Where More People Are Putting Down Roots

Having a high number of deeply entrenched residents helps shape the character of a city. See how your city’s population compares to others.
by | December 2014
Cleveland has a large share of natives who have lived in their residences for a long time. FlickrCC/Tom Baker

For years, many declining industrial cities watched as a steady stream of residents packed up their bags and moved away. Over time, as few people moved in to replace them, these cities became dominated by residents who had grown up in the area or had lived there for most of their lives.

MORE: Read the rest of the December issue.

Places like these are marked by people who maintain strong local ties and are generally more civically active, making for distinct communities. To help gauge how deeply rooted residents are in cities, Governing analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey. Factors reviewed included length of housing tenure, whether people lived in the state where they were born and recent migration data. From these measures, several cities emerged as places where residents tend to have deep local roots.

Many of these cities have suffered years of economic decline. Detroit, for example, is home to the highest prevalence of longtime residents of any larger city reviewed. Nearly 40 percent of householders have lived in their homes since before 2000, and three-quarters of residents were born in the state. Eric Guthrie, Michigan’s state demographer, says that by now most of those wanting to leave or who had opportunities elsewhere have already moved out. “These are the people who have been able to weather the recent economic troubles,” he says. “They stay during bad times and are less likely to leave.”

Guthrie says that an area’s economic outlook is an important consideration in whether someone stays or goes, but the decision to move is ultimately a complex one. Poorer families, for instance, often lack the means to relocate or don’t want to leave behind familiar surroundings. Those saddled with negative net equity on their homes are similarly tied down. For wealthier individuals, proximity to family and lifestyle preferences­ -- such as living near outdoor recreation opportunities -- may weigh more prominently in deciding where to live. Research suggests that the tendency to move declines the longer a person lives in one place.

In the Rust Belt, the two neighboring cities of Cleveland and Akron also have large shares of natives who have lived in their residences for a long time. Don Iannone, who has led development projects in the region and conducted demographic research, says many who might otherwise move choose not to, instead stretching their dollars where the cost of living remains low.

It’s not just economics that leads people to relocate, though. Family ties and cultural values further factor heavily into decisions. “The longer you’re in a place,” Iannone says, “the more your personal identity tends to be rooted in the place.”

Although most people hold an affinity for where they grew up, it’s an attachment that varies somewhat regionally. According to Census estimates, about 78 percent of Louisianans were born in the state -- the highest share nationally. Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are home to similarly high numbers of homegrown residents. But in 13 other states, less than half the population was born in the state where they now reside.

Cities where longtime residents are most prevalent aren’t all hurting economically. Take Independence, Mo., a mostly white and relatively affluent city just outside Kansas City. Its low mobility rate and high prevalence of residents living in their homes for longer periods rival that of Detroit. Deeply rooted cities are not all losing residents, either. Philadelphia experienced slight population gains in recent years, and 36 percent of householders have stayed in place since before 2000, one of the higher shares of any city.

Different segments of the population relocate at varying rates. Research indicates that poorer, less-educated people are least mobile. Young adults change addresses at far higher rates than older Americans. An area’s housing stock may also dictate how long people stay. Rental units typically attract more transient individuals.

Larger cities with the fewest native residents tend to be a mix of retirement destinations, college towns and areas with military installations. These more transient-oriented cities include places like Alexandria, Va.; Boulder, Colo.; and Provo, Utah. In Orlando, Fla., a mere 16 percent of residents have maintained their current residences since 2000.

Of course, the Census measures provide only a limited view of how connected citizens are to their communities. Reviewing shares of residents tends to exclude more growing cities. But the measures hint at the differences in how these cities are made up -- and some of the governing advantages that come with a more deeply rooted citizenry.

For one, it’s easier for residents to develop relationships with neighbors in less transient communities. A more mobile population, however, may place a greater strain on school budgets, although it’s possible they might not demand as many other services from their local governments.

Perhaps more important, longtime residents are generally more civically engaged than newcomers. Citizen surveys conducted by the National Research Center find that residents with more than 10 years of residency contact elected officials and attend public meetings at greater rates. So, in cities suffering population declines, it’s reasonable to assume that those who remain will be quite vocal in their city’s affairs.

City Population Data

To gauge how deeply rooted residents are in their communities, Governing reviewed the following measures from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey for cities with populations of at least 100,000:

  • Housing Longevity: Percentage of occupied housing units where the householder moved in before 2000
  • Natives: Percentage of city residents who were born in-state
  • Recent Migration: Percentage of city residents who haven't moved in from outside the county within the previous year.

The following 20 cities ranked highest across the three indicators, suggesting high concentrations of residents with strong local ties: Akron, Ohio, Birmingham, Ala., Cleveland, Detroit, East Los Angeles, Calif., Flint, Mich., Fort Wayne, Ind., Green Bay, Wis., Huntington Beach, Calif., Independence, Mo., Jackson, Miss., Miami Gardens, Fla., Mobile, Ala., Norwalk, Calif., Philadelphia, Rialto, Calif., Rockford, Ill., Toledo, Ohio, West Covina, Calif., and Yonkers, N.Y.