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Americans are returning to cities after remote-work exodus, data shows

D.C.'s K Street NW during a quiet rush hour early in the pandemic. The city grew by 3,012 people in 2022. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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The exodus of people fleeing large urban areas during the height of the pandemic appears to be reversing, according to data from the Census Bureau released Thursday.

Many workers who could telecommute abandoned crowded cities and counties for suburban or rural areas when covid struck, causing demographers and businesses to wonder whether the movement signified a permanent shift. But the overall patterns of population change are moving toward pre-pandemic rates, the bureau’s Vintage 2022 estimates of population and components of change show.

Eleven of the 15 largest metro areas gained residents or lost fewer people compared with the previous year, including the D.C. metro area, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Seattle, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution senior demographer William Frey.

The Washington metro area gained 8,849 people, after losing 1,772 the year before. The region had been growing by tens of thousands each year before the pandemic, though the rate had slowed in recent years. D.C. and Virginia’s Arlington County and the city of Alexandria all gained population last year after shrinking the year before. Arlington gained 426 people after losing 5,225, Alexandria gained 322 after losing 3,922, and the District gained 3,012 after losing 2,077, Frey’s analysis showed.

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It is too soon to know how much of the movement away from the District and other cities was permanent, said Erica Williams, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

“We’ve just been through a major health and economic shock,” she said. “There’s been what I call a doomsday narrative about what’s going to happen, with predictions of empty downtowns and city centers that wither and die.”

The new census data “should give us pause in terms of declaring that we’ve arrived at a new normal,” Williams said. “It’s highly likely that some of the folks who left will come back, and we really don’t know if it’s going to be a lot of them or just a small portion.”

Among the most striking recorded shifts were in Manhattan and San Francisco, both of which lost population at a significant rate between 2020 and 2021. Manhattan, which shrank by 5.87 percent in 2021, grew by 1.11 percent last year. San Francisco lost 6.79 percent of its population in 2021 but shrank by only a third of a percentage point last year.

Both are home to a large number of people who were able to work remotely during the pandemic. Covid rates in New York City were especially high early in the pandemic, and many Manhattan residents moved to outlying counties.

“Everyone was talking about leaving New York, and especially Manhattan,” Frey said. “A lot of people made instantaneous moves.”

Manhattan lost 20,337 people between 2019 and 2020, a period that includes the first four months of the pandemic, lost 98,505 between 2020 and 2021 and then gained 17,472 the following year. After such a huge drop, the new numbers represent “a very quick reversal,” Frey said.

Population shifts just outside New York City showed the inverse, with Suffolk County losing 7,653 last year, after gaining 11,168 the year before. Nassau and Westchester saw steep losses compared with the previous year, as well.

Miami-Dade, Dallas County, Seattle’s King County, Atlanta’s Fulton County and Denver flipped from population decline in 2020-2021 to gains in 2021-2022, according to Frey’s analysis. The 10 fastest-growing counties were in the South and West, mirroring pre-pandemic trends.

Areas with college populations also bounced back last year, after bottoming out during the pandemic. Whitman County, Wash., home to Washington State University, shrank by 9.6 percent between 2020 and 2021 but then grew back by 10.1 percent last year — the most of any county with over 20,000 people.

“Many counties with large universities saw their populations fully rebound this year as students returned,” said Christine Hartley, assistant division chief for estimates and projections in the Census Bureau’s population division.

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For many counties and large metro areas, increased immigration has a lot to do with the growth, Frey said. The inflow of immigrant populations to urban cores and suburbs rebounded last year to levels not seen since the Obama administration.

The United States accepted around 1 million immigrants as permanent residents last fiscal year, close to the 1.1 million average over the past two decades and up from a low of 707,000 in fiscal 2020, according to a November report by the Migration Policy Institute. And the number of migrant encounters between official ports of entry at the country’s southwest border doubled from about 600,000 to 1.2 million between 2021 and 2022, said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the institute.

Both for documented and undocumented immigrants during the pandemic, “there were a lot of mobility restrictions throughout the Americas and the world that made it hard to travel,” Gelatt said, including vaccine requirements, a reduction in flights and the closure of consular offices. Many of those restrictions now have been lifted.

New immigrants often gravitate toward large urban areas because of existing communities of people who speak their language and can help them acclimate. Because of low birthrates in the United States, their continued inflow will be crucial, Gelatt said.

“Immigrants are already sustaining our workforce and our working-age population,” she said, “and that’s going to be true going forward.”