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Study finds pandemic ushered in population losses of historic proportions from big cities

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New York and San Francisco are among the cities that faced an exodus of people during the pandemic. Getty Images

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We’ve all heard about Americans leaving cities in droves since the start of the pandemic. But a new report out reveals just how dramatic the scale of that migration has been.

Census data analyzed by the Brookings Institution finds that 51 of the 88 U.S. cities with a quarter million people or more lost population between July 2020 and 2021.

“What really stands out is the number of big cities that lost population in the peak period of the pandemic. It’s the most we’ve seen since the turn of this century, and probably for many years before that,” said demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings.

San Francisco, New York, Washington and Boston lost the greatest share of their populations, Frey said.

Some of that decline reflects loss of life from the pandemic. But another reason cities lost population was because there was a decline in the number of people immigrating to the U.S., said John Logan of Brown University.

“Cities and especially cities like New York, over the last 20 years, they were growing, they were growing only because of international migration. Otherwise, they were losing population to other parts of the country,” he said.

The pandemic amplified that domestic migration from cities. High urban housing costs didn’t seem worth it once many could suddenly work from home.

Logan Mohtashami, lead analyst at HousingWire, said the pandemic sped up shifts that were already underway.

“The biggest housing demographic patch ever in history, the millennials, ages 28 to 34, now we’re going to need shelter, and we’re probably going to need bigger shelter. So the cities that have the biggest housing inflation issues, we’re going to naturally lose people, even if COVID-19 never occurred,” he said.

That demo Mohtashami is referring to describes Carson Rickey, who lives in San Francisco. At 34, he and his wife are preparing to leave the city and move to his home state of Colorado at the end of this month.

“We rent an apartment. One of the main goals of this trip or this relocation is to invest in real estate,” he said.

But he’s not ruling out the possibility of returning to the Bay Area, should it become more affordable down the road.

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