People left cities during the pandemic. Will they return?

(NewsNation) — Last year saw the slowest U.S. population growth on record and new Census data suggests population loss in major cities accounts for much of the slowdown.

The latest numbers confirm a COVID-induced shift in the way Americans live. Major cities became less attractive as large events disappeared, restaurants closed and commuters stopped heading into the office.

In Los Angeles, almost 176,000 people moved away from mid-2020 to mid-2021, the second biggest drop among U.S. metro areas, trailing only New York.

Between New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco, more than 700,000 people moved away in the first full year of the pandemic, according to the Census Bureau.

But not all major cities saw their populations decline.

Multiple cities across the Sun Belt grew, including Phoenix, Atlanta and large cities in Texas.

The Dallas area grew by more than 97,000 residents, the most of any U.S. metro area in 2021. Houston’s gain was the third-highest of any U.S. metro area, an increase of 69,000 residents.

To the north, Boise, Idaho saw an inflow of residents.

Experts believe the pandemic has significantly impacted Americans’ desire to live in major metropolitan areas, but now, the question is whether people will return.

“Cities growing and declining, that’s strongly influenced by the pandemic. We don’t know how that’s going to work out once the pandemic is well under control but we are seeing different demographic trends than we saw as recently as a decade ago,” said Rey Farley, a research scientist with the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

Farley expects the next round of Census data to reveal where American preferences could be headed.

Even as people leave some of America’s urban centers, rent prices are up nearly 20% in major cities.

Industry experts say a supply-and-demand imbalance in the housing market is driving prices up across the country — a reality that could see more people leave, even as COVID wanes.

“I am actually moving up to the San Bernardino Mountains in about a month’s time. I need my own one-bedroom and I can’t afford it here,” L.A. resident Jory Sanders told NewsNation.

The Census data also showed the slowest rate of overall U.S. population growth — just .1%.

It’s a trend Farley is more concerned about than the exodus from major cities.

“Population growth contributes strongly to economic growth and if population growth disappears, we’re going to face many challenges maintaining economic growth,” he said.

American cities are hoping to bounce back soon as companies start to bring workers back into the office and early forecasts suggest major job growth over the next year.

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