A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 18, 2023

The Reasons People Won't Stop Moving To the Sun Belt

The primary reasons are cheaper housing, lots of well-paid jobs - and the weather in January. 

Many would prefer California, but it's largely unaffordable, already crowded and has high taxes. The northeast is similarly crowded and expensive. The South and West are adding culture and good restaurants as the population grows, making them more attractive. Climate risks are increasing, but they are not yet as important an incentive as cheaper homes and winter golf. JL 

Olga Khazan reports in The Atlantic:

The 50 counties with the greatest extreme-heat risk grew 5% from 2016 to 2020. 12 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. are in the Sun Belt. Of the top 50 zip codes (with) the largest increases in new residents, 86% were in Texas, Florida, and Arizona. These places have less expensive housing, lots of jobs, and warm winters. It’s easier to build on an immense desert than California or in old cities like Boston. The median home price in LA is $975,000. In the Phoenix suburbs, $520,000. Many end up in the South because they aim for California, realize they can’t afford it, and settle for Phoenix or Austin. (But) “no variable better predicts growth than January temperature.”

When it gets hot enough, as it has across the South in recent weeks, barefoot toddlers suffer second-degree burns from stepping onto concrete. People who fall on the blistering pavement wind up with skin grafts. Kids stay inside all day, “trying to survive.” Windshield wipers glue themselves in place, and the ocean transfers heat back into your body. One electric blackout could bake thousands to death inside their homes.

You would think people would flee such a hellscape expeditiously. But as record-breaking heat fries the Sun Belt, the region’s popularity only grows. The numbers, laid out recently in The Economist, are striking: 12 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. are in the Sun Belt. Of the top 50 zip codes that saw the largest increases in new residents since the start of the pandemic, 86 percent were in blazing-hot Texas, Florida, and Arizona.

To be sure, during the pandemic people also moved to a few relatively cool cities in Idaho, Utah, and Colorado. But hot places overwhelmingly dominate nearly every ranking of population growth and migration: The 50 counties with the greatest extreme-heat risk grew by nearly 5 percent from 2016 to 2020 due to migration, according to Redfin data. Meanwhile, the 50 counties with the lowest heat risk saw their population decrease from migration by 1.4 percent in the same time period. Those hot counties were led by Texas’s Williamson County, near Austin, whose population grew by 16 percent from inbound migration, and where 100 percent of homes have a “high heat risk.”

The South may be approaching the approximate ambient temperature of Venus, but that’s no deterrent. People keep wanting to move there. (I count myself among these people, as someone who has dedicated the past year of my life to finding a house in Florida.) This unstoppable appeal of Sun Belt cities rests on three factors: These places tend to have less expensive housing, lots of jobs, and warm winters. None of these is sufficient to attract people in large numbers, but together they seem to generate an irresistible force, sucking up disaffected northerners and Californians like a fiery tornado.

Cheap housing

These days, you don’t have to wonder how the other half lives. You can open up Redfin and see how much house you can get in Dallas for less than your New York rent.The median home price in Los Angeles is $975,000. The median home price in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler is $520,000. it’s just easier to build on an immense, unending desert than around the mountains of California or in old cities like Boston. Once you have this knowledge, it can be hard to evict it from your mind. What would you do with an extra half a million dollars?

The one thing every sunny, growing city has in common is affordable housing. This explains why Los Angeles, with its unimpeachable weather, is losing residents (including to Phoenix). It’s “vastly easier to mass produce housing in the suburbs of Phoenix or the suburbs of Houston than it is anyplace in coastal California or the Northeast,” says Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard. Cities in the Northeast and West tend to make it harder to get construction permits, and they have zoning requirements that make building affordable housing in desirable areas difficult. Plus, it’s just easier to build on an immense, unending desert than around the mountains of California or in old cities like Boston. In a study in 2007, Glaeser found that in the 1970s and ’80s, housing supply increased by 20 percent more in the South than elsewhere in the country.

In fact, many people seem to end up in the South because they aim for the perfect climate of California, quickly realize they can’t afford it, and settle for a similarly warm, cheaper place, like Phoenix or Austin. Just ask Elon Musk.

A “business-friendly” environment

Not all hot, affordable places are created equal. Austin became a pandemic boom town, but Midland, a West Texas city that’s just as warm and even less expensive, did not. This is where a complex mix of economic growth, human capital, and a certain yuppie je ne sais quoi come into play.

The Sun Belt cities that have soared are mostly in states with low taxes, which helps attract businesses. But many are also home to prominent universities that churn out highly educated workers. They’ve successfully created “agglomeration economies” of lots of similar types of companies in close proximity. Austin has the University of Texas, an Apple campus, and throngs of upwardly mobile Californians and New Yorkers who have fled high house prices. Midland, well, does not.

Austin began its strategy of luring tech workers as early as the 1970s and ’80s, when UT’s then business-school dean, George Kozmetsky, recruited computing companies to the area and launched incubators to nurture local talent (one of his mentees was a UT student named Michael Dell). Companies tend to cluster near other, similar companies—a phenomenon that explains Silicon Valley in California, Kendall Square in Cambridge, and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Knowledge workers like to be near people who can provide them with mentorship and job leads. You might not want to stay at your job forever, so it’s nice to have other companies to jump to. Businesses and educated workers tend to attract each other, and attract more businesses, creating a virtuous circle. In the first year of the pandemic, Austin had the highest inflow of tech workers of any major city.

Many of the booming Sun Belt cities also possess the seeds of a hip Millennial lifestyle: Live music, outdoor recreation, and interesting bars and restaurants. The newcomers demand even more microbreweries and tapas places, which then sprout up and attract more newcomers. “When the people come, they in turn change the place,” says Cullum Clark, the director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative. “The place becomes bigger; it becomes richer; it becomes more cosmopolitan.” And expat Californians tend to like that.

Warm winters

Walter Bimson, the chair of Valley National Bank and a mid-century booster of Phoenix, once explained that people would surely move to the desert city, because they “want to flee from shoveling coal and from shoveling snow.”

His hunch—that people love sun—has persisted as a lay explanation for Sun Belt migration, but polling on the significance of weather to people’s moving decisions is sparse. Weather often gets wrapped into a nebulous factor called “amenities” or “quality of life,” which can also include the local schools and crime rates.


When asked, many people name better weather as a reason for their move, but not the reason. In 2018 survey data shared with me by the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida, the top reasons people gave for moving to Florida were to be closer to family (37 percent), to start a new job (22 percent), and then the climate or weather (14 percent.) A 2014 Gallup poll found that weather was a prominent reason for those seeking to leave Illinois, Maryland, and Idaho, but it wasn’t the top reason for movers from any state. People who moved during the pandemic were likely to cite financial reasons or COVID risk as their motivations.

Still, it would be weird to ignore the sun in Sun Belt. This is something that all the experts I spoke with eventually conceded—that weather is hard to find in the data behind the Sun Belt’s rise, but it’s also hard to explain away. “No variable better predicts metropolitan-area growth over the last 120 years than January temperature,” Glaeser says. “Everybody likes playing golf in the winter,” says Enrico Moretti, an economist at UC Berkeley. “People really don’t like cold winters,” says Jenny Schuetz, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. People might not always admit it, but they appear to like warm weather.

Warm winters seem to act as an accelerant on cheap housing and plentiful jobs. People will vaguely consider a place with lots of new businesses and $300,000 homes, but once they see a few hundred Instagram posts of 70-degree February days, they call the moving company. “I think it’s word of mouth. It’s Instagram. A place gets buzz,” says the University of Toronto professor (and Atlantic contributor) Richard Florida. “‘My friends are there. It’s fun. They’re going out to restaurants; they’re going to the beach; winter doesn’t look cold.’” If you can work remotely, why not?

Chambers of commerce, real-estate agents, and industries that attract workers to warm-weather states tend to play up the “golf in the winter” element and play down the “lava-hot July.” “January, February, and March are the three reasons why people were attracted” to the Sun Belt, says Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU who has written several books about Sun Belt cities. “Housing-industry developers, real-estate brokers, they don’t talk about the summers. They talk about January, February, and March.”

A Sun Belt tipping point?

That said, all of these new Arizonans and Texans might leave if their cities continue heating and also escape the realm of affordability. There’s already an exodus afoot from Miami, for instance. The conservative governors of some Sun Belt states likely don’t appeal to the creative, liberal types who are drawn to cities. “Let’s say you’re a gay designer who moved to Miami. Now you look up and you see Ron DeSantis,” Richard Florida says. “And you go, What the fuck am I doing here?

Florida thinks the next great migration, for both climate and affordability reasons, will be north. Midwestern towns that can offer good amenities without scorching summers, such as Madison or Pittsburgh, are poised to offer a Sun Belt alternative. The Midwest currently has the most worker-relocation incentive programs, which pay remote workers to move to an underpopulated city. (Indiana alone has 16.) Or people might migrate to slightly cooler parts of warm states, choosing Flagstaff over Phoenix. (This is already happening, to some extent.)

For now, though, climatologists’ dire predictions don’t seem to be fazing people. Sure, Texans would prefer for it to be cooler, but the heat is apparently just this side of tolerable. Many residents of Phoenix and Dallas spend their summer days rotating between air-conditioned houses, air-conditioned cars, and air-conditioned offices, minimizing the felt impact of the triple-digit heat. “The fact that people are moving more into climate-risky places, and away from lower-risk places, suggests either that climate risk isn’t a primary factor that’s driving this, or that something else, like the cost of housing, is weighing out more than the climate risks,” Schuetz says.


Knowledge of flood risk can nudge people toward lower-risk homes, according to a study by Redfin, but it’s unclear if this is true for more widespread climate risks, like heat. What’s the “safer” house if 100 percent of a county has a high heat risk? It would be unfair to write off people moving to the Sun Belt as irrational or ignorant. We would all love a cheap house and a good job in a city that’s just warm enough. But life involves compromise. There aren’t enough houses in California. There aren’t enough jobs in Cleveland. Sometimes the best you can afford is Phoenix. “We can’t tell them not to move there,” Schuetz says, “unless we make it feasible for them to live in other places that are lower risk.”


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