CAPITAL REGION — The anecdotal evidence was there all along: People left COVID hot spots for the relative safety of the Capital Region in 2020.
There were more out-of-state license plates in parking lots; driveways with more cars in them; new faces out for a walk in the neighborhood; downstate residents buying Capital Region houses.
Now, the Capital District Regional Planning Commission has quantified some of the shift. Using U.S. Postal Service data on change-of-address requests, it found a significant number of New York City-area residents moving to the larger Capital Region counties.
From March 2020 to January 2021:
- Albany County was the destination for 1,663 such requests, up from 683 in all of 2019;
- Rensselaer County was the destination for 435 requests, up from 66 total in 2018 and 2019;
- Saratoga County was the destination for 987 requests, up from 230 total in 2018 and 2019;
- Schenectady County was the destination for 573 requests, up from 234 in 2019.
Executive Director Mark Castiglione said the planning commission was interested in the data because it wanted to document the trend of downstaters moving north. But the commission had some problems obtaining the data — it had to request the numbers under the Freedom of Information Law.
Worse, the data provided made no distinction between temporary and permanent changes of address.
So the regional planning commission can’t tell if the 987 New York City residents who asked for their mail to be forwarded to a Saratoga County address were just riding out the pandemic with Mom and Dad in Clifton Park, and moved back to the city after a few months, or whether they gave up on the Big Apple and settled down for the long term in Saratoga Springs.
The Daily Gazette last week analyzed a different set of USPS data and found its own set of strengths and weaknesses: There’s full distinction between permanent and temporary address changes, but no indication where the Capital Region’s newest residents came from.
Another noteworthy takeaway: Most of the Capital Region’s urban centers saw a net loss in address changes, just as New York City did.
Here are the net differences in permanent address change requests for select Capital Region and Mohawk Valley municipalities for calendar year 2020:
- Albany -4,221
- Amsterdam -53
- Ballston Lake +271
- Ballston Spa +196
- Burnt Hills +36
- Clifton Park +132
- Cobleskill +126
- Delanson +75
- Duanesburg +63
- Fort Plain +17
- Galway +90
- Gansevoort +313
- Gloversville +122
- Greenfield Center +4
- Guilderland -270
- Johnstown -54
- Latham +206
- Mechanicville +209
- Milton +10
- Rexford +92
- Saratoga Springs +401
- Schenectady -191
- Schoharie -24
- Sharon Springs -6
- Troy -1,789
The numbers are not precise, as the data are based on ZIP codes that may spill across municipal borders. The eight Schenectady ZIP codes, for example, include parts of Colonie, Guilderland, Niskayuna and Rotterdam.
In the first 18 years of this century, the Capital Region was one of the better-performing regions in a state whose population has been increasing slowly or even shrinking. But the region’s growth was never robust, and it appears to have essentially halted before the pandemic.
“Growth in the Capital Region has not kept pace with the prior decennial Census period,” Castiglione said.
U.S. Postal Service address-change data show 230,000 more mail recipients permanently moving out of New York state in 2020 than moving in.
But much of the net loss is from New York City, which has struggled with successive crises for the past year — COVID, violent protests, rising crime, increased homelessness, soaring unemployment, business closures and shutdown of its greatest institutions.
In Manhattan alone, 258,000 permanent and 104,000 temporary departing address changes were filed in 2020.
Subtracting the number of address changes for people moving into Manhattan, the borough saw a net 95,000 permanent departures and 85,000 temporary departures.
There is great wealth in Manhattan — its per-capita income is about double that of the state as a whole. But there is great disparity of wealth as well: The poverty rate is actually higher in Manhattan than statewide.
How much of the exodus from Manhattan was people who could afford to leave and how much was people who couldn’t afford to stay cannot be determined from the USPS data.
The address-change data does suggest an influx to New York communities already popular among New York City residents with second homes or weekend travel habits, including many Hudson Valley communities: Rhinebeck, Woodstock, Chatham, Millbrook, Ghent, High Falls, Germantown and others.
With population stagnating or shrinking in much of the state before the pandemic, the Capital Region and other parts of New York are exhibiting what’s called sprawl without growth, Castiglione said. People spread out but they don’t really multiply. Births and immigration from other states or nations outpace deaths and emigration out of the state barely or not at all.
Actual census counts and community estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau show New York state’s population increasing just 1.9% from 2000 to 2020, with slight shrinkage every year from 2016 through 2020.
By comparison, the national population increased an estimated 16.8% over the same 20-year period.
Federal Reserve estimates show the population of the Albany-Schenectady-Troy Metropolitan Statistical Area (Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga Schenectady and Schoharie counties) grew 5.3% from 2000 to 2010 but only 1.3% from 2018, and then saw a fractional decline from 2018 to 2019.
Castiglione said it’s too soon to draw conclusions from the raw numbers of New York City residents moving to the Capital Region.
“I think the future will tell the tale,” he said. “We have to understand if this is a blip or a harbinger of a more permanent trend where people are choosing to live and work more remotely.”
The Greater Capital Association of Realtors, whose member real estate professionals arrange many of the housing sales in the Capital Region, has this year begun a project with the same goal: It is registering the current ZIP code of everyone who buys a housing unit through the association’s multiple listing service and cross-indexing it with the ZIP code of their new home.
Even discounting the fact that some houses are investments that the buyer has no plans to live in, the ZIP codes will grow into a database showing moves by tens of thousands of families — association members closed 13,606 sales in 2020 and 12,757 in 2019.
For the Realtors association, it will be a valuable marketing tool. For others, it will be a valuable barometer of trends and changing demographics.
“We’re a regional data resource,” Castiglione said of CDRPC, “and understanding who we are as a region is important in understanding where we’re going as a region.”