Make Sun Belt Cities more like New York and Los Angeles


But it’s where these workers have settled that are experiencing the growing pains of a new generation of migrants. Former coastal dwellers who have migrated to cheaper pastures still want the same conveniences on the big subways they’ve grown accustomed to — and the Sun Belt destinations they flock to don’t have enough of them. Put another way, we need more whole food stores — and other types of cosmopolitan consumption options — in the Sunbelt.

Recent population data from the US Census Bureau confirmed the anecdotes: the largest population exoduses over the past year have been from coastal cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And a recent study by Vanderbilt University and Georgia Tech sheds more light on who left and why: high-income households and primarily for lifestyle reasons. Migration patterns of low-income households have remained relatively unchanged.

Of course, people have been moving to Florida from the Northeast for decades, but pandemic migration has been a phenomenon in its own right and is having important implications for developers and city planners. The stereotypical migrant was someone nearing retirement, perhaps a government employee on a pension who moved from a state like New Jersey or Illinois to Florida or Arizona in search of cheaper housing, lower taxes, and warmer weather. Although the new migration is triggered by some of the same reasons, different types of people are moving with different lifestyle preferences.

People who relocate to take advantage of remote work opportunities tend to be well educated, have high incomes and are in the midst of working life. And while they’re moving to lower-cost locations, they still want to live like they do in those more expensive cities. In contrast to pensioner migration, good schools are also likely to play a role.

In the past, well-paid knowledge workers gravitated to the coasts, while the Sunbelt subways boomed thanks to jobs in real estate and lower-paying sectors – after all, employers were drawn to the Sunbelt for its plentiful land, cheaper labor and low taxes. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the supply of neighborhoods, real estate, and retail outlets for educated, high-income per capita people in Tennessee or Georgia is less than in California.

Comparing the number of Whole Foods locations is a useful way to quantify the problem. Education is the most important of the demographic characteristics that are taken into account when making location decisions. Coastal states and high-income metropolises are better educated than their Sunbelt counterparts.

For example, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, DC have 206 whole food stores compared to 115 in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.

When out-of-state migrants bring their large real estate budgets to the city, they don’t have as many neighborhoods to choose from with the properties they want. And when they beat local buyers for homes, those local buyers are pushed into the suburbs and outskirts — Whole Foods deserts. It’s a new twist on gentrification.

“Build more homes” is an obvious answer to this problem. But developers also need to attract more Whole Foods stores to create neighborhoods that cater to tastes refined along the coast.

Going forward, the pandemic wave of migration means we shouldn’t have such great disparities in education and income levels between coastal cities and those in the Sun Belt. But to keep their new residents happy, the fast-growing Sunbelt subways must evolve to meet the demands of their changing population. In other words, the sunbelt needs to get closer to shore.

More from other authors at Bloomberg Opinion:

• New York’s economy still hasn’t caught up: Justin Fox

• Remote work won’t kill New York: Pete Saunders

• The world no longer needs financial centers: Paul J. Davies

• Florida may lose some of its baby boomer luster: Conor Sen

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and founder of Peachtree Creek Investments. He is a contributor to Atlantic and Business Insider and lives in Atlanta.


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