Where American Families Are Moving


Much is made, and rightfully so, about the future trends of America’s demographics, notably the rise of racial minorities and singles as a growing part of our population. Yet far less attention is paid to a factor that will also shape future decades: where families are most likely to settle.

However hip and cool San Francisco, Manhattan, Boston or coastal California may seem, they are not where families are moving.

In a new study by the Chapman Center for Demographics and Policy, we found that the best cities for middle-class families tend to be located outside the largest metropolitan areas. This was based on such factors as housing affordability, migration, income growth, commute times, and middle-income jobs. Many of our best-rated cities tend to mid-sized. The three most highly rated were Des Moines, Iowa, Madison, Wis., and Albany, N.Y., all with populations of less than 1 million. Among our top 10 metropolitan areas for families, five are larger than this, but only two—the Washington, D.C. area and Minneapolis-St. Paul—are among the nation's 20 largest metropolitan areas.

Download the full report (pdf) here.

Our bottom 10 includes the media’s favorite two cities, New York and Los Angeles, also the largest metropolitan areas in the nation. Three other large metropolitan areas rank in the bottom 10: Miami, Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., and Las Vegas. The hipster cities, in other words, are not so amenable to the new generation of young families.   

Why Families Head to the Suburbs

In the 1960s, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs asserted that “suburbs must be a difficult place to raise children.” But they remain popular nonetheless. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, in 2011, children between ages 5 and 14 constituted about 7 percent in urban core Central Business Districts (CBDs) across the country, less than half the level in newer suburbs and exurbs. In Manhattan, singles comprise half of all households, based on the American Community Survey. The highest percentage of women over 40 without children, notes geographer Ali Modarres, can be found in expensive and dense Washington, D.C.

One clear example of the new child-free city is San Francisco, which is now home to 80,000 more dogs than children. In 1970, children made up 22 percent of the population of San Francisco. Four decades later, they comprised just 13.4 percent of the town’s 800,000 residents. Nearly half of parents of young children there, according to 2011 survey conducted by the city, planned to leave in the next three years, largely due to high housing costs. This pattern is accelerating: Since 2011, less-dense ZIP codes have been growing far faster than the more dense ones.

The desire for affordable, single-family homes is driving this trend. Over 80 percent of married couples live in such housing, compared to barely 50 percent of households of unrelated individuals and single. The choice to move to the suburbs also reflects the preference for a safer setting. FBI crime statistics show the violent crime rate in the core cities of major metropolitan areas is nearly 3½ times higher than in the suburbs. Given the murder rate in many major cities, this gap can be expected to grow.

Another key motivation in choosing the suburbs, especially for families with children, is frustration with the quality of urban public education. Suburban schools still consistently out-perform those of inner cities in terms of achievement, graduation and college admission.

In the coming years the progressive penchant for enforced densification—contrary to the preferences of most Americans—could cause some serious intra-party rifts, even in areas that today are reliably Democratic “blue.” The biggest opposition to building more single family housing has often been in liberal bastions such as Marin County, Calif., Boulder, Colo., and Westchester County, N.Y., the official residence of Hillary and Bill Clinton after they left the White House. As one Bay Area blogger observed, “suburb-hating is anti-child”—because it seeks to undermine neighborhoods with children.

Exclusionary and Opportunity Regions

America has always had its fancy neighborhoods, often associated also with racial or ethnic exclusion. But increasingly large parts of the country, and this is true in certain cities and suburbs, are evolving into what Dartmouth College’s William Fischel has called “exclusionary regions”—too expensive for middle-class families to access.

Fischel traces much of this development to regulatory policies that restrict housing supply. In 1970, for example, housing affordability in coastal California metropolitan areas was similar to the rest of the country, as measured by the median multiple (the median house price divided by the median household income). Today, due in part to a generation of strict growth controls, home prices in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles are now three or more times higher than in some other metropolitan areas.

The impact is being felt disproportionately by younger adults, who, unlike earlier generations, do not benefit from housing inflation, and who face other barriers to home-buying ranging from student debt to weak income growth. Coupled with an overall weak economy, the net worth of people under age 35 has plummeted almost 70 percent from 2004 levels, making affordable housing an even more pressing issue.

This cash-short generation is moving to more affordable places. Since 2010, the fastest growth in the ranks of college-educated millennials has been to lower-cost regions such as the four large Texas cities (Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin), Nashville, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla., as well as such Rust Belt cities as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. These cities offer what the “exclusionary” regions once did: an affordable inner-city option for the young and childless as well as suburbs they can move to as they start families. Other families are settling in small, relatively inexpensive metropolitan areas: Fayetteville, Ark., Cape Coral and Melbourne, Fla., Columbia, S.C., Colorado Springs, Colo., and Boise, Idaho.

High rents, which now constitute the largest share of income in modern U.S. history, could be determining these change in youthful migration. Since 1990, renters' income has been stagnant, but inflation-adjusted rents have soared 14.7 percent. Housing, long the largest expenditure item, now takes an even larger share of family costs, while expenditures on food, apparel and transportation have dropped or stayed about the same. In 2015, increases in housing costs essentially swallowed gains made elsewhere, notably savings on the cost of energy.

This situation is most severe in the highest-priced markets. In New York, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, for example, renters spend 40 percent of their income on rent, well above the national average of under 30 percent. In each of these markets there have been strong increases (income adjusted) relative to historic averages. In New York, rents increased between 2010 and 2015 by 50 percent, while incomes for renters between ages 25 and 44 grew by just 8 percent.

Where the Future Is Being Built

This wide disparity between “opportunity” and “exclusionary” areas is being locked in place by the persistent lack of new housing in most high-priced regions. Since 2010, among the 10 areas that experienced the biggest increases in housing supply, only one was in a deep-blue urban area: Seattle. The cities producing the most new units—Austin, Raleigh, N.C., Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Nashville, Charlotte, N.C., Orlando, Oklahoma City, and Jacksonville, Fla.—have managed to keep their housing costs, and rents, to levels acceptable to middle- and working-class families.

In contrast New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston are authorizing far fewer new units per capita than these rising cities. Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth, with a population roughly one-third of Los Angeles-Orange Country, have produced close to two times as many new units. Overall, California’s rate of new housing permits is one-third that of the Lone Star State.

This divide will become more pronounced as progressives work to undermine lower-density lifestyles, often in the name of combatting climate change. In California, new single-family homes are gradually being made the exclusive province of the super-affluent, while multi-family units often face opposition from neighbors and even environmentalists. Older residents, with lower property taxes and ideal weather, may stick around, but young people likely will be forced to migrate, particularly as they enter their 30s or get tired of living in their parents’ spare rooms.

No surprise, then, that expensive and highly regulated markets have seen declines in their numbers of children since 2000. In contrast, affordable cities continue to gain families with children in the 5 to 14 age range. Dallas-Ft. Worth, for example, gained 230,000 youngsters between 2000-2013. In Houston, the number was 190,000 and in Atlanta it was more 167,000 over that span. During the same period, Los Angeles’ child population dropped by 303,000, or 15 percent. In New York it fell by 238,000 kids.

Increasingly, employers are factoring affordable local housing stock as an equation into their decisions about where they locate—or relocate. A recent SMU study found that high housing prices to be the biggest reason why Toyota left Los Angeles for the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The Emerging Family/Childless Divide 

Although American localities are being pitted against one another not just by politics but by their ability to attract young families, the emerging map of where families live is not necessarily custom-made for conservatives.

Key Democratic groups, including African-Americans, are also moving to the suburbs, particularly in less expensive cities, largely in the southeast and Texas. The suburbs are also increasingly the chosen destination of immigrants and their offspring, another blue-leaning cohort. Roughly 60 percent of Hispanics and Asians already live in suburbs. Between 2000 and 2012, the Asian population in suburban areas of the nation’s 52 biggest metro areas grew 66.2 percent, while in the core cities it expanded by 34.9 percent. Of the top 20 cities with an Asian population of more than 50,000, all but two are suburbs.

Republicans also will be challenged to appeal to the rising number of suburban millennials, who also lean Democratic. But there’s some good news for Republicans in that the political future is not going to be shaped primarily in the Obama hotbeds along the coasts, but places, such as the South and the suburbs, where conservatives at are more competitive.

To compete for diversifying suburban, Sunbelt and smaller city electorates, conservatives need to better show why families of all ethnicities should support them. They must make the case that Republican policies are better for voters economically and can provide the most efficient and effective services, particularly for their children.

As for Democratic Party leaders, they would do well to push back the narrative of their urban core elites, who tend to characterize suburbs and Sunbelt cities as soulless enemies of culture and killers of the planet. It is time to recognize that most American families, whatever their ethnicity, desire a decent home in a nice neighborhood, whether in a suburb or a city, where children can be raised. In addition, and this is of increasing importance, they want a place where seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces. These homeowners will likely yield disproportionate influence over elections since they are more likely to vote -- and be active in local affairs -- than the general population.

Ultimately, these families will determine the political future of the country. After all, there is no “replacement” generation for singles and childless couples. In the long run, wooing families will determine who wins the political wars not only this year but in the decades ahead.

Download the full report (pdf) here.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is also executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The New Class Conflict is now available at Amazon and Telos Press. He is also author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.