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The Sunny Outlook in the Sun Belt — and Why It Matters

Residents of Sun Belt metros rate quality of life higher than residents of other fast-growing regions. But common concerns suggest that local leaders should pay more attention to the basics of governance.

Aerial,View,Fort,Worth,Texas
An aerial view of Forth Worth, Texas.
(Barbara Smyers/Shutterstock)
When you ask the residents of America's fastest-growing metropolitan regions about their priorities and concerns — about how they feel about the places they call home — you might expect that expanding economies would produce a similar level of satisfaction across all of those regions. But a very different picture emerges. The sunny outlook of the residents of the Sun Belt metros of America's interior stands in stark contrast to a gloomier view beyond.

That, and its implications for the directions of local governance and politics, is what stood out in our new Manhattan Institute/Echelon Insights survey of the 20 fastest-growing metros. In the northern and coastal metros like Seattle, concerns about the high cost of living, rising crime and poor quality of life are paramount — precisely the areas where a place like Dallas-Fort Worth performs best. Our results show how costs, crime and classroom concerns suggest an urban opportunity agenda broadly popular to a multiethnic, bipartisan mainstream. A signal, in short, for local leaders to pay more attention to the basics.

If you’re looking for the address of Boomtown, USA, start in the Lone Star State. The Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex added 329 new residents every day for the past decade. The Big D and Cowtown combined now boast the 20th-largest economy in the world. Far from lamenting the costs of growth, residents are embracing it: Nearly two-thirds believe their metroplex is on the right track, according to our poll. Its affordable housing and low cost of living beat the rest of the metros we surveyed, next only to fellow Texas boomtown San Antonio. These are the supernovas of the Sun Belt.

Then there’s Seattle. The Emerald City was one of just 14 metros nationwide to add more than 100,000 residents over the past decade. The growth of homegrown companies like Amazon has lifted Seattle’s median household income to north of six figures. In other words, this is a city that is no stranger to growth, yet locals are far less sunny than their southern counterparts. In Seattle, a majority of residents would move if they could. Locals report the lowest quality of life of any area we surveyed. Seattle also ranks dead last in the ability to afford the cost of living. An astonishing 90 percent of Seattleites are concerned about homelessness.

Two Core Issues


When we surveyed America’s high-growth metros, we expected to find common concerns, like growing costs and crowded commutes. What we found is that most major metros are struggling with two core issues: housing and homelessness, which surpass COVID-19, public safety, taxes, education and jobs as residents’ core concerns. There’s a not-so-silent metropolitan majority crossing partisan and ethnic divides on issues like school choice and curriculum, housing reform and homelessness, and the presence and recruitment of more police.

Where you begin to see the starkest divide is between the interior Sun Belt and everywhere else. Coastal hubs such as Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Seattle were far more likely to have locals rating their quality of life as poor compared to residents of Charlotte, Orlando or Tampa. We see similar divides on housing costs, now with the addition of Austin and Denver as high-priced locales. Houston, a city famous for its lack of zoning, scores well on housing costs. Las Vegas earns high marks for its low taxes, while Charlotte, Dallas and Tampa get high scores for their jobs, and locals cite these as reasons to stay. Yet again and again, its New York, San Francisco and Seattle that rank at the bottom of our poll on nearly every metric. Beyond the Sun Belt, cost of living and housing affordability are major challenges.

Not every Sun Belt metro performs well in our survey. Austin, for one, is clearly challenged not only by housing costs but also by homelessness and growing traffic congestion. Las Vegas seriously underperforms on public education: A majority are concerned about the quality of local schools and curriculum. Even in metros where residents expressed fewer crime concerns, such as Phoenix and Tampa, a plurality still pointed to public safety as a problem. The biggest worry for the Sun Belt by far, though, is traffic: From Atlanta and Miami to Austin and Denver, we see today’s boomtowns joining perennially clogged places like Los Angeles.

One bright spot across many high-cost metros: Residents know the challenges of growth and are likelier to support its solutions. Roughly seven in 10 residents of metros as varied as Boston, Denver, the District of Columbia and San Francisco support allowing more housing near transit. Residents of Minneapolis and Seattle were also likelier than in other metros to support streamlining and expediting the approvals process for new housing construction. California has done the most of nearly any state to waive regulatory barriers in the way of building new backyard apartments, and Los Angeles and San Francisco stand out for their support of just these sorts of measures.

Two concerns in particular — homelessness and crime — are now playing leading roles in local elections. In Seattle, the mayoral race is heating up, and local polls are showing former council president Bruce Harrell in the lead over the current council president, M. Lorena Gonzalez. Harrell supports hiring more officers “to address both the gun violence epidemic and other urgent public safety concerns” as well as “getting people out of parks and streets and into stable housing”; Gonzalez backs calls to defund the police and allowing homeless encampments in the hopes that yet-to-be-built housing will draw them out. Local surveys are also showing homelessness as voters’ top priority and that Seattleites favor hiring more police and allowing them to make more arrests.

Meanwhile, in Austin, Proposition B to ban homeless encampments won widespread support from voters in May even as it was opposed by the mayor and the entire city council. Our poll shows why: 66 percent of Austin metro residents are concerned about homelessness — and intensely so, with 41 percent being “extremely concerned.” More than three-quarters favor empowering police officers to remove homeless encampments. In other words, Austinites want solutions to homelessness and believe in the need for responsive policing. The bipartisan group that won Prop B, Save Austin Now, is now fighting to “refund the police” with Prop A on the ballot in November. Our survey shows over 80 percent support in Austin for hiring more cops who do more community policing and that a majority oppose defunding the police.

Common-Sense Reforms


In today’s fast-growing Sun Belt cities, it’s easy to feel like the “metropolitan frontier” is far from closed. New migrants are flocking to places like Phoenix, which recently earned the distinction of being the fastest-growing large city in America over the past decade. But the Sun Belt is not immune to the woes of coastal cities; after all, southern California was once a low-cost, high-opportunity place like north Texas is today. “Not-in-My-Backyard” sentiments are pushing new barriers to building more homes in places like Atlanta and Charlotte, joining NIMBY hot spots like Austin. Public schools are too often still in poor shape. And crime is not solely a coastal affliction.

Ideally, every city in America would allow ordinary people to move there, find jobs with ease and send their kids to a good school of their choosing without worrying for their safety. Right now, though, that is the Sun Belt’s promise, and it would be a tragedy for this country if they followed the coastal-city path of high costs, growing crime and poor schools. Thankfully, both Sun Belt and non-Sun Belt residents alike agree on common-sense reforms: more and better policing, more choice and charters in education, and speedier routes to more housing.
Mattie Parker.jpg
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, the youngest mayor of any major American city.
(GLEN E. ELLMAN/Facebook)
Earlier this year, when 37-year-old attorney Mattie Parker was running for mayor of Fort Worth, her final Twitter pitch was simple: “I don’t care if you are a republican, democrat or independent, if you want a brighter future with safe neighborhoods, better roads and a stronger economy, vote Mattie Parker for your next mayor!” That message proved a winning one: Parker is now the youngest mayor of any major American city. Sun Belt or not, our survey suggests there is a metropolitan majority crossing partisan and ethnic divides willing to support just this sort of “do the basics” approach to local concerns.

Rather than running for president from city hall or constantly staking out positions on global concerns, mayors and other local-government leaders can and should keep their focus closer to home: delivering quality public services and being responsive to the needs of their neighbors who simply want a better future for themselves and their families.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Michael Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. He can be reached at mhendrix@manhattan-institute.org or on Twitter at @michael_hendrix.
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