Written by Shona Lovie
For the fourth year in a row, Atlanta is the “number one city people are moving to”, according to CNN Money and Penske…but is it really? The Atlanta metro region is no stranger to growth of course, but lately the fuss has been directed toward the city itself. While the metro area began to see growth in the 80’s and 90’s, the City of Atlanta lost over 100,000 residents between 1970 and 1990. In recent years, however, the city has experienced its own population boom (move over, Gwinnett), and is preparing to add a significant portion of the 2.5 million new residents slated to come to the region by 2040. This boom has not occurred without its share of controversy, from hand-wringing over displacement, to constant fretting over increasing home prices, to justifiable panic over just how all these extra people are going to get around (infamous traffic + influx of people + yet another year without public transit expansion = fresh hell). All of these issues raise the question – what exactly is this “boom” all about? Is it really happening to the extent that Atlantans believe? If so, where is the most growth taking place? And what are the driving factors behind it?
It turns out that if you separate the metro area from the City of Atlanta, the growth is still largely taking place in the suburbs (sigh). Fastest growing Gwinnett County (followed by Cobb, Fulton, and Cherokee counties) just won’t give it up, apparently showing no signs of stopping after doubling its population between 1980-1990, and again from 1990-2010. Gwinnett added 15,700 of the 60,300 new Atlanta-area residents between 2014 and 2015, bringing its total population to an estimated 877,972 residents, almost double the population of the City of Atlanta, 447,841 residents. By contrast, the City of Atlanta itself added 4,800 residents, landing at a whopping 146th place for city population growth in the country. It’s not even the fastest growing city in the metropolitan statistical area (MSA) – that distinction belongs to young professional hotspots (wait, what?) Smyrna and Sandy Springs. So it would appear that it’s not just the city itself that is “number one place that people are moving to”; the MSA is still attracting the bulk of newcomers (and it seems that many ranking publications consider the city and the metro area one and the same).
While it’s slightly surprising that the ‘burbs are stealing the young professionals, I honestly wasn’t too surprised that the metro counties are hogging the lion’s share of the growth. After all, young people eventually grow older, and the cultural trajectory of graduate college -> move to the city for a career -> have kids and move to the suburbs is still very much intact, not just in the South, but all over the country. So it makes sense that families would move to the ATL suburbs for the sought after combination of job opportunities and the availability and affordability of single family homes (a scarcer resource in the city; see below).
That said, there are certainly parents resisting the call of the burbs and purposefully staying in the city to raise their families. At dinner just the other night, two friends of mine who are raising their young kids in Candler Park described the dilemma: “I know I could move to the suburbs and have quadruple the space and half the price…but I just can’t do it,” he lamented. It’s clear that he as well as other young parents are coming/staying for the many family and community activities and of the in-town neighborhoods.
One can only imagine the Hunger Games-style showdowns for the last remaining Candler Park bungalow
This trend will probably continue as city-minded Millennials grow older and start their own families. Troublingly, however, there is a dearth of new single family housing construction in the city when compared to the rest of the metro area. Ninety-three percent of new housing permits for Gwinnett County in 2014 were for single family homes, while Fulton County issued 70 percent of its permits for multi-family dwellings. Darin Givens of the ATL Urbanist points this out saying, “If we want to undo the trend of families choosing suburbs over intown neighborhoods, one of the most important things we’ll need to do is provide places for them to live.” One can only imagine the Hunger Games-style showdowns for the last remaining Candler Park bungalow if the situation doesn’t improve.
So what are the reasons behind families and young professionals (the ones who aren’t settling in Sandy Springs) still choosing to move to Atlanta, after the last couple decades of regional growth? The economy, for one, has recovered well after the recession. The affordability is still a draw for sure, though just how affordable is a complicated and debated issue. Atlanta also has up-and-coming film and tech industries, in addition to being home to a number of Fortune 500 companies.
Thanks to generous tax credits, the film industry in Georgia is (still) a growing multi-billion dollar industry and makes Georgia the 3rd most prolific US state for the industry, with 248 films in 2015 (I refuse to write the unfortunate nickname that has come from this; you may look it up for yourself). This has added thousands of jobs to the Atlanta economy, perhaps drawing entertainment professionals from New York who are seeking a lifestyle of more artist, less starving.
The tech scene in Atlanta is also a huge draw for transplants. Not only was the city named the 6th fastest growing market for tech, but it also has the lowest cost of living of any other city in the top 10. From the cool start-up style offices such as MailChimp in Ponce City Market, to multi-million dollar development projects, the scene is poised to keep growing and solidifying its place as the tech capital of the South.
Atlanta is still a city of growth, but perhaps these days should be considered a city of growth potential. Burgeoning industries, relatively low cost of living, pleasant weather and new urbanism projects definitely have appeal for the young and mobile. Even their parents are seeing the benefits of in-town living.
If the City can figure out how to make them stay (maybe by finally getting around to that MARTA expansion), then Atlanta might truly be in business.