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Population Growth Shifts to Suburban America

Suburban counties are once again gaining population at the expense of the cities around them. What does that mean for urban areas?

Houses being built in Hays County, Texas.
(FlickrCC/Roger Mommaerts)
Halfway between the big Texas cities of Austin and San Antonio lies lesser-known Hays County, which is growing faster than either of them. Lured by affordable housing and reasonable commute times, thousands are relocating to the suburban county each year. Mostly farmland not too long ago, Hays has doubled in population since 2000.

Hays County is typical of many suburban places in the United States that have been growing dramatically after a brief drop-off during the Great Recession, generally outpacing the larger urban jurisdictions around them. Last year, migration to the suburbs accelerated even more. A review of the latest Census data finds that, in metro areas with at least a half million residents, urban counties containing large cities lost 232,000 total residents via domestic migration. Meanwhile, the other counties within these same metro areas -- many of them burgeoning suburbs like Hays County -- added nearly 268,000 new residents, the largest net migration gain in recent years.  

Across the country, many urban counties that posted steep population gains around the start of the current decade are now experiencing slowdowns. Some, such as Austin’s Travis County, are still growing, but at a slower pace than before. Others, including Davidson County, Tenn., home to Nashville, and Harris County, home to Houston, saw more people move out than moved in from other parts of the country last year. 

Scores of new developments can be found in the northern part of Hays County, along the corridors leading into Austin. The county has, in many ways, played off the success of the big city. “Austin has become very easy to identify internationally,” says County Commissioner Will Conley. “That helps us in describing and getting the word out to people about our community.” 

Nearly a third of all newcomers to Hays County have moved from Austin and surrounding Travis County in recent years. Conley says the top reason people move to Hays is lower housing costs, along with roads that are far less burdened by congestion than the ones Austin residents have to contend with.

The suburbs that welcomed the most new residents last year are concentrated in the Sun Belt, particularly Florida and Texas. This is part of a larger, longer-term shift in migration to all areas of the South and West as Americans retire or just seek warmer weather. Demographer Steve Murdock, former director of the Census Bureau, says lower land costs also make southern suburbs an attractive option compared to the more built-out northern urban areas with less space. “The main things driving the suburban growth,” Murdock says, “are cheaper housing than in the central cities, more space and quality of schools with reputations for kids getting into universities.”

Booming Sun Belt suburbs like Hays County are also becoming employment centers. Until fairly recently, the state Capitol and the University of Texas, in the center of Austin, functioned as the region’s primary employment base. But that changed dramatically with the arrival of Dell and other tech companies in the surrounding areas. Amazon opened a massive fulfillment center in Hays County last fall and is already the county’s top employer, with more than 3,000 workers. There are now about as many people living and working in the county or commuting to it as there are workers commuting out.

Some of the more recent migration patterns have further altered the demographic profile of suburban America. Contrary to their image as older, whiter communities, many are gradually becoming younger and much more diverse. The median age for Hays County is just 31, thanks in part to the expanding presence of Texas State University in San Marcos, and young adults who’ve relocated from Austin.

Governing’s analysis shows that counties with medium population densities, those between 200 and 1,000 people per square mile, recorded on average the highest domestic migration rates last year. By contrast, it’s the densest counties that are losing residents at the fastest rates, regardless of whether they’re considered urban or suburban.

This represents a dramatic reversal from the conditions that prevailed during and immediately after the recession. For a few years, urban jurisdictions experienced a resurgence, with many gaining population for the first time in decades. More recent Census estimates suggest many of those same places are now seeing growth level off or start to reverse.

Comparing migration patterns within a given region tells a similar story. Last year, Americans moved to suburban counties at greater rates than they did to nearby urban counties in 72 of 82 metro areas with at least 100,000 suburban and urban residents. Only Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Va.; and a few smaller metro areas recorded higher migration rates for urban counties.

None of this means that Americans are necessarily rejecting urban life wholesale. Individual cities may or may not be experiencing the same declines depicted by the Census estimates. In fact, cities’ downtowns and central business districts continue to prosper, even in places like Chicago and St. Louis that are losing population. And while in-migration has dropped, some cities are still recording total population increases, mostly a result of international migration.

Employers, too, are continuing to relocate to downtowns. Bethany Schneider, who tracks commercial real estate trends for Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, says the shift from suburban office parks to more urban settings hasn’t slowed.

In Nashville and other successful urban centers, there’s a supply problem. Not much land is left for development within the city, so homebuyers opt for suburban neighborhoods even if an urban lifestyle might have been their first choice. “We have such a supply problem that homebuilders inside and outside the city are working feverishly to improve the supply,” says Scott Troxel, president of Greater Nashville Realtors. 

Some of those who desire urban amenities in the Nashville area -- but not at Nashville prices -- are heading out to places like Murfreesboro, about 30 miles away. That city doesn’t offer all the luxuries of Nashville, but it’s home to a large university and has ranked among the fastest-growing places nationally in recent years. Similarly, much of the growth in Williamson County, which borders Nashville, has taken place in a few incorporated cities.

Williamson County Mayor Rogers Anderson says one of the top concerns of newer residents is easing congestion. Officials have identified potential investments in public transit -- another urban convenience -- and are exploring funding sources. Williamson County’s other selling points include low property taxes and good schools. As is the case in other suburbs, though, local leaders say that maintaining these advantages while accommodating the rapid growth projected over many years won’t be easy.

Mike Maciag is Data Editor for GOVERNING.
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