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People haven’t been leaving Seattle in droves, moving data shows

UPDATED: Fri., April 15, 2022

A Seattle Police Officer on a bicycle watches from a hill as people ride by at Gas Works Park in Seattle, Sunday, April 26, 2020. The park and others in Seattle were open Sunday, but officials sought to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by urging people to keep moving and not to gather in large groups. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)  (Ted S. Warren)
A Seattle Police Officer on a bicycle watches from a hill as people ride by at Gas Works Park in Seattle, Sunday, April 26, 2020. The park and others in Seattle were open Sunday, but officials sought to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by urging people to keep moving and not to gather in large groups. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) (Ted S. Warren)
By Gene Balk Seattle Times

As most of the country went into lockdown, there was a lot of talk of folks leaving big cities for more remote, rural areas. And that certainly happened. But overall, Americans moved less, not more, during the pandemic.

Migration data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that only around 8% of Americans changed address from March 2020 to March 2021, the smallest share ever recorded since migration records were first collected in 1947.

Now, new data shows that even in most of the nation’s largest metro areas, including Seattle, the pandemic put a damper on moving plans.

Data from market-research firm Nielsen shows that in the Seattle metro area, 11.5% of adults surveyed from August 2020 to August 2021 said they planned to move within the next 12 months. That represents a modest decline from the same period before the pandemic (2018 to 2019), when around 13% said they planned to move within the next year.

Numerically, the data shows around 365,000 adults in our metro area planned to move in 2020-21, down by about 34,000 from the pre-pandemic period.

The Seattle metro area includes King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Nielsen surveyed more than 2,700 adults in our metro for the most recent data release.

In 12 of the 15 largest U.S. metro areas (including Seattle), the share of adults planning to move fell during the pandemic. The biggest declines in movers were in three Sunbelt metros that have been experiencing very strong growth: Houston, Atlanta and Riverside-San Bernardino, California.

Among the three metros where the share of people planning to move increased, San Francisco saw the biggest jump – from around 9% to 14%. The Boston and Chicago areas also saw increases.

As the pandemic took hold and offices closed down, millions of Americans began working remotely. This allowed them the option of relocating farther away from job centers, to areas with advantages like affordable housing or proximity to outdoor recreation.

But for everyone who moved unexpectedly because of the pandemic, it seems like someone (or a few others) canceled or delayed their plans to move.

Employment is one of the main reasons people move, and of course, hiring took a big hit as the pandemic set in. And even for those who did take new jobs, the remote-work option may have allowed some to delay moving.

Other major reasons people move are changes to family, such as marriage, divorce or having kids. During the pandemic, many couples postponed their weddings – and despite many reports of lockdowns straining marriages, data suggests that divorce rates also declined during the pandemic. And while some had predicted a pandemic baby boom, the exact opposite happened, as birthrates fell to historic lows.

A lot of young people also typically move for college, but the pandemic dashed many of those plans, too.

The Nielsen data shows that among Seattle-area adults, men were somewhat more likely than women to have plans to move. The median age for those with moving plans was significantly younger than the overall population – around 38 for those planning to move versus 46 for the general adult population. People who were unmarried and people who were employed full-time were also more likely to move.

Note that this data was compiled from questions about plans to move in general – the planned destination wasn’t specified. In other words, the data includes moves of those changing addresses within the metro area, as well as those moving away to other parts of the country.

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