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Urban Migration Patterns Show a Majority Leaving Biggest Metros for More Affordable Markets

While city-dwellers rarely chose to leave the urban setting entirely, the biggest MSAs saw hundreds of thousands leaving for smaller cities with more affordable housing.
NYC skyline sunrise
NYC skyline sunrise Source: Getty Images

America's largest metropolitan areas have seen hundreds of thousands of residents leave for less dense and more affordable locations. According to the most recently published Census data, metro-to-metro migration was broadly defined by a net population transfer away from major metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) toward areas with less costly housing options.

However, our analysis of the data also found that almost everyone who moved out of a major U.S. metro nevertheless ended up in other moderately large cities. This implies that while millions of city-dwelling Americans have moved to less densely populated areas to access more affordable housing, most are reluctant to abandon the urban setting altogether.

Key findings:

  • The biggest cities saw the largest outflows: Leading metros such as New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago posted the biggest net losses in city-to-city migration. The biggest net gains went to somewhat smaller cities such as Riverside, Calif., Phoenix and Austin, Texas.
  • The largest migrations are mostly local: Eight out of the 10 most popular city-to-city moves spanned a distance of less than 100 miles. The two exceptions were New Yorkers moving to Miami (1,092 miles) and Angelenos headed upstate to San Francisco (338 miles).
  • Most movers seek cities with affordable housing: Out of 3.7 million city dwellers who moved to a different MSA in 2017, 55% chose one with more affordable housing. These movers experienced an average reduction of 34% in the median value of a local home.
  • City dwellers flock together: On average, about 86% of people who moved to one of the 100 largest metro areas came from another top-100 MSA. No MSA received fewer than 55% of its newcomers from other big cities.
  • Smaller cities experienced higher turnover: At the same time, smaller metros experienced a higher proportion of people both coming and going. For instance, Colorado Springs, Colo., saw a turnover of 9.6% relative to its total population — the average among the top 100 MSAs was 4.5%.

Major metros had the greatest net losses in migration

The most obvious feature in the metro-to-metro migration data was the net negative flow of people experienced by the nation's largest cities. MSAs like New York City and Los Angeles saw the widest gaps between departing locals and newcomers from other cities.

Cities with the highest population loss in 2017

Metro areas with the largest net outflows

Net migration
Top destinations (% of total)
New York-196,400Philadelphia (8.6%)Miami (6.9%)Bridgeport, Conn. (4.8%)
Los Angeles-119,138Riverside, Calif. (26.7%)San Francisco (6.4%)Bakersfield, Calif. (5.9%)
Chicago-70,273Atlanta (5.5%)Phoenix (5.3%)New York (4.8%)
San Francisco-42,826San Jose, Calif. (14.1%)Los Angeles (11.6%)Sacramento, Calif. (10.9%)
Miami-26,651Orlando, Fla. (13.3%)New York (8.8%)Tampa, Fla. (7.8%)
Baltimore-21,345Washington, D.C. (32.8%)Philadelphia (5.9%)New York (5.4%)
Kansas City, Mo.-12,783St. Louis (8.6%)Dallas (8.1%)Wichita, Kan. (5.2%)
Washington, D.C.-12,675Baltimore (13.9%)New York (6.7%)Virginia Beach, Va. (5.8%)
Cleveland-12,388Akron, Ohio (19.6%)Columbus, Ohio (14.0%)Cincinnati (9.2%)
Greensboro, N.C.-12,341Washington, D.C. (7.3%)Las Vegas (6.7%)New York (6.3%)

However, a significant number of those who left ended up moving to yet another major city. For instance, nearly a third of people who moved out of Baltimore arrived in nearby Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the nation's capital saw roughly 14% of its leavers choose Baltimore, illustrating a common theme in the data: People who move away from big cities generally favor destinations that are both nearby and only slightly less urbanized.

While the biggest cities posted the biggest declines from metro-to-metro migration, mid-range cities like Phoenix and Austin were among the most popular destinations for people from other metros.

Cities with the highest population gain in 2017

Metro areas with the highest net migration

Net migration
Top origins (% of total)
Riverside, Calif.48,003Los Angeles (56.1%)San Diego (17.2%)Sacramento, Calif. (2.9%)
Phoenix43,815Tucson, Ariz. (8.8%)Chicago (7.2%)Los Angeles (6.8%)
Austin, Texas25,862Houston (21.1%)San Antonio (13.5%)Dallas (12.9%)
Tampa, Fla.22,943New York (12.6%)Lakeland, Fla. (11.1%)Miami (10.2%)
Portland, Ore.19,981Seattle (16.8%)Los Angeles (11.4%)San Francisco (10.2%)
Deltona, Fla.17,873Orlando, Fla. (32.6%)Miami (13.3%)New York (9.8%)
Sacramento, Calif.15,497San Francisco (28.2%)Los Angeles (16.9%)Stockton, Calif. (6.6%)
Dallas15,278Houston (11.2%)Los Angeles (8.9%)San Antonio (5.8%)
Las Vegas14,005Los Angeles (23.8%)Riverside, Calif. (8.1%)San Diego (5.1%)
Boise City, Idaho13,440San Diego (14.6%)Sacramento, Calif. (12.4%)Salt Lake City (12.3%)

When we looked at these fastest-growing cities based on where their newcomers were moving from, there were two general categories. The first group of cities received the bulk of their incoming population from nearby or in-state metros. In the most pronounced example, Riverside received over half of its incoming migration total from Los Angeles. In Texas, Austin also saw nearly 48% of all newcomers come in from one of the three largest metros in the same state.

The second group of MSAs had large out-of-state majorities in their population of new arrivals. This frequently affected areas that were the only major city in their state. For example, the three biggest contributors of new migrants to Portland were all located outside Oregon. Las Vegas experienced a similar situation, with Southern California metros combining to deliver 37% of its total incoming population in 2017.

The most popular migrations are under 100 miles

The Census data also enabled us to look at specific metro pairings to identify which MSAs exchanged the greatest number of movers. Most of the largest migrations involved cities within 100 miles of each other, with just a few notable exceptions.

Movers (% of total leaving)
Los AngelesRiverside, Calif.84,838 (26.7%)55 mi
Riverside, Calif.Los Angeles37,181 (36.0%)55 mi
New YorkPhiladelphia31,862 (8.6%)95 mi
San Jose, Calif.San Francisco27,728 (35.5%)48 mi
San DiegoRiverside, Calif.26,007 (22.7%)99 mi
New YorkMiami25,670 (6.9%)1092 mi
BaltimoreWashington, D.C.24,065 (32.8%)38 mi
San FranciscoSan Jose, Calif.23,030 (14.1%)48 mi
Washington, D.C.Baltimore22,748 (13.9%)38 mi
Los AngelesSan Francisco20,480 (6.4%)338 mi

By far the longest mass movement of urban dwellers involved New York City: 8.6% of everyone leaving New York found their way to Miami, nearly 1,100 miles to the south. The only other migration that spanned more than 100 miles was the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, an in-state move that nevertheless covers 338 miles from airport to airport.

In terms of volume, the flow of people within California dominated the list of major migrations. The single largest movement began in Los Angeles and ended in Riverside–San Bernardino, with over a quarter of all departing Angelenos choosing that nearby metro. Riverside ranked as a hub of movement in general: The reverse route from Riverside to Los Angeles was the second-largest migration, while San Diegans also sought out Riverside in large numbers.

California contributed one other two-way pairing to the list of major migrations: people moving between San Francisco and nearby San Jose. Over 35% of everyone leaving San Jose moved to San Francisco, while just over 14% of all departing San Franciscans traveled the other way. In absolute terms, there were 20% more people heading to San Francisco from San Jose than vice versa.

A majority of movers chose cities with lower housing costs

When we compared the list of destinations based on the median value of owner-occupied homes in each metro area, we found that around 55% of city-to-city movers selected an MSA with a lower median home value. For these cost-cutters, the median cost of a home dropped by an average of 34% between their original city and their final destination.

The table below lists the 10 metro areas in which leavers gained the greatest potential savings on the cost of owning a home. In the top 10 MSAs by savings, movers experienced reductions in median home prices of 3% to 44%. Living in a metro with a lower median home value not only lowers the barrier to owning a home, but it also reduces ongoing costs that are based on your home's value — such as property tax rates and homeowners insurance premiums.

How much did home prices change for people who moved to a new city?

Median home value (origin)
Average change in median value (after moving)
Total leaving
San Francisco$723,096-44%163,748
Los Angeles$571,319-43%318,278
San Jose, Calif.$828,806-42%78,007
New York$430,254-36%372,362
San Diego$515,605-32%114,481
Washington, D.C.$418,469-30%164,185
Bridgeport, Conn.$431,893-29%42,017
Oxnard, Calif.$546,035-16%21,137
Austin, Texas$246,900-3%60,627

Many of these areas are already well known for their extremely expensive real estate markets, which largely explains why people who leave those metros typically find the greatest discounts on housing at their destinations. However, the nationwide majority of movers headed to less expensive places suggests that the price of homeownership does play a role in steering migration between cities.


Our analysis of migration patterns among major U.S. metropolitan areas is based on the most recent data made available by the U.S. Census, which applies to the year 2017. The data accounted for the annual movement of population in and out of each metropolitan statistical area (MSA), grouped by origin and destination MSA.

To determine where the greatest number of people moved to and from each MSA, we grouped and ranked all of the "routes" between two MSAs for which migrations were recorded in 2017. Net flows of population for each MSA were calculated by finding the difference between incoming and outgoing migrants.

To obtain the change in housing costs for every population leaving a given MSA, we calculated the average of median owner-occupied home values at all of the corresponding destinations, weighted by the number of people headed to each destination.

Excluded MSAs

ValuePenguin's study focused on the data available for the top 100 MSAs by population in 2017. Among these 100 MSAs, migration statistics were not available for MSAs based around the following cities:

  • Boston
  • Denver
  • Charlotte, N.C.
  • Providence, R.I.
  • Worcester, Mass.
  • Syracuse, N.Y.
  • Winston, N.C.
  • Modesto, Calif.