For any recent arrival to Seattle, the suggestion that the city’s population could actually decline must sound like science-fiction. We are, as I’ve written in my column, the fastest-growing big U.S. city of the past decade.
But folks who’ve been here awhile are familiar with the cycle of boom and bust. It wasn’t all that long ago that city experienced a small decline in population. From 2009 to 2010, at the height of the Great Recession, Seattle shrank by close to 8,000. There was also a very tiny dip from 2002 to 2003, after the dot-com bubble burst.
Those population losses pale in comparison with the long period of decline between 1960 and 1980, when suburban flight and the Boeing Bust contributed to a net loss of more than 60,000 people.
Will the current pandemic and ensuing economic meltdown reverse Seattle’s tremendous period of growth, and cause the population to drop once again?
Even before the coronavirus, Seattle and many other big U.S. cities had started to lose steam.
In my previous column, I reported on new census data showing that Seattle experienced its slowest growth rate of the decade in 2019 — the same was true for Bellevue. And most of Seattle’s peer cities around the nation also registered much weaker growth than they had just a few years earlier. Most likely, the soaring cost of living and shortage of affordable housing were the primary reasons for the slowdown.
Now the coronavirus has many people who have enjoyed the benefits of living in a densely populated area rethinking their choices. According to a national survey by the Harris Poll, 39% of urban residents say that the COVID-19 crisis has caused them to consider moving to a less densely populated area of the country. That is much higher than the percentage of suburban residents (23%) considering such a move. And 43% of urbanites say they’ve recently found themselves searching real estate websites like Redfin and Zillow — again, a much higher percentage than suburbanites (26%).
It’s not hard to understand why. The coronavirus has undermined much of what people love about living in a city — lively, crowded spaces and social gatherings, cultural and sporting events, dining out, and so on. Even public transit, which Seattleites have famously embraced, is now deemed too risky for all but essential trips.
In light of that, I thought it would be interesting to look at some new data that gives insight into the reasons why so many thousands moved here in the past decade from around the country and the world.
The data comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS), which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. One question in the survey is directed only at people who have moved within the past year — it asks them to identify their primary reason for making the move. I looked at this data for folks who relocated to King County’s two largest cities, Seattle and Bellevue, from anywhere outside of King County, over the course of the past decade.
By far, the No. 1 reason people moved to Seattle and Bellevue was related to employment.
More than 41% of households indicated that either a new job or a job transfer was the main reason for their move to either of King County’s largest cities. That’s a huge number, but not really surprising when you consider the economic boom of the past decade.
As the city’s population ballooned, so did traffic congestion. For 9.5% of movers, frustration with a tortuous commute was the motivator — most likely, that’s primarily folks from suburban communities in nearby counties who wanted to be closer to the office.
Another 4.4% specified some other job-related reason for moving to the city.
But now, the coronavirus crisis has completely changed the employment landscape. For the thousands who have lost their jobs, some are surely considering leaving this area for a less-expensive place to live. And among those who are still employed here, in particular white-collar workers, telecommuting is now commonplace.
Some predict that telecommuting will become the new normal, even after offices are able to reopen. Indeed, a recent survey of Seattle city residents showed that one-third anticipate working from home from now on.
If so, that will give city residents far more flexibility about where they choose to live. When you consider that the majority of movers to Seattle and Bellevue in the past decade came because of a job-related reason, it seems likely that some could decide to leave the area. There might not be much else that’s tying them here.
The CPS data shows that only 7% of folks moved to Seattle or Bellevue for a family reason, which would indicate that they have roots here.
After employment, the primary motivator for moves in Seattle and Bellevue from outside King County were related to housing — about 15% said it was because of a new home or better neighborhood, or some other housing reason.
Nearly 9% came for college, or came back because they finished college.
In total, over the course of the decade, nearly 300,000 households moved to Seattle or Bellevue from somewhere outside of King County.