Gotham Gazette

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To Keep People, Improve Schools And Housing

Leaving New York
While some New Yorkers are leaving the city, citing bad schools, high housing costs or the daily stresses of urban life, analysts debate whether the exodus is anything alarming or unusual, and what to do about it.

Why New Yorkers Are Leaving:

The City Is Too Expensive
by E.J. McMahon

City Schools and Housing Are Inadequate
by David Kallick

New Yorkers Who Left:

Rondrae Hunter
A Frustrating Apartment Search

Allison Woods
Struggling with Strollers and Schools

David Bassine
Fear of Terrorism

Stefan Kochi
Bad for Business

Every year, hundreds of thousands of people come to New York from all around the world, and hundreds of thousands leave. This huge volume of change -- the strong draw of ambitious and talented people from around the world, the incessant forging of "new" New Yorkers, the always-changing cultural mix -- is no small part of what makes the city an exciting and dynamic place.

The combined effect of people coming to and leaving the city, factoring in "natural increase" (more births than deaths), resulted in an expansion of the population by about 3.5 percent in the 1980s, and a further increase of 9.4 percent between 1990 and 2000. For the period since 2000 the data is incomplete, but early signs seem to show population between 2000 and 2002 holding about steady.

People leave the city for all kinds of reasons, including job opportunities, retirement, family and friends. These are all positive events in people's lives; population loss for these reasons should not be seen as negative.

More worrisome, however, is that roughly half the departing population stays in the metropolitan area, but moves to the ever-expanding suburbs of the city. Some movement in this direction is perfectly healthy. But the city should not be complacent about people who may be "voting with their feet," and the region has reason to be concerned about the resulting suburban sprawl.

There is little hard data on why people move to the suburbs. Conservatives often say it is taxes. More likely explanations, however, are the inadequacy of New York City schools and housing. A recently released poll by the Drum Major Institute points in this direction. When New York City voters were asked about what personally worried them, 82 percent said the quality of public schools, top answer, and 68 percent said affordable housing. Health insurance and making ends meet also ranked high; the level of taxation did not.

This is very far from the "white flight" the city experienced in the 1970s. "First of all, how could you have white flight from a city with our composition?" asks Joseph Salvo, director of the population division at the Department of City Planning. "If you look at who's leaving, you have white population, but there are also black and Hispanic and Asian."

Whatever their ethnicity, many New Yorkers who are leaving do so in search of more space and better schools.


A convoluted argument has surfaced recently that ties together a narrow interpretation of the recently released census data and a reflexive tendency for conservatives to pin everything on taxes.

"New Yorkers Fleeing City, State," hyped the front-page headline in the New York Sun on September 2. The New York Post followed in an editorial the next day, saying "more Americans moved out of the city than moved in between 1995 and 2000," and that New York State "is losing residents faster than any of the other 49."

Before taking a breath to analyze the data, both papers had a ready rationale. "High taxes may be fueling" the trend, suggested the Post. High taxes, housing policies, and unions are the culprits named in the Sun and in the article this week in Gotham Gazette by Manhattan Institute analyst E.J. McMahon.

First of all: population increased significantly throughout the 1990s. But the county-to-county census data the newspapers reported includes only domestic migration. It excludes from the picture international migration.

"Like many large cities in this country, we shed more people than we gain through domestic migration," explains Salvo from City Planning. "What makes New York different is that we have the benefit of a large number of immigrants." Immigration, plus natural increase (more births than deaths), are the reasons the city has seen an overall increase in population at the same time as it experiences a net loss in domestic migration.

Indeed, says Salvo, the net loss the city experiences in domestic migration is not a new trend. It has been the status quo "since at least the middle of the last century."

The pernicious argument that high taxes are the root of all evil is far afield in relation to population change.

"If high taxes caused out-migration, why did upstate counties -- with some of the state's lowest combined taxes -- experience significant losses of total population, while New York City, with the state's highest combined tax, grew at a fast clip?" asks Lava Thimmayya, co-author of the Fiscal Policy Institute's report, State of Working New York 2003. Indeed, the areas with highest taxes also showed the strongest economic growth, notes Thimmayya.

Even billionaire Mayor Mike Bloomberg seems to agree that taxes don't push people out. Earlier this year, when arguing for a tax hike to close the budget gap, Bloomberg said: "I don't believe that people will leave this city because of higher taxes." He then went on to say, "I do believe they would leave this city very quickly because of lower services."

Over and over, the perception of problems in the schools, the lack of affordable housing, and downturns in the job market emerge as the key "negative" factors that push people out of New York. Taxes don't even rate on the scale.

The message to city officials from ex-urbanites is: make real steps to improve city schools, expand the supply of truly affordable housing, and then let's talk.

David Kallick is senior fellow of the Fiscal Policy Institute.

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