Migrating for opportunity: It’s complicated and important

As we released the Opportunity Index earlier this week, we emphasized the importance of our shared agenda for expanding opportunity and prosperity across our state. While not strictly on point, this analysis by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox at New Geography offers an abundance of insight as to what makes successful places successful. (It’s also just a good read, as we’ve come to expect from them.)

Cities get ranked in numerous ways — by income, hipness, tech-savviness and livability — but there may be nothing more revealing about the shifting fortunes of our largest metropolitan areas than patterns of domestic migration.

Bright lights and culture may attract some, but people generally move to places with greater economic opportunity and a reasonable cost of living, particularly affordable housing.

Housing affordability is not one of our metrics, but it’s importance is obvious. This PSBJ article about a tech worker choosing Seattle over the Bay area despite the Seattle job paying $35,000 a year less makes the point with a powerful anecdote.

Steele and her husband are part of a growing number of people choosing Seattle over higher-paying jobs in Silicon Valley or the Bay Area because the cost of living is so much lower in the Puget Sound region. That trend is driving companies, such as Facebook and Twitter to expand their offices here and other Bay Area companies, such as Dropbox and Uber to open new offices in the city.

But the cost of living here is on the rise.
The building Steele moved into costs $4,500 per month, up 18 percent from when she lived there in 2013.

She estimates – based on analysis from friends back in California – that the same size of place in the heart of San Francisco, with an equally good view, would go for $8,000 to $11,000 a month.

Back to Kotkin and Cox, who looked at domestic migration – movement with the U.S. – and found that eight of the top ten fastest growing places are in Texas and the Southeast. Seattle still ranks among the top gainers.

The Pacific Northwest continues to attract more migrants than it loses, many from California. The big winner here has been No. 15 Seattle, which has gained 60,000 net migrants since 2010; in the last decade, the Emerald City barely managed 40,000 net migrants from 2000 to 2009.

Not being San Francisco is a good thing.

Generally speaking, there tends to be more growth in lower-tax states than in higher-taxed ones, but this analysis only goes so far. Blue metro areas like Seattle, Portland and Denver are luring new residents despite somewhat higher costs and stringent regulation. It seems likely that their success is that they are not California, a regulatory state on steroids.

But as migration extends to the heartland, the competition intensifies. Seattle is already challenged by comparisons with the City by the Bay. The Seattle Times notes the NYT story as just one example of recent “existential questions posed by out-of-town news outlets.”

We welcome all of the new discussion of economic vitality and opportunity. The questions are important. And so is the balance, the consideration of tradeoffs. And, we think the new Opportunity Index will be a valuable tool for policymakers concerned with assuring shared prosperity and expanded opportunity throughout the state.