Pew Stateliness: People did move during the pandemic, but not far. Seattle’s loss is Orcas Island’s gain?

There’s been much written during the pandemic about domestic migration. About people leaving downtown offices to work from home, even when home is in another town or state. About crime, housing affordability, and unreliable transit systems making urban living less palatable, particularly when entertain and hospitality options shut down. And so on.

Pew Stateline leads its story on domestic movement with a Seattle perspective. 

The annual Halloween party last year was a revelation for locals in Orcas Island, Washington, a scenic rural spot 100 miles north of Seattle.

“For the first time in the 10 years we’ve lived here, we didn’t recognize about two-thirds of the families,” said Edee Kulper, a photographer who blogs about life on the island. “It was startling. There’s been such a quiet influx. One of the local schools has had to build an additional classroom to accommodate new families.”

…During the first year of the pandemic, more people moved out of Seattle than moved in, peaking at a 3,400 net loss in August 2020, Rayer found. Orcas Island gained 100 new residents over the course of the year, according to Stateline’s analysis.

Those 100 new residents weren’t necessarily Seattle ex-pats, but it’s likely a few were.

Pew reports,

Rural and suburban areas within big metro areas were especially likely to attract new movers, including individuals, families and businesses.


People kept moving to big metro areas during the pandemic but tended to favor more residential areas of the cities and big suburbs, said Stephan Whitaker, a policy economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland who has studied pandemic moves using consumer surveys.

“It’s a very strong phenomenon right now, staying within the metro area but moving to a suburban neighborhood rather than central, dense neighborhoods,” Whitaker said.

The pandemic may have sped up a change already in the making, he added, as millennials reach middle age and look for more space to raise families. He also noted that commuting has become less of an issue as more employers allow remote work.

Today’s Census report confirms the change in urban population, with a more expansive analysis.

“The patterns we’ve observed in domestic migration shifted in 2021,” said Dr. Christine Hartley, assistant division chief for estimates and projections in the Census Bureau’s Population Division. “Even though over time we’ve seen a higher number of counties with natural decrease and net international migration continuing to decline, in the past year, the contribution of domestic migration counteracted these trends so there were actually more counties growing than losing population.”  

In many cases, there was a shift from larger, more populous counties to medium and smaller ones. These patterns contributed to population increases in 1,822 counties (58.0%), while 1,313 (41.8%) lost residents, and eight (0.3%) saw no change in population.

Washington Research Council economist Kriss Sjoblom notes, According to the Census, King County lost population from 2020 to 2021.

The Associated Press writes,

Demographer William Frey said he believes the growth of micro areas and decreases in the biggest metros will be temporary, taking place at the height of people moving during the pandemic when work-from-home arrangements freed up workers from having to go to their offices.

We’ll see.