A. when all the restaurants and bars were closed.” 

That exodus from the most crowded neighborhoods was felt almost immediately. According to researchers from Stanford, the top 10% of ZIP codes by population density — think downtowns in big cities — saw a 10% drop in rental prices from the beginning of the pandemic to the end of 2020.

Does that mean American cities are getting smaller?

While these numbers make it look like the populations of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are dwindling fast, they only show the number of Americans moving to and from the cities. When you factor in immigrants from other countries and new children being born, almost all of them are flat or growing in total population.

Movers went from large cities to smaller cities and towns 

Around half of the people who left those cities relocated to smaller cities, towns and rural areas — a major increase from previous years. Before the pandemic, these movers were much more likely to move from one big, expensive city to another. 

A separate analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland used address changes recorded in credit reports to study how people were moving. It found that moves from high-cost cities like New York and San Francisco to smaller cities, towns and rural areas increased by about 10% from the years before, not including people who relocated to the suburbs. Add to that the fact that moves to those cities were down 8-9%, and it’s not hard to see how those places had such large net losses. 

Most movers stayed in nearby suburbs

The majority of people who left those dense urban neighborhoods didn’t go far. In 2020, 59% of movers in the United States stayed in the same county — slightly down from the 62% the year before. 

“You’re much more likely to move down the street than you are across the U.S.,” Willett told us. “That’s just a truism of sorts in demographics.”

“Down the street” this year turned out to be mostly towards the outer edges of cities — something demographers call the doughnut effect. In other words, people looking for more space flocked to the suburbs. 

A recent report by Redfin found that the median home price in the U.S. grew to $335,519 in November — 14% higher than the previous year and the biggest annual gain since 2013. 35% of homes sold for more than the asking price, and homes stayed on the market for just 27 days, a record low since the beginning of Redfin’s data in 2012. 

Suburbs were the main driver of these eye-popping numbers. “Housing inventory dropped everywhere, but particularly strongly in the suburbs,” said Yichen Su, a researcher for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas who has studied the effects of the pandemic on the housing market. “Housing demand for suburban housing increased by much more than that for central city housing in the wake of COVID.”

This demand isn’t surprising to anyone who works in real estate or construction. 2020 saw more new homes built than any year since 2007. 

“Our business doubled during the pandemic,” said Thomas Jepsen, CEO of the homebuilding platform Passion Plans. “Every architect we’ve spoken to mirrors what we’ve been seeing. People have been investing in housing at an unprecedented rate.”

Many also ventured out further than usual

While most movers stayed close, not everyone stopped there. 2020 saw a sharp increase in middle-distance moves between 50 and 500 miles — especially when leaving the densest cities.

There does seem to be a phenomenon of migrants being more likely during the pandemic than they were in previous years to leave the metro area but remain close enough to possibly drive back to a place of employment a few times each month or quarter.

Stephan D. Whitaker

According to the Cleveland Fed analysis, moves over 150 miles increased by 13.9% in San Francisco and 10.2% in New York. 

Arizona, Florida and Texas gained the most movers

All those movers had to go somewhere, and for the most part, they relocated to the same places that have been growing for years: small and mid-sized cities in the Sun Belt. Of the top 20 cities with the largest net gains in 2020, 11 are in Florida, four are in Texas and three are in Arizona. 

We’ve been seeing move-ins to the Sun Belt for decades. In the pandemic, we saw those move-ins accelerate.

Eric Willett

If there was any doubt that these migration trends didn’t happen overnight, the U.S. Census Bureau recently released its once-in-a-decade reapportionment results that determine how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House for the next decade. Texas gained the most seats with 38 and Florida came in second with 28. On the other end, California lost 52 seats and New York lost 26. 

Remote work was a reason for moves, but far from the only one

There’s no single reason that explains why people moved where they did during the pandemic — those 36 million people all had individual and complex motivations for uprooting their lives — but remote work was clearly a factor for many people. 

Unlike moving patterns, which followed roughly the same trajectory they’d been on for decades, the work-from-home boom was directly caused by the pandemic. A decade ago, the Census Bureau reported that the number of people working from home full-time was around 7%. By May 2020, 35.2% of the workforce worked entirely from home, up from 8.2% in February.

According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, roughly 37% of jobs in the U.S. could be done remotely. But these jobs aren’t spread out equally. More than 45% of jobs in San Francisco, Austin and Washington, D.C. could be done at home, where this is the case for 30% or less of jobs in Fort Myers, Grand Rapids and Las Vegas.

The paradox of remote work is that college graduates have been moving into big cities with high housing prices during the last two decades to take jobs that in principle could be done remotely. But large numbers of people in finance, software, and consulting only started working remotely because the pandemic forced it upon them.

Jonathan Dingel

There’s some overlap between the cities with a high percentage of jobs that could be done remotely and the ones that people moved away from — San Francisco and Washington made both top 10s — but not as much as you might expect. The reason might be that they simply never left the metro area at all, instead choosing to move to different neighborhoods or nearby suburbs.

A survey from Apartment List found that remote workers were twice as likely as on-site workers to move locally in the past year, but both groups were equally likely to move to a new city. That said, 16% of remote workers said they planned to move to a new city in the next year, compared to 11% of on-site workers. In other words, we still probably don’t have a complete picture of remote work’s effects on moving trends.

Suburbs that gained movers have faster internet speeds

While most people who moved probably didn’t do it based on internet speeds, the suburbs that picked up the most movers were almost always better suited for remote work than the metro areas they surround. Using data collected from hundreds of thousands of speed tests performed on Allconnect, we found that average download speeds in the outer suburbs exceeded those in almost every major city. 

In New York, for example, download speeds in Manhattan averaged 68 Mbps. Just 15 miles north in New Rochelle, that number spikes to 129 Mbps. In San Francisco, most people get around 112 Mbps; across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, the average is 170 Mbps. 

Poor internet access makes remote work impossible for much of the country

Just as there are have and have-nots when it comes to cities with remote work jobs, there are also large areas of the country where the internet that’s available isn’t fast enough to support working from home. 

While Zoom only recommends 2 Mbps download and upload speed, the real number is probably significantly higher. Researchers at San Francisco State University found that “speeds below 5 Mbps are not adequate for two-way interaction” on Zoom, and suggest at least 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps — just below the FCC’s definition of minimum broadband speed. Of course, those speeds need to go up even higher if multiple devices are using the internet at once.  

At the same time as work-from-home policies swept the country last March, Microsoft released internal data that showed that more than 157 million Americans weren’t using the internet at those minimum broadband speeds — 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload — and 43 million didn’t even have access to broadband.

According to these numbers, half of the country would have a hard time working remotely. Stanford economist Richard Bloom refers to this WFH economy as an “inequality time bomb.”

In a survey of U.S. workers, he found that roughly one-third of respondents didn’t have an internet connection that supported remote work.

Those unable to work from home — either because of the nature of their jobs or because they lack suitable space or internet connections — are being left behind.

Richard Bloom

That said, there have been significant strides made over the last year in closing the digital divide. While access is still an issue in many rural areas, about twice as many people say cost is the main reason they don’t have a broadband subscription. To address that, the FCC has launched a $50/mo. subsidy for low-income households called the Emergency Broadband Benefit

But it’s a temporary program, and when the $3.2 billion fund runs out, millions of people will have to choose between an internet bill they can’t afford or going without broadband at all.

More people moved for financial, family and health reasons

It can be hard to pinpoint exactly why people moved, but most of the evidence says that the ability to work remotely was pretty far down the list. A Pew Research Center survey from November shows that only 1% of respondents said the ability to work from home was the main reason they moved. Most people moved for financial reasons, to be closer to family or because the COVID risk was greater where they were living. 

These results were mirrored in a recent study of interstate moves during the pandemic, which found that jobs and family were the top reasons for moving. But this changes with income: 75% of respondents who cited the ability to work remotely as a reason for moving earned over $100K per year, despite representing only 43% of the movers they surveyed. 

What’s next?

It’s unclear which of these trends will have staying power, but most of the economists and demographers we spoke to expect there to be a return to the migration trajectory we’d been on before the pandemic. 

Remote work will almost certainly stick around in a significant way. A PwC survey from June found that 83% of U.S. office workers would like to work from home at least once a week after the pandemic, and 55% of employers will make that an option. Companies like Salesforce, Twitter and Nationwide have all said they’ll offer remote flexibility going forward, but it’s still unclear what the lasting impacts will be.  

“Whether that temporary forced experiment translates into more long-run adoption of remote work depends on what employers and employees learned during the crisis,” Dingel, the University of Chicago economist told us. Remote work tools and practices won’t evaporate overnight, but because remote work was so uncommon before the pandemic, it’s hard to predict where the numbers will settle. 

Regardless of how many employees will be returning to the office, the moves they made over the past year won’t reverse any time soon — especially since they pretty much followed the same routes that demographers have tracked for a decade.    

“Demographic shifts generally are very durable,” said Willett. “There’s going to be a hangover, but I don’t think it is going to change the long-term trajectory in a meaningful way.”

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Joe Supan

Written by:

Joe Supan

Principal Writer, Broadband Content

Joe is a senior writer for CNET covering home technology and broadband. Prior to joining CNET, Joe led MYMOVE’s moving coverage and reported on broadband policy, the digital divide, and privacy issues for the br… Read more

Robin Layton

Edited by:

Robin Layton

Editor, Broadband Content

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