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More People Are Moving Outward from Central Cities

It’s a trend that started before the pandemic, and it isn’t slowing down, thanks in part to hefty price increases for housing.

Columbus, Ohio. Once a strong draw for new residents, the city has seen a steady outflow to the exburbs as rising housing costs and the aftereffects of the pandemic take their toll.
New demographic data is starting to paint a picture of post-pandemic trends in American cities, putting facts around the anecdotal stories of people moving to the suburbs, exurbs and rural areas.

Recent migration data from the IRS helps show what is happening. While less complete than Census estimates, IRS data allows us to track movement to and from counties. Data for moves between 2020 and 2021 was just recently released.

Numbers from Columbus, Ohio, offer a good example of what is happening. During the decade of the 2010s, Columbus was the growth superstar of its state. The Columbus metro area grew by 12.5 percent, far exceeding the national average of 7.4 percent. The rest of Ohio was essentially flat. Columbus was growing through migration — drawing people from the rest of Ohio. Toward the end of the decade, that draw began to decline, and was reversed during the pandemic. In 2020-2021, metro Columbus actually lost population to the rest of Ohio. The time series below shows this reversal:
A comparison of migration maps from 2010-2011 and 2020-2021 for Columbus shows what has happened. Here’s the map for 2010-2011. The white region at the center is Columbus metro. Blue indicates net migration to Columbus and red represents net migration from Columbus.
As you can see, there’s some exurban out-migration, but the map is largely a sea of blue from Ohio. Here’s the map for 2020-2021.
Now we see a solid red exurban ring, showing the out-migration from the Columbus metro region. It’s basically a 360-degree geographical population loss. Meanwhile, there has also been growth in counties outside the city’s first exurban ring.

What accounts for this shift? In addition to pandemic-related trends, housing prices have increased significantly in Columbus, just as they have in many places across the country. According to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, from 2013 to 2023 the price/income ratio for housing in Columbus grew by 50 percent, from a very affordable 2.7 to today’s 4.1. That is, the median home in metro Columbus now costs 4.1 times the metro area’s median household income. Chicago’s price/income ratio is only 4.2, meaning that housing prices relative to incomes in Columbus are basically identical to those of Chicago. It’s likely that a search for more affordable housing underlies some of these exurban or rural moves.

Clearly, housing in Columbus is still much cheaper than in expensive coastal markets. The price/income ratio is 6.9 in Seattle, 7.1 in New York, 10.7 in San Francisco and 11.3 in Los Angeles. But in terms of absolute affordability, Columbus has degraded significantly. Recently announced projects such as a $20 billion Intel plant that will create thousands of high-paying jobs are a boon to the region, but will only add to the housing cost pressures.

Another trend is accelerating net out-migration from counties containing a region’s central city to suburban counties within the same metropolitan area. The table below shows the net core-to-suburban migration for select cities for both 2010-2011 and 2020-2021, highlighting how this migration changed over a decade, in Columbus and in other select cities.

Net Migration, from Core to Suburbs, in Select Metro Areas

Metro Area

2010-11 Net Migration from Core to Suburbs

2020-21 Net Migration from Core to Suburbs

























As the chart shows, the net number of people leaving Columbus’ central county, Franklin County, for outer suburbs was about four times higher in 2020-2021 than in 2010-2011. Please keep in mind, these are county, not city figures (though Denver, Nashville and Philadelphia are consolidated city-counties). Seattle data is for surrounding King County, for example. The city of Columbus is not coterminous with Franklin County, but does account for almost 70 percent of its population.

It’s important to remember that the shift to accelerated migration from core to outer suburbs started in 2016 or 2017, so this is not just a result of the pandemic, although the out-migration did grow significantly in 2020-2021.

This look at Columbus illustrates the shift that’s occurred in many of America’s urban regions, ones that shift the balance of growth away from central cities and counties. While cities are hardly doomed, the favorable background trends that were boosting urban fortunes during the early 2010s seem to have reversed. This makes it incumbent on urban leaders today to govern well, address their challenges and do what’s necessary to seize their opportunities.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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