People left cities during the pandemic. Will they come back?

Last year saw the slowest US population growth on record and new census data suggests population loss in major cities is to blame for much of the slowdown.

The latest numbers confirm a COVID-induced shift in the way Americans live. Big cities became less attractive as big events disappeared, restaurants closed and commuters stopped coming to the office.

In Los Angeles, nearly 176,000 people moved away from mid-2020 to mid-2021, the second largest drop among US metropolitan areas, behind New York.

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

But not all major cities have seen their population decline.

Several cities in the Sun Belt grew, including Phoenix, Atlanta, and major cities in Texas.

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

To the north, Boise, Idaho has seen an influx of residents.

Experts believe the pandemic has had a significant impact on Americans’ desire to live in major metropolitan areas, but now the question is whether people will return.

“Cities that grow and decline, it’s heavily influenced by the pandemic. We don’t know how it’s going to work once the pandemic is well under control, but we’re seeing different demographic trends than we saw just a decade ago,” said Rey Farley, a researcher at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan.

Farley expects the next round of census data to reveal the direction that US preferences may be heading.

Even as people move out of some US urban centers, rent prices are rising nearly 20% in major cities.

Industry experts say an imbalance between supply and demand in the housing market is driving up prices across the country – a reality that could see more people leave, even if COVID eases.

“Actually, I’m moving to the San Bernardino Mountains in about a month. I need my own bedroom and I can’t afford it here,” Los Angeles resident Jory Sanders told NewsNation.

Census data also showed the slowest rate of overall population growth in the United States – just 0.1%.

It’s a trend that concerns Farley more than the exodus from the big cities.

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

US cities are hoping to rebound soon as businesses begin to bring workers back to the office and early forecasts suggest significant job growth over the next year.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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