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According to the Census Bureau, the United States’ annual mover rate (the percentage of people who change residence each year) had been declining since the mid-1980s, and reached its lowest point just before the COVID-19 pandemic.1 This trend may have continued if not for the sudden and rapid adoption of remote work. Remote work was gaining popularity before COVID,2 but the pandemic accelerated the trend. Our latest research shows that even after the pandemic subsides, the economy will contain significantly more remote jobs than ever before. And this newfound flexibility is getting people moving again.
To understand these new dynamics, we analyze data from Apartment List’s recent remote work survey,3 in which we asked full-time workers about changes to their working and living arrangements since the start of the pandemic. We contextualize the results by comparing them to analogous census data from years prior. We find a major spike in residential migration during the 12 months since April 2020, particularly among higher-income workers4 who have historically been least likely to move but now (thanks to the remote work revolution) are moving in droves.
- The latest national mover rate (9.3 percent) is among all people aged 1+. Our charts in this report show higher mover rates because we restrict the census data to full-time workers aged 18+, to be consistent with the population in our April 2021 Remote Work Survey.↩
- The United States' telecommuter population increased 76% from 2005-2017. Source: Traffic, Trains, or Teleconference? The Changing American Commute↩
- Our survey was conducted from April 9-10, 2021 and administered in collaboration with SurveyMonkey. We collected responses from over 5,000 Americans who are currently employed full-time, and our sample is representative of the U.S. population along the dimensions of gender and age.↩
- The spike in residential migration is strongest among workers who live in households that earn over $100,000 annually.↩
- In a survey of 5,000 employed adults across the U.S., we found that four-in-ten workers expect to have some form of continued remote work flexibility post-pandemic. 19 percent expect to have a hybrid arrangement that allows for remote work multiple days per week, while 21 percent expect that they’ll have the ability to work exclusively remotely.
- Remote work is already spurring increased moving activity. 19 percent of remote workers moved over the past 12 months, compared to 13 percent of workers whose jobs require them to be on-site. However, most of these additional moves were local -- remote and on-site workers were equally likely to move to a new city or a new metro.
- Looking forward, 42 percent of remote workers say that they’re planning to move over the next 12 months, compared to 26 percent on-site workers. Remote workers are more likely to be planning local moves as well as moves to a new city.
- 35 percent of remote workers who are planning an upcoming move say that they plan to relocate to a more affordable market, more than double the rate for on-site workers, indicating that we may see an outflow of remote workers from the nation’s most expensive housing markets going forward. This finding also highlights the important equity implications of remote work -- on-site jobs are lower paid, on average, but on-site workers have less flexibility to relocate in search of more affordable housing.
- Overall, remote workers told us that the most important factors in their decision of where to live over the next several years are “access to a housing market where I can afford homeownership” and “access to natural amenities.”
- Our survey data also validates our earlier hypothesis that “untethered workers” -- remote workers who are also not tied down by homeownership or family obligations -- will represent the leading edge of remote work related migration trends. 23 percent of the untethered workers in our survey moved over the past year and 55 percent plan to move in the coming year, both well above the shares for remote workers overall.
One year ago, the outlook for American cities was bleak. The nation’s first major COVID-19 outbreak was coursing through New York City, raising valid concerns about the relationship between disease and density. Anecdotes emerged of New Yorkers taking advantage of newfound remote work flexibility to relocate to other parts of the country to hopefully wait out the worst of the pandemic. Understandably, many predicted a broader “urban exodus” would unfold and drastically alter the future viability of American cities.
In the months that followed, there has been some disagreement over the extent to which this urban exodus materialized. Certainly many households did move this year,1 and dramatic changes in vacancies and rent prices signal that some suburban areas got more popular while some urban ones became less desirable. But there’s an important byproduct to consider for each family that relocated from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe last summer. Those families created vacancies in San Francisco, something that otherwise takes a lot of time (and money) if done by building new construction.
Those vacancies presented opportunities to new renters, and they are the reason the pandemic will not mark the end of this chapter of urbanization. When urban vacancies pile up the markets respond accordingly with lower prices, which in turn generate interest among newcomers who previously may have been priced out. 2020 was less a story about urban exodus and more a story of urban churn, whereby the people who left cities will be quickly replaced by the next generation of newcomers. Search data from the Apartment List platform show this happening: as cities lost residents they gained the attention of new prospective renters that will sustain them going forward.
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