Atlanta for decades was a top destination for Americans on the move, a powerful magnet with cheap housing, plentiful jobs and massive airport. That flow helped fuel the region's spectacular growth.
During the Great Recession, domestic migration slowed dramatically across much of the country and Atlanta’s flood turned to a trickle.
American mobility has rebounded in recent years, but not back to earlier levels. Meanwhile, nearly two dozen cities including Charlotte, Nashville and Phoenix have pulled ahead of Atlanta in attracting newcomers.
"Movement stopped in general. And as movement returned a bit, the destinations changed," said demographer William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Before the economic downturn, metro Atlanta was the nation’s second-most popular destination, averaging net migration of 65,336 people a year, behind only Riverside-San Bernandino, Cal. Between 2012 and 2017, Atlanta fell to 24th, adding 4,918 people annually, according to Frey, who analyzed census data.
The migratory flows affect more than your morning commute.
Older workers typically arrive at the peak of their earning power and when they retire, they start spending wealth they’ve accumulated over a lifetime, said Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center for Growth at the University of Georgia.
Young migrants, for their part, boost local economies because they bring innovation, skills, entrepreneurship and muscle, he added.
Some factors push people to move: lack of jobs, bad weather, family problems, boredom. Some factors pull people: affordable housing, intellectual challenges, an exciting or “cool” community, proximity to friends and family and – of course – hiring and high pay.
A raft of reasons has dampened migration nationwide, including a hangover from the housing crash, the crush of student loans and an aging population. Meanwhile Atlanta’s wage growth hasn’t kept pace with housing costs, making it less attractive than other cities.
The older you are, the less you move
Workers move most when they are young. But a growing share of Americans are now middle-aged – more likely to have families, own homes and feel settled. Only about a quarter of older Americans are looking to relocate, according to the AARP.
“What is pretty constant is that people mostly want to age in place,’’ said Danielle Arigoni, director of the AARP’s livable cities initiative. “People only tend to relocate when there is a lack of options.”
Atlanta hasn’t been immune. Before the Great Recession, its metro area ranked second among net arrivals for people age 55 or older, averaging 9,449 annually. Between 2012 and 2017, net additions averaged 390, 18th in the country, according to Brookings.
Atlanta’s warm climate long has been a draw, but older Americans will not move if they cannot sell their homes first or if they owe more on their mortgage than the sale price, said Arigoni.
Atlanta still attracts northerners – including nearly 10 percent of residents leaving New York, according to Redfin, the real estate brokerage. But decamping is harder if you live in the Rust Belt, where housing prices have come back more slowly than in Atlanta.
More reasons to stay put if you’re younger
Young Americans also are switching cities less than in previous decades.
One possible reason: Technology makes it easier to work from anywhere with an Internet connection.
"If you want to stay in your city, you can. We think that's impacting millennials in particular," said Daryl Fairweather, Redfin's chief economist.
At the same time, more jobs than ever require a state certification, adding to the cost and inconvenience of moving. Many people also are saddled with huge college debts and are living with their parents longer, she added.
Here, too, Atlanta is punching below its weight.
The metro area was a magnet for people aged 25 to 34 before the economic downturn, ranking third, averaging 12,167 net arrivals. It fell to 11th, averaging 5,709 arrivals between 2012 and 2017, according to Brookings.
Skylar Olsen, senior economist with Zillow, said Atlanta’s jobs haven’t offered as much tech-centric allure as some faster-growing cities.
“After the Great Recession, there was more of a bounce-back in places that were more centered on tech, like Seattle, Denver or San Francisco,” she said.
Olsen said living costs in some of those rapid-growth cities have surged, creating a potential opening for lower-cost cities like Atlanta in the coming years.
Hollie Allegra, 30, came to Atlanta from San Diego after the company her husband was working for was purchased. He got a job in fintech in Atlanta last summer and by the fall, they owned a two-bedroom condo in Brookwood.
» FROM 2016: Millennials among us—see where they live in metro Atlanta
» FROM 2016: How boomers and millennials are shaping Atlanta life
“Oh, my goodness, yeah,” said Allegra when asked if prices were cheaper here. “San Diego is insanity.”
Atlanta’s architecture reminds her of her native England, and she has found other things to like.
“It’s a very diverse city, a good culture, a really cool city. There is a good night life, there is so much to do,’’ she said. “It’s got the change of season. I think we are here for a long time.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Ludacris recruited, but home prices complicate pitch
Worried about the slowing influx, the Metro Atlanta Chamber in 2015 launched ChooseATL, a marketing campaign aimed at promoting the region to footloose young professionals.
ChooseATL attends millennial-fests like Austin’s South by Southwest, hosting music performances and panel discussions that showcase Atlanta talent. Rapper and actor Ludacris spoke in 2017. Last year, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and rapper T.I. Harris pitched their hometown.
Kate Atwood, ChooseATL’s executive director, says those efforts are paying off. She cites census data showing metro Atlanta gained 18,695 people aged 25-34 in 2017 and 2018 combined.
» RELATED: Atlanta ranks 10th in population increase, U.S. Census Bureau reports
» RELATED: American mobility declines, but Atlanta's still a popular destination
Those inflows are still lower than the go-go days before the Great Recession. Data also suggest Atlanta hasn’t made up lost ground against other cities.
Georgia was not among the top 10 destinations for moves handled by United Van Lines last year. U-Haul, which breaks out locations inside metro areas, lists only one Georgia city among top destinations: Smyrna at 22nd.
Although Atlanta still seems cheap to someone from San Diego, it’s no longer the case for young people from many other corners of the country.
"It seems like everything [in Atlanta] that is going up is a half-million-dollar town home." —Will Canady, recent home buyer
Average weekly wages in metro Atlanta rose 2.6 percent in the past year, according to Glassdoor. Meanwhile, home prices rose 7.7 percent, according to Re/Max Georgia, and rents were up 6.5 percent, according to ApartmentData.com.
Housing costs are an even bigger challenge for millennials attracted to in-town neighborhoods. Want to live near the Belt Line? The average home price in the Old Fourth Ward has risen 19 percent to $647,368 in the last two years, according to Adams Realtors. The average price in Morningside, next to Piedmont Park with popular public schools, stood at $1,045,290, up 29 percent in two years.
Will Canady, 26, grew up in Atlanta. Then he went off to a South Carolina college on a baseball scholarship, before working for nearly a year in Alabama.
After he got married last year, he and his wife decided they wanted to settle down in Atlanta. Because he provides online services for auto dealerships, he can do his job from basically anywhere.
But the couple was surprised how much homes cost inside the city – too much on their budget.
“It seems like everything that is going up is a half-million-dollar town home,” said Canady.
They expanded their search outward until they finally found a house they could afford.
They now live in Woodstock.