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Goodbye, San Francisco. Hello, Nashville. Americans are fleeing dysfunctional cities.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/2/2022 Ryan Streeter

Unplanned experiments can lead to breakthroughs. Two years after “the summer of COVID and crime,” when the coronavirus and surging violence swept through America’s urban areas, cities are ripe for reform.

Not since the 1990s has the need to improve and transform metropolitan areas been as great. While it’s too early to predict an urban renaissance, it is also too early to rule one out.

The failures of Great Society programs produced a flurry of reforms in American cities 30 years ago: from school choice to community policing to welfare reform. Today, high-cost and dysfunctional cities from New York to San Francisco are suffering from missteps exacerbated by the recent crises, and need to be reformed.

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Before COVID-19 separated place of work from place of residence for millions of workers, larger cities could afford to be unaffordable. Their leaders could champion progressive notions of “equity” while quietly pricing out the middle class, just as they could decry “racist cops” while silently relying on police to keep their streets safe. Two years after the summer of 2020, things have changed.

Companies moving out of high-cost areas

The recent cascading announcements by companies such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Oracle Corp., Boeing Co., Citadel, among others, that they are leaving high-cost urban areas for more livable cities in states such as Florida, Texas and Virginia have not happened in a vacuum.

Urban leaders who have treated cost-of-living concerns, crime and schools as unworthy of their attention are discovering that many residents no longer find their cities worthy of their continued loyalty, or tax dollars.

As crime rates soared, urban elites downplayed the crime problem that every urban resident knew was worsening. They defunded or restrained the police as violence skyrocketed. People fled urban areas and others stopped moving to them.

Between 2020 and 2021, roughly the same share of Black residents left large cities as moved into the suburbs.

Historically, when people leave troubled cities, they head for places we might call “opportunity metros” (places such as Austin, Texas,  Nashville, Tennessee, and Raleigh, North Carolina, for example) with good job prospects and livability.

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They still do, but because the location of one’s job is less relevant for millions of workers, people have moved primarily because of quality-of-life and affordability concerns, which have exposed the deep weaknesses of America’s higher-cost cities.

So, two years after America’s unplanned COVID-and-crime experiment began, we can take stock of some lessons for reformers.

Miami is top destination for New Yorkers

First, opportunity metros did well during the pandemic. Among the 56 metro areas with more than a million residents, familiar destinations such as Austin and Raleigh continued to serve as landing pads for coastal migrants, but so did places like Jacksonville, Florida, and Oklahoma City

Apartment rental data shows that Miami was the top destination for people fleeing New York, and data from the real estate company Redfin shows that Los Angeles was the No. 1 point of origin during the past two years for people moving to Dallas.

The common characteristics of those destination cities – relatively affordable housing, amenities, good jobs – can be found almost anywhere people have moved to during the pandemic.

Second, new business growth and business confidence have migrated to opportunity metros, heartland cities and the suburbs. In an unexpected reversal of a 40-year trend, startups increased during the pandemic, especially in places such as Houston and Charlotte, North Carolina. 

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Census surveys show that two years after COVID lockdowns began, Charlotte; Riverside, California; Miami and Phoenix were the four cities where most employers said their operations had returned to normal. San Francisco and San Jose were at the bottom of the list.

Employers in New York, San Francisco and San Jose were among the most likely to say COVID had hurt their businesses, while those in Indianapolis, Tampa and Denver were the least likely.

The trend is obvious. Whether expressed by footloose workers with marketable skills or employers trying to grow their businesses, the geography of opportunity has skewed away from long-established large older cities.

The third and most publicized lesson since 2020 is that devaluing policing, either by defunding or restricting police operations, is disastrous for entire metro areas. Surveys show an uptick in concern about crime even in the safer suburbs of cities that have been awash in violence.

A predictable, avoidable policy failure

Most clear-eyed observers were noting that Blacks in urban areas were among the least supportive of defunding the police as early as July 2020, and yet it was not until the New York mayoral primary the following year that progressives began, often begrudgingly, to acknowledge the crime problem. 

Fourth, school districts in especially progressive urban areas unintentionally have done more to renew an interest in school choice than conservative education reform advocates could have done on their own. De-enrollment in public schools was nearly twice as high in Democratic strongholds than in Republican areas as urban progressives wrongly assumed that Democratic parents would simply comply with their draconian school closure and related policies.

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In one of the most predictable, and totally avoidable, policy failures in recent memory, their legacy will surely be staggering learning losses for some of the country’s most disadvantaged students.

Reformers would do well to remember that cities improved in the 1990s through policies that were controversial at first – such as charter schools, public housing reform and welfare reform – but produced results that urban residents ultimately embraced.

Today’s urban leaders need the courage to upset the status quo by realizing that lowering housing costs, increasing public safety, offering greater options for high-quality schooling, and being hospitable to people running small- and medium-size companies is a winning formula.

Ryan Streeter is the director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Goodbye, San Francisco. Hello, Nashville. Americans are fleeing dysfunctional cities.

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