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Lehigh Valley Grows Amid Pandemic-Fueled Population Shift

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on May 2, 2022

Like 58% of U.S. counties, the Lehigh Valley grew in population during the pandemic mainly because of net domestic migration as people moved from the nation’s largest metro regions. (Map/Penn State Data Center)

Lehigh Valley native Olivia Reese spent the early days of the pandemic in a 900-square-foot loft in Manayunk, working remotely at what she thought would be a dream job at a big city marketing firm.

But she found her loft claustrophobic and public restrictions in the larger city of Philadelphia oppressive.  Reese began spending long stretches of her week back in the Lehigh Valley to visit old friends from Bethlehem Catholic High School and DeSales University. The luster of the city dulled.

“I didn’t have a great work-life balance: 10-hour days. Zoom burnout is real,” said Reese, 27. “I started looking elsewhere.”

She has since landed a promising position at Alloy5 Architecture, a Bethlehem firm that is within walking distance of her newly purchased house — with a backyard.

Reese’s move was part of a historic shift in population from the urban core amid a global pandemic where social distancing was key in slowing the spread of COVID and the rise of remote work made employees more mobile.

The Lehigh Valley, located 90 minutes from New York City and an hour from Philadelphia, experienced a notable net gain of people moving into the region from other U.S. counties between July 2020 and July 2021. The Lehigh Valley gained a net domestic migration of 1,749 people, growing the population to 689,167, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s more net moves domestically than any other one-year period in at least the last decade.

“While early indicators suggested an urban exodus was happening, these data provide the first comprehensive look about the extent the population shift is affecting the Lehigh Valley,” said George Lewis, Vice President of Communications, Marketing and Research at Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation (LVEDC). “There are still many unknowns about whether these moves are permanent as offices reopen and business normalizes. We will continue to monitor the migration trends because of the workforce implications.”

The availability of skilled employees is a key asset in attracting and retaining businesses, the core of the LVEDC’s nonprofit mission. To that end, the LVEDC partners with community organizations in the “Made Possible in Lehigh Valley” campaign, which promotes the region’s quality of life.

While some communities made headlines for offering financial incentives to attract remote workers, the Lehigh Valley’s growth has been more organic. Ownerly, a real estate analytics company, ranked Lehigh Valley among the nation’s most attractive places for remote work because of property values, green space, and low crime rate.

It’s also close to metro regions where people were leaving. A CBRE analysis of initial U.S. Postal Service data indicated moves from New York City to the Lehigh Valley increased by nearly 14% during the pandemic.

Real estate demand in the Lehigh Valley has been soaring. Realtor.com ranked Bethlehem’s 18018 ZIP code among the hottest in 2021. The median home sale price to a record high of $280,000 in March, according to Lehigh Valley Realtors.

“We continue to expect housing demand to remain strong due to favorable demographics shifts in buyers’ preferences as teleworking remains in place,” said Justin Porembo, CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Realtors.

Developers are also working to address a rise in rental demand. In 2021, apartments represented half of the 2,200 housing units approved by the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission. That’s the most apartments approved in 20 years.

Among the new apartments City Center developed was Cityplace residential community in downtown Allentown.

Among the more prolific apartment developers has been City Center, which recognized the demand for apartments before the pandemic. It built eight complexes with 983 apartments in Allentown. It has another 355 units under construction and 182 in the planning stages.

“We continue to see strong demand for apartments,” said Zach Sienicki, Vice President of City Center Residential. “More than a third of our residents are from out of town with a third of those coming from New York and New Jersey. That is one of the leading reasons we decided to build The Marquis in Easton.”

The pandemic has intensified a trend that has been building for years. The Lehigh Valley ranked among the top five regions in the Northeast for net population growth due to in-migration from other metro regions between 2015 and 2019, according to Commercial Café.

While Pennsylvania lost population, the Lehigh Valley grew by 6.2% between the 2010 and 2020 census, growth largely due to people moving from international locations and overseas.

International migration was slowed during the pandemic as borders tightened due to public health policies. And, like nearly three-fourths of U.S. counties, the Lehigh Valley cumulatively experienced more deaths than births in 2021.

Domestic Migration increased and international migration decreased in the Lehigh Valley during the pandemic.

“Even though over time we’ve seen a higher number of counties with natural decrease and net international migration continuing to decline, in the past year, the contribution of domestic migration counteracted these trends so there were actually more counties growing than losing population,” Dr. Christine Hartley, assistant division chief for estimates and projections in the Census Bureau’s Population Division, said.

Domestic migration contributed to the population increases in 58% of counties nationwide in 2021. The 56 largest metro regions, including the regions encompassing Philadelphia and New York City, experienced an aggregate decline in population. The Lehigh Valley metro region, which also includes Warren and Carbon counties, is the 68th largest.

The population shift occurred as U.S. population grew at a tenth of a percent between 2020 and 2021 – the slowest growth rate since the country’s founding – to 331.9 million. It was the first time the country grew by fewer than 1 million people since 1937, according to the Census.

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