Key takeaways:

  • Irving and Lewisville in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex were the nation’s top cities at luring in renters in 2021, as a percentage of population
  • Millennials are the generation most on the move across the US, including 72% of the renters swapping New York City for Jersey City
  • Moving to a smaller city can get renters considerably more living space — New Yorkers gain 33% more home when relocating to Orlando, FL, and 18% more when moving to Irving, TX
  • Former ‘flyover country’ is becoming sought after — South Dakota and North Dakota are among the states seeing double the number of incoming compared to outgoing renters

Americans were on the move last year, adapting to changing job opportunities, expanding household sizes and pandemic restrictions. And, according to our most recent research of US migration patterns, renter interest grew stronger, with a 10% increase in renter applications in 2021 versus 2020. Some big urban hubs still attracted large renter cohorts, but smaller cities nearby stole the limelight as preferred destinations for apartment hunters.

As renting and self storage often go hand in hand, we were interested to see which are today’s renter havens, the cities that both attract and retain renter populations. To this end, the analysts at StorageCafe looked into 3.4M rental applications from RentGrow from 2021, illustrating renter interest across 257 markets with populations of over 100,000. We determined preferred migration destinations based on their applications, and we determined each destination city’s relative ranking for net renter migration — inbound minus outbound — as a proportion of its population. To get a further impression of a city’s popularity, we also looked at how many times its inbound migration was larger than its outbound. In addition, we examined demographics and changes in median income and average home size square footage that result from the moves.

Texas, and the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex in particular, strongly attracted incoming renters, just as they have been drawing in developers of storage and pretty much every other type of real estate. Communities a few miles out from the centers of metropolitan areas — and acting as ‘feeder’ cities, as their residents often commute — experienced some of the highest influxes of renters in relation to their population numbers.

Millennials are the renter age group most frequently wishing to move across the nation — 2.6 and 4.6 times more than Gen Xers and boomers, respectively — often reaping advantages by leaving large cities for smaller ones nearby or for ‘Cinderella’ states such as the Dakotas. Moving during the pandemic has certainly had its own specific pattern.

Dallas’s suburbs top the list of best cities for renters

Texas has been making headlines as a primary relocation destination for Californians. It is in fact attracting people from across the country, being the most popular state for state-to-state moves. Approx. 10.4% of all those interested in changing their residence for an out-of-state location, chose Texas. Florida, in second place, attracted 8.6%. With a strong economy and a growing housing market, which is also more affordable than many other in-demand regions, it’s no wonder the Dallas-Fort Worth area emerges as the most popular renter destination for Americans. Aside from two Dallas area feeder cities being the most popular places for renters based on our analysis of net migration as a percentage of population, Big D itself lands in the top 20 and Denton, in the north of the DFW metro, gets 24th place overall.

Irving comes out as the city that most appeals to renters. Home to a quarter of a million residents, it checks many boxes. It’s barely more than five miles from Dallas city center, its housing market features both space and affordable prices and it also hosts an enviable array of big-name employers. The inbound versus outbound ratio is 3.2, meaning that for every renter who left Irving in 2021, 3.2 people arrived. Dallasites constituted by far the largest percentage of incoming renters, more than three times the number that came from the city sending the second highest number, Arlington, TX.

Young families appreciate the place, with millennials making up the largest renter cohort moving into Irving – approximately 57% – with many attracted by the great employment options of the Las Colinas area as well as the lower cost of living. It’s perhaps no wonder that more than three times as many renters came here as left in 2021. In addition, 61% of Irving moves were between different states, with almost 12 times as many of those renters arriving as leaving in 2021, more than in any other sizable city in the country.

A little further out to the northwest in Denton County, Lewisville, in second place, is a focus for renters seeking both flexibility and recreational options in their choice of location and housing. Despite its population of barely more than 100K, it offers recreation for residents across the DFW, with boating and picnicking by its lake plus the new Railroad Park recreation grounds. Most of the renters moving to Lewisville are from other places in Texas – only 20% came from out of state – the highest number coming from Dallas.

The city of Dallas itself, however, sees fewer millennials arrive than leave, 47% compared to 57%. This generation especially, with young families and careers in full flow, are preferring Big D's nearby feeder towns. The cities that renters arriving in Dallas most often come from are Garland, Plano and Mesquite, while they most often leave for Irving, Plano and Arlington, all within the DFW Metroplex. Most frequently, out-of-staters come from Chicago and New York, increasing their apartment sizes by 17% and 18%, respectively. Dallas is far more favored by fellow Texans than by others, as only 29% of its new renters come from other states.

Further advancing the impression that the Lone Star State overall is a magnet for renters, Austin also stands out as a preferred renter destination. Austin scores 18th place in our overall ranking, receiving three times as many new renters as it lost. The city, already famous for its live music, good job opportunities and the most cosmopolitan atmosphere in Texas, has been welcoming people — including of course Elon Musk — from California and other places. Austin does significantly better than Dallas in attracting renters from other states, which make up no less than 44% of arrivals, and 57% of these are millennials.

Houston has been attracting renters for a while, and incoming renters account for more than one and a half times the number leaving. 37% of Space City’s new renters come from out of state, and 53% are millennials. The places Houston’s incoming renters most commonly come from are nearby Katy, Spring, Cypress and several other feeder cities in the area, but vigorous migration occurs in the other direction as well. Houston's large apartments average 881 square feet in size — even more than the 851 and 866 square feet available in Dallas and Austin. In addition, it has a can-do attitude that allows for building more and, to further help with living space, Houston self storage is plentiful and good value.

Florida's appeal still holding but attention shifts to mid-state cities like Orlando

Florida reached out to renters last year with its Opportunities for Utilities and Rental Assistance program, and of course its climate — in StorageCafe’s recent study of ideal snowbird destinations, six out of the top 10 were in the Sunshine State. Overall, almost 40% more renters arrived in Florida as left it last year, with Orlando shining brightest among their preferred cities.

Orlando scores third place in our general ranking but its story is much more nuanced. It’s actually the city with the most outbound migration as a percentage of population among the 257 cities we looked at. However, there were still one and a half times more renters coming in than moving out. This high fluidity may well be due to the changing employment prospects and the strong entertainment and technology sectors. The larger Floridian cities of Miami and Jacksonville provide substantial numbers of the Orlando incomers. Folk from the Big Apple are the most likely renters to arrive from out of state — with millennials and Gen Zers making up 52% and 21% of their numbers, respectively — and New Yorkers can expect a significant 33% living space increase in Orlando.

Welcome to Downtown Orlando
Downtown Orlando

Central Florida also scores 5th place on our list with Palm Bay, just an hour’s drive from Orlando. This city of a little over 100K residents welcomed almost three and a half times the number of new renters as those who left. Jacksonville was far and away the largest source of new arrivals, and while they might lose a little living space — an average drop from 945 to 935 square feet — Palm Bay self storage is on hand to hold their extra belongings. The demographics in Palm Bay are shifting toward millennials and older generations, with Gen Zers making up 21% of those arriving but more than 26% of those leaving.

At the other end of the spectrum, Miami said goodbye to 70% more renters than it welcomed in 2021. Orlando was the second most popular destination among them, after Doral, a suburb of Miami, reinforcing the impression that Floridian renters are preferring locations away from large urban centers. Anyone staying in Magic City or its surroundings can make use of Miami self storage to help them have an uncluttered lifestyle.

Arlington and Alexandria lure millennial renters away from DC

Arlington, Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington DC, has long been a place favored by families and by employees in the nation’s capital. Renting here is popular, many neighborhoods have excellent walkability, and Amazon’s soon-to-open HQ2 will be an added draw.

Scoring 4th place in our ranking, Arlington sees more than two and a half times the number of renters wanting to arrive than leave. Millennials make up about 51% of the former and 61% of the latter. Those arriving from DC are the biggest group of incomers, with the move resulting in a potential increase in both home sizes and earnings. Average apartment homes in Arlington are 854 square feet, around 15% bigger than those in DC. As far as incomes go, DC residents earn a median of $78,345, while in Arlington the median is $89,182. Other renters often arrive from Virginian cities further away from Washington such as Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax.

A little further down the Virginia side of the Potomac, but still less than half an hour’s drive or a subway ride from DC, historic Alexandria, in 16th place in terms of net migration per population, also offers Washingtonians around 15% extra living space. In addition, Alexandrians have a median income of $78,576, much in line with Washingtonians median income. Over half of those arriving in Alexandria in 2021 were millennials, and the renter demographic here became slightly younger overall.

Washington, DC, itself accounted for vigorous movement on the renter front in 2021, in both directions. Inbound migration exceeded outbound moves by almost two and a half to one. Interestingly enough, it seems the District has been leaking millennials, with 46% of the move-ins and 60% of those moving out belonging to Gen Y. However, Washington DC is attracting the youngest renters, with Gen Zers making up 29% of arrivals compared to 19% of those who left. Most leaving renters go to other places in the DMV. New York City is the most common non-DMV city of origin of those arriving, and they see a small average increase in their average living space, by 2.5% to 741 square feet.

Jersey welcomes New Yorkers, who get big living space gains in the process

Jersey City was a magnet for renters during 2021, with more than three times as many arriving as leaving. As might be predicted, the great majority came from just over the Hudson River. The job market is becoming increasingly attractive in Jersey City and the housing market allows for more room to roam, as apartments are larger in Jersey City, 786 sq. ft. vs. 723 sq. ft. in Manhattan, on average.

The Jersey City self storage market can also make it easier for people to move and enjoy their new homes. Average storage rents for non-climate-controlled 10’x10’ units in Jersey City are $218, lower than street rates in New York City self storage, which averages out at $247 across the five boroughs, and much less than the $379 in Manhattan alone, as per Yardi Matrix data. The Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island self storage sectors, however, tend to offer lower rates.

With all the move-ins, Jersey City is getting more of a young vibe, as 69% of inbound renters are millennials — as are 72% of the incomers from the Big Apple — and 19% are Gen Zers. New York City, by contrast, saw twice as many renters leave as arrive, the most striking negative net migration in the nation, and they chose Jersey City more than anywhere else.

Jersey City from Manhattan
Jersey City from Manhattan

College towns in Colorado and Arizona get increased attention even in pandemic times

Boulder, Colorado, with a population of just over 100K, acts as a feeder city for Denver at only half an hour’s drive away. It also has a greater net migration than the state capital, with 2.7 renters arriving in 2021 for every one that left. In harmony with Boulder’s large student population — the University of Colorado’s main campus is here — no fewer than 59% of the new arrivals were Gen Zers, compared to just 21% millennials. Moving and a lack of available space at home are among the main demand drivers of the self storage market in Boulder, which expanded its inventory by more than 100K square feet between 2020 and 2021, 79% more than the square footage increase of the year before. Westminster in 33rd place and Lakewood in 40th place are two more Colorado cities that are popular with renters on the move.

Another college town, Tempe, Arizona, is just five miles east of central Phoenix and hosts Arizona State University’s main campus. Almost twice as many renters arrived as left in 2021, with those coming in from Phoenix getting approximately 10% more in terms of living space, moving from 798 to 877 square feet. Bucking the trend witnessed in similarly suburban places, an older renter demographic shift is seen in Tempe, with millennials making up 38% of arrivals and 48% leavers, and with roughly the same proportion of Gen Zers, 39%, going in both directions. Other Metro Phoenix cities do very well in terms of attracting renters, with Scottsdale in 20th, Glendale in 53rd and Mesa in 56th spots, and these places all also have their college crowds.

Interstate Migration: Now landing in ‘flyover country,’ the Great Plains see strong renter interest

Millennial renters are the generation most likely to make a move between states, making up 37% of the total number of the state-to-state migrating renters, with Gen Zers the next largest cohort at 30%. And they are often choosing states that don't appear on the radar so regularly.

Traditionally losing ground to more hyped states on the East and West coasts, US prairie states such as North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska have been intent on amping up their appeal in recent times. The Dakotas both saw double the number of incoming renters than outgoers, with Maine the only other state registering the same high figure.

In fact, the Great Plains city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, achieved the highest ratio in the entire country of inbound versus outbound migration, almost four to one. Also in the top 10 in this respect is another Great Plains city, Lincoln, Nebraska, which saw two and a half times as many incoming renters as leavers in 2021 — and they were all millennials and Gen Zers, so the communities here can look forward to an increasingly youthful ambiance. Kansas, also a Great Plains state, contributes Overland Park, just outside the top 10 in 12th place for net migration.

The migration patterns of renters solely from out of state sees Nevada, Colorado and Arizona joining the Great Planes states, with around two and a half times more renters coming in from other states as leaving.

Sioux Falls South Dakota
Sioux Falls South Dakota

Illinois — still called The Prairie State — boasts 85% more arrivals than leavers, and purely in terms of raw net migration numbers, Chicago was in first place last year. The most popular routes into Chi-Town were from Baltimore, Indianapolis, New York and St. Louis, while within Illinois people were moving there most often from Evanston and Naperville. Although Chi-Town’s outbound migration numbers were also high — 4th after New York, Dallas and Houston — they were equivalent to only 29% of the incoming renters.

Chicago’s high net migration of 3.5 incomers for every leaver is most marked at both the younger and older ends of the age spectrum. Due to the city’s size, it gets 28th position in our ranking calculated as a proportion of population. For every Gen Zer that left Chicago last year, more than five arrived, and the Gen X and boomer generations combined were more than four times keener to start renting in Chicago than to leave it. By contrast, Millennials were only about two and a half times as likely to be coming as going, reinforcing the observation that this generation is preferring to gravitate to smaller cities.

Chicago Skyline across water
Chicago Skyline

As people worked from home, with a commute no longer necessary in many cases, they became accustomed to living in quieter surroundings in 2021, and this looks like continuing. The migration of renters to feeder towns located near the nation’s large cities reflects this. This takes the form of 'native' growth, where people migrating within the same area increase local populations, and 'non-native' growth where they swap one geographical area for another. Then there is the increased attraction of regions not so often considered preferred places to live.

Millennials show up as the generation most ready to make such moves, indicating that these newly desirable destinations appeal to those with young families — they may also have careers they can pursue from a home office or the entrepreneurial drive necessary to start a business in a new location. Many may still feel a spirit of change upon them as the pandemic recedes, wanting to put down roots somewhere new in America’s changing landscape.

What the experts are saying

To increase our understanding of migration trends on the US right now we asked some experts to give us their comments.

Robert Silverman, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo

Robert Silverman, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, School of Architecture and Planning, University at Buffalo
Robert Silverman

How has the pandemic influenced renter migration trends? Have you observed feeder cities and suburbs gaining traction over gateway cities?

In general, migration slowed during the pandemic. There has been an overall trend toward Americans moving at lower rates for several decades. That trend held during the pandemic. It actually dipped somewhat. Even if people move at slightly higher rates coming out of the pandemic, the general trend toward lower rates of moving should continue to follow the longer, more established historic trends. The dip in moving during the pandemic was most likely linked to concerns about COVID and perceived uncertainty about the economy. Some involuntary moves were also staved off because there were eviction moratoriums in place and other types of assistance available to prevent mortgage foreclosures. There are some differences in the trends between cities that were growing and those that were not during the pandemic. Places that were growing may have experienced less of a slow down in in-migration than other cities. But, generally, the overall pattern during the pandemic was that migration dipped everywhere to some extent.

Do you see working from home continuing to be popular and changing people’s preferences for where they live?

There is a larger percentage of the workforce that is working remotely, at least part of the work week, now than before the pandemic. That was a trend that was in place before the pandemic, but accelerated out of necessity. There will probably be an equilibrium reached between in-office and remote work as we come out of the pandemic. A lot of that will be determined by how employers calculate the costs and benefits of different work modalities. I don’t think remote working will change people’s preferences for where to live too much. Even with hybrid work modalities, people will need to have access to an on-site work setting, and most considerations related to where to live tie into lifestyle, cost, and community amenity preferences that pre-dated the pandemic and will continue to be considered in the future.

In the current trends of migrating within the nation, are any new generational differences being observed?

Not really. Most of the trends related to migration are cohort specific. Younger cohorts move more, once households begin forming families, migration declines. Moving increases somewhat later in life when people retire and begin to seek out communities for seniors. The same drivers that influenced cohort differences in migration 40 or 50 years ago are in place today. The general trend is still toward migration from cities to suburbs, with some reverse migration for younger cohorts up until they begin to form families. It is mainly a demographically driven process. In terms of renters, the biggest trend is that younger cohorts are delaying the transition to homeownership due to financial constraints and debt. But, that hasn’t shown up in the migration data. In other words, those who rent, tend to stay in the same residence in ways that conform to the general trend toward lower rates of moving.

Peter A. Rogerson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Geography, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Buffalo

Peter A. Rogerson, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Geography, College of Arts and Sciences, University at Buffalo
Peter Rogerson

How has the pandemic influenced renter migration trends? Have you observed  feeder cities and suburbs gaining traction over gateway cities?

Yes – suburbs, and smaller places not far from major metropolitan areas have seen increased rates of growth and relatively high increases in housing prices.

Do you see working from home continuing to be popular and changing people’s preferences for where they live?

It would not be surprising to see a significant proportion of the labor force continuing to work from home. Currently, when workers have a choice of jobs, the ability to work from home is a major factor in their decision. There is no reason to think that this will not continue to be the case, at least for a very long time.

In the current trends of migrating within the nation, are any new generational differences being observed?

Younger generations continue to leave rural areas and lagging economies, seeking and finding employment in growing metropolitan areas and consequently leaving their origin places with an older age structure. Older generations move less frequently, moving both to and from retirement destinations. But these observations are not new. In addition to the aging places that result from the out-migration of younger people, two of the most important trends are (1) the now decades-long decline in migration rates, and (2) the more recent pandemic-era movement of households out of major metropolitan areas.

Haydar Kurban, Director at the Center of Excellence in Housing and Urban Research and Policy (CHURP), and Professor in the Department of Economics, Howard University

Haydar Kurban, Director at the Center of Excellence in Housing and Urban Research and Policy (CHURP), and Professor in the Department of Economics, Howard University
Haydar Kurban

In the current trends of migrating within the nation, are any new generational differences being observed?

The U.S. migration patterns, both short distance (within county) and long distance (between counties) have been in decline since 1980s. After the Great Recession of 2009, the decline in within-county mobility has been faster compared to between-county mobility rates.  During the pandemic, family and work-related migration declined and the drop in youth mobility was the largest. Due to supply chain, labor shortage, and transportation problems during the pandemic, the construction of new housing did not catch up with demand. Many larger cities, especially New York City, have experienced return migration of those who left denser urban areas at the beginning of the pandemic. Consequently, housing affordability has started to affect a larger segment of society.

Sean Wilkoff, Assistant Professor of Finance, The College of Business, University of Nevada, Reno

Sean Wilkoff, Assistant Professor of Finance, The College of Business, University of Nevada, Reno
Sean Wilkoff

How has the pandemic influenced renter migration trends? Have you observed feeder cities and suburbs gaining traction over gateway cities?

The pandemic shifted the way in which people could work and the amenities they could enjoy. This shift in work and amenities has influenced renter and homeowner migration trends. We have seen more and more renters and homeowners moving out of gateway cities and into feeder cities. Take for example, my home city of Reno. Prior to the pandemic, the housing demand, from renters and homeowners, was met by the housing supply. Once the pandemic hit home prices and rents dramatically increased. This increase was due to the unexpected demand from the renters and homeowners moving from places like San Francisco. Even people that wanted to be homeowners could not find a home and had to go into the rental market, driving up rents even further. In fact, the housing supply has still not caught up with this new demand. So yes, I think the pandemic has shifted renter migration trends from gateway cities to feeder cities. Now that renters can work remotely, they are interested in a different set of amenities that feeder cities can better offer.

Do you see working from home continuing to be popular and changing people’s preferences for where they live?

I do see working from home continuing to be popular and I think people’s preferences for where they live have already changed. I think people got a taste of the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere and are not interested in going back to how it used to be. The pandemic forced companies to run an experiment. They were forced to see if employees can be productive at home and in a lot of cases the employees showed the companies the answer is yes. There will always be people who want to be in the office and get a break from home. Overall, though, there has been a shift in people’s preferences for where they want to live. I have many friends who have moved to where they want to live and then found a job in a completely different city that allows remote work. Putting your location preference first without a concern for jobs in the area was not widely available prior to the pandemic. I think people’s preferences have changed as they no longer need to factor in a commute time as part of their preference.

Methodology

  • This analysis was done by StorageCafe, an online platform that provides storage unit listings across the nation. 
  • Some aggregated and wholly anonymized rental application data was sourced from RentGrow, Inc. No personal identifiable or confidential consumer information was disclosed, received or used in connection with this article.
  • The analysis was based on data from 3.4 million rental applications for 2021. (The latest US Census's Population and Housing Unit Estimates — which are not at city level — are based on data from April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021, and so are less up to date). To ensure samples with a sufficiently large amount of data, this analysis includes only cities with populations of more than 100,000 residents and with a minimum of 500 rental applications.
  • Data about the average square footage of apartment homes and about self storage was sourced from Yardi Matrix.
  • Population data and median income data were taken from US Census 2020 estimates.

Fair use and distribution

This study serves as a resource for the general public on issues of common interest and should not be regarded as investment advice. The data is true to the best of our knowledge but may change if amendments to it are made. We agree to the distribution of this content but we do require a mention in return for attribution purposes.

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Francis Chantree is a writer for StorageCafe and other divisions of Yardi. He is a former programmer and researcher who has exchanged computer language for his greatest passion, human language! When not writing and proofreading text, he spends his time gardening and reading.

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