Moving during the COVID-19 Pandemic

One impact of COVID-19 that has been discussed at length in the popular press is moving. Remote work and other lifestyle changes brought about by the pandemic have prompted – or perhaps in some cases, forced – people to relocate. One particularly salient narrative in the popular press is that urbanites have been fleeing cities and moving to less expensive areas or vacation hotspots, often with the intent of permanently working from home.

How does our survey of over 9,000 Americans square with these reports? One finding that has been almost unanimous among researchers is that people moved a lot over the past year and a half. Most research has found that around 10% of people moved during the pandemic; with 1,104 movers in a sample of 9,409 people (11.7%), our data are consistent with those of other researchers.

However, responses to our survey don’t currently provide much evidence of the urban exodus reported by some. We categorized both the origins and destinations of movers in our sample as dense or non-dense based on a cutoff of 1,250 people per square kilometer, a break point in line with the OECD definition of “urban”. Most movers in our sample – nearly 85% – did not change categories when they moved. Moreover, those that did change categories were likely to be moving from a less dense area to more dense one. Only 13.5% of urbanites moved to less dense areas in our sample of relocators, while 18.8% of movers from non-dense areas settled in cities. In short, although a few notoriously expensive cities such as San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle may be experiencing something of an exodus, this isn’t the case for most metropolitan areas. Some large cities are even experiencing a boom in demand. Popular even before the pandemic, the Sun Belt’s major cities such as Phoenix, Austin, and Jacksonville have seen major growth over the past year and a half. Combined with emerging evidence that paints the move away from some expensive cities as merely a temporary change, it seems at the moment that cities remain a desirable place to live. This is still an open matter of inquiry, however; some people may have developed an desire to relocate out of cities during the pandemic but would prefer to wait until the housing market and general economy stabilize before doing so. People moving between Waves 1 and 2 of our survey were significantly more likely to be departing from an urban area than those who moved early in the pandemic, before the first wave of our survey was distributed. Whether there is a slower-moving urban exodus underway is an important question for the coming years.

The COVID Future survey provides a unique opportunity to dig deeper into which Americans are moving, why they are doing this, and where they are going. Using the first two waves of the COVID Future survey, we explore the following questions:

  • Why are people moving?
  • Where are people moving from, and where are they moving to?
  • What are the characteristics of people who are moving?

Why are people moving?

When respondents to our survey reported moving, we asked them to identify which reasons from a broad list had prompted them to do so. Below is a table showing how often these reasons were identified as important factors motivating a move.

ReasonPercent selecting reason
I was already planning to move41.4%
Financial reasons26.3%
Moved to a more comfortable home23.2%
I do not need to commute9.4%
Moved to care for family9.1%
I did not feel safe in my building or neighborhood due to the virus8.5%
Job change*7.1%
I did not feel safe sharing the house with others6.7%

*This option was only included in the second wave of the survey, so the percentage selecting this reason is calculated only from Wave 2 movers.

By the far the most popular reason provided was that the respondent was already planning to move. The large number of people moving during the pandemic, then, may not indicate the major life disruption that one might assume is associated with such a trend. Given that over 40% of moves experienced by our sample were already planned, COVID-19 has not necessarily induced dramatic and widespread relocation; perhaps it merely shifted some people’s timelines forward.

However, moves that were induced for specific, pandemic-related reasons were also certainly observed within our sample of respondents. Interestingly, reasons directly related avoiding the COVID-19 virus were relatively uncommon, less than 10% of respondents cited a perceived lack of safety in their home or building/neighborhood as a reason for moving. Instead, secondary implications of the pandemic such as financial strain, new preferences for home amenities, and the rising popularity of remote work were more commonly reported as the motivation for a move.

Importantly, a few key subgroups of respondents provided reasons for their moves that diverged from trends in the general population. People who moved before the Wave 1 survey were nearly twice as likely to report financial reasons as a motivator for moving than those who moved between Waves 1 and 2. This group of early movers was also far more likely to identify a lack of safety in their neighborhood or a need to care for family as reasons for their move. This may be because issues such as financial strain and disease risk were prevalent concerns right from the beginning of the pandemic. However, it was only after the pandemic was well underway that people began considering other motivators for moving such as a permanent shift to remote work.

The motivators for moving also appear to differ based on the locations that people were moving between. People from dense areas, unsurprisingly, were more likely to move because the disease risk was too high in their home, building, or neighborhood. In what may be another side of the same coin, people moving from dense areas were also less likely to report that they were already planning on moving. People from dense areas were more likely to report a job- or commute-related reason for moving.

Despite the large number of urbanites relocating for reasons related to disease risk, avoidance of the COVID-19 virus was also a motivator for moving that was disproportionately reported by those moving to dense areas. Even though some high-profile urban areas experienced severe COVID-19 outbreaks, it is overall recognized as a myth that high density areas were inherently epicenters of the pandemic; policy and other external factors played important roles in a city’s susceptibility to COVID-19. Many people may have been remaining in urban areas, yet choosing safer cities to live in. A more detailed analysis of the relationship between COVID-19 outbreaks, population density, and moving is an important topic for researchers to consider as they begin retrospective research on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Financial and commute-related reasons were also more commonly reported among those moving to urban areas.

Finally, the reasons for moving differed somewhat between those who moved within a single city and those who moved between different metro areas. Movers within a city were more likely than long-distance movers to do so for financial reasons or to be in a more comfortable home. This is expected, since a given metro area will offer a variety of housing options with different prices and amenities; there is no need to make a longer, more disruptive move for these reasons. On the other hand, people who changed jobs or needed to care for family were more likely to be moving between cities, another expected result.

Where are people moving from, and where are they moving to?

As we’ve already explored, people largely moved between environments that were similar, at least on the metric of density. However, there are also important social, political, and economic implications that would result from a widespread population shift to or from certain regions of the country.

Some, especially those arguing against the narrative of urbanites fleeing cities for rural America, have suggested that the majority of moves are taking place within a single state, often within even the same county. Our data supports this strongly at the regional level. We use a modification of the Census Bureau’s regions to separate the country into 9 geographic divisions. Across all 9, the most common destination for movers from a given region was always that same region. In fact, at least 74% of movers from each region remained in their division. The region in which the most people moved to a different part of the country was Arizona.* This may be because Arizona is a single-state region, so even a fairly short-distance move to a neighboring state would result in a region change, whereas interstate moves could occur without changing division elsewhere in the country. The region comprising all other Mountain states saw the highest percentage of movers that stayed within their division, over 95%.

*Because of the high number of Arizonans among our survey respondents, one of the modifications made to the Census Bureau’s regions was to separate out the Mountain region (originally consisting of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico) into 2 divisions: Arizona and all other Mountain states.

Despite having a high percentage of movers remain within the region, non-Arizona Mountain states also had some of the highest percentages of relocators from outside the region. This is consistent with others’ findings that the Sun Belt (including many Mountain Region states) has been a popular destination for relocation both before and during the pandemic. On the other hand, movers settling in New England were most likely to already be from that region (New England was also overall the least popular destination for movers across both survey waves). New England’s high-profile surge of COVID-19 infections early in the pandemic may have deterred moves to the Northeast states.

What are the characteristics of people who are moving?

A few key demographics separated the population of movers from the general sample, with the most prominent being age and income. Younger people had a dramatically higher likelihood of moving than older people – for instance, respondents under age 25 made up under 10% of the sample but nearly 20% of movers.

Income also displayed a relationship with likelihood of moving, although a unique one. In our sample, people making under $10,000 per year were much more likely to move than other income groups. In fact, their representation among movers was nearly twice as great as their representation in the general sample. Interestingly, though, there was not a wider negative correlation between income and likelihood of moving. Respondents from all other income brackets moved about as often as would be expected based on the sample as a whole. One explanation could be that the lowest income bracket was made up of many part-time student workers. Students are already a group that moves frequently, and the pandemic prompted many of them to return home and be with with family.

However, additional analysis reveals that this is not the case. While a higher than average percentage of respondents making under $10,000 per year were also students, other income brackets contained a similar (sometimes even slightly higher) proportion of students. Other potential explanations for the relationship between low income status and high likelihood of moving, such as disproportionate job loss, are an important topic for future inquiry.

While the most noticeable relationships with moving likelihood involve age and income, others are also important. Men are slightly more likely to move than women. Although this increased likelihood is only around 1%, a t-test shows it to be a highly significant difference. Black and Asian respondents were also more likely to move than white, American Indian, and Pacific Islander respondents. Respondents of a Hispanic ethnicity were also likely to move. Since moving may be an indicator of either well-being (i.e. moving to a luxurious home because of a permanent switch to remote work) or hardship (i.e. being forced to move because of financial struggles), the intersection between relocation, privilege, and demographics remains to be understood fully.

Looking forward

For those who have relocated, moving may have been one the most significant life changes brought about during the pandemic. Many people who moved during COVID-19 had already planned to do so, but the pandemic undoubtedly brought about some relocation. In contrast to some popular press outlets, we reject the idea that American cities are experiencing a mass exodus, although we acknowledge some instances in which urban populations are moving outward. We concur with most researchers that the Sun Belt is undergoing a population boom that was already occurring but has been intensified during the pandemic. The relationship between various demographics and moving is complex and deserves further research, particularly for the purposes of identifying equity concerns.

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