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Priced out of big cities, middle class moves inland

OKLAHOMA CITY — Americans have never hesitated to pack up the U-Haul in search of the big time, a better job, or just warmer weather. But these days, domestic migrants are increasingly driven by the quest for cheaper housing.

The country’s fastest-growing cities are now those where housing is more affordable than average, a decisive reversal from the early years of the millennium, when easy credit allowed cities to grow without regard to housing costs and when the fastest-growing cities had housing that was less affordable than the national average.

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Among people who have moved long distances, the number of those who cite housing as their primary motivation for doing so has more than doubled since 2007.

Rising rents and the difficulty of securing a mortgage on the coasts have proved a boon to inland cities that offer the middle class a firmer footing and an easier life.

In the eternal competition among urban centers, the shift has produced some new winners. Oklahoma City, for example, has outpaced most other cities in growth since 2011, becoming the 12th-fastest-growing city last year. It has also won over a coveted demographic, young adults ages 25 to 34, going from a net loss of millennials to a net gain.

Other affordable cities that have jumped in the growth rankings include several in Texas, like El Paso and San Antonio, as well as Columbus, Ohio, and Little Rock, Ark.

Newcomers in Oklahoma City have traded traffic jams and preschool waiting lists for master suites the size of their old apartments.

The sons of Lorin Olson, a stem cell biologist who moved here from New York’s Upper East Side, now ride bikes in their suburban neighborhood and go home to a four-bedroom house. Hector Lopez, a caricature artist, lives in a loft apartment here for less than he paid to stay in a garage near Los Angeles. Tony Trammell, one of a group of about a dozen friends to make the move from San Diego, paid $260,000 for his 3,300-square-foot home in a nearby suburb.

“This is the opposite of the gold rush,” Trammell said.

Since the start of the recession, the number of Americans who have moved each year has fallen sharply for a host of reasons, including the sluggish economy and the increasing similarity of job options from city to city. When people do move, they have all kinds of reasons, including family, climate, and, especially for those who move long distances, employment.

But of those who moved more than 500 miles, the share who said they were chiefly motivated by housing has risen to 18 percent in 2014, from 8 percent in 2007, the earliest year such data are available, according to the Census Bureau. The desire for a new, better, or cheaper home and the opportunity to buy instead of rent were among the housing-related reasons people cited.

The story was different from 2000 to 2006, when cities with high-cost housing grew more quickly than those with affordable housing, according to an analysis of metro areas by Redfin, a national real estate brokerage firm. From 2006 to 2012 — years that encompass the housing bust, recession and recovery — that pattern reversed itself, with most low-cost cities growing 2.5 percentage points more than high-cost cities. The analysis excluded cities with poor job growth.

Some of the newcomers say that as they contemplated living with roommates, sitting in traffic, and barely scraping by, the good things about life in a high-cost city lost their appeal.

“The beach isn’t going to pay my rent,” said Jacqueline Sit, 32, who left Portland, Ore., where she worked as a television reporter, to come to Oklahoma City, where she quickly found a job in public relations.

Olson, 42, who was recruited by the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation after finishing his postdoctoral work, said his family had not shed tears over leaving New York. “There’s a little less to do, yeah,” he said. “But now we can afford to do it.”

Glenn Kelman, the chief executive of Redfin, said that when the company started its real estate service in 2006, he expected the business to thrive in coastal centers.

“Now we’re growing fastest in the middle of the country; we can’t hire people fast enough in Houston, in Dallas, in Denver. And all of our customers come from the same place — the airport,” he said. “Maybe the middle class hasn’t disappeared; maybe it’s just gone somewhere else.”

For decades, Americans have flocked to the Sun Belt in search of a better life, first abandoning failing industrial centers like Detroit and Pittsburgh and then increasingly expensive superstar cities like New York and San Francisco, which have been replenished by immigrants.

But during the housing bubble, when even people with modest salaries could get loans to buy staggeringly expensive homes, the cost of housing was less of a concern. Now that getting a mortgage has become harder, the wage stagnation that has hobbled the middle class for years has deeper consequences.

“People have no choice,” Kelman said. “They can’t move across the street; they have to move across the country.”

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