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Utah on the move: Census figures show improving economy

FILE: Utah's higher-than-average moving rate indicates the economy is picking up
FILE: Utah's higher-than-average moving rate indicates the economy is picking up
Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Economists welcomed a U.S. Census Bureau release Tuesday that provided yet another sign that Utah is recovering from the recession.

According to the estimates from the American Community Survey, 17.3 percent of Utahns moved last year compared with 14.7 percent of Americans overall.

But why is it important to know how much Americans are moving?

"This is mobility," said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

The 29-year-old who finally moves out of his parents' basement. The college grad who packs for New York City for her post-grad job. The construction workers who crisscross the U.S., following the trail of opportunity.

All of these people are reflected in the national "moving rate."

"Coming out of this recession, there have been many people who have been co-habitating with related and unrelated people because they couldn't afford their own housing," Perlich said. "Now as the economy improves, we see these folks being able to move out.

"It seems like we really have gained some momentum in the economic recovery here," she said.

Utah's higher-than-average moving rate indicates that the economy is picking up — and so are the people.

Much of the churn in Utah is from neighboring states and big players like California and Texas.

The top destinations for Utahns who left the state last year include Arizona, 10,165 people; California, 8,814 people; Idaho, 6,625 people; Texas, 6,583 people; and Nevada, 5,845 people.

The top states that new Utahns moved from was similar: California, 18,154 people; Texas, 8,698 people; Arizona, 7,650 people; Idaho, 6,413 people; Nevada, 5,073 people.

A high amount of churn can put pressure on rental housing and housing prices, which has become a growing concern on the Wasatch Front.

Kem C. Gardner Institute fellow James Wood said an extremely tight rental market, a brisk home sales market and testimony from homebuilders about having little to no unsold inventory indicates that Utah may be in a housing shortage.

"Any Realtor will say there's just not enough listings. We don't have much choice for buyers," Wood said.

The most compelling indicator, he said, is the difference in how many reported households and housing units there are.

"For the first time in 40 years, we now have more households being formed than we do new housing units," Wood said.

Other economic indicators — including small increases in median household incomes and drops in poverty levels — also point to a recession rebound in Utah.

Even the state Medicaid enrollment rate is flattening after six or seven years of growth, according to Utah Department of Health deputy director Nate Checketts. The program enrolled about 4,600 fewer people this year than originally projected.

The categories that had fewer enrollees than expected included children, pregnant women and adults — all categories that tend to follow the economy, Checketts said.

"I think what's happening here is the economy has continued to do well and just keeps doing well," he said.

National moving rates are at a historic low after decades of being propped up by the post-World War II baby boom and infrastructure and military growth that shifted Americans around the country.

Perlich said she expects mobility rates to pick back up in Utah and nationally, but not to the extent they were before the recession.

Migration to Utah is not up to the boom level of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the state was seeing net migration of 30,000 to 40,000 people per year, she said. International migration to Utah has also slowed.

"We have ventured into a new growth regime where this is not a bubble growth," Perlich said. "This is moderate, sustainable growth."