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Biden could benefit from the exodus to suburbs

Posted October 19, 2020 3:06 p.m. EDT

— The US housing market has remained red-hot this year during the pandemic as some flee expensive coastal cities for the suburbs. And experts say there could be election consequences.

These urban-dwellers likely aren't trying to make a political statement: They're simply looking for more space and cheaper prices. But if more Democrat-leaning voters are suddenly moving to Republican enclaves, that could change the political landscape.

"We don't know the exact political leanings of the people who are leaving, but we know people are leaving blue areas for red areas because expensive coastal cities don't have as much affordable housing," said Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather in an interview with CNN Business.

According to research published this month from online real estate brokerage Redfin, lower housing costs in red states have driven the trend: The average home price in counties that have tended to vote more for Democrats was $346,000 in August. Houses in red counties had an average price of $209,000.

"Democrats could bring their votes to traditionally conservative states," the authors of the Redfin report noted, adding that 27.4% of people looking to buy a new home in the second quarter planned to move away to a different metro area.

Six states in particular are being closely watched by housing experts: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. All voted for President Trump in 2016 and they have a combined 120 Electoral College votes. But the population growth in the big cities of these states, which tend to have more liberal residents, could make a difference on this year's election results.

"When you look at how cities like Austin, Phoenix, Houston and Atlanta are growing, you could see the political affiliations of those states come into play," Fairweather said.

Some red states are looking blue

CNN's tracking of state polls show that Joe Biden currently leads Trump in Arizona, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, and that Trump holds only a narrow lead in Texas.

In North Carolina, specifically, research from The Urban Land Institute and PwC this month showed that two of its metropolitan areas, Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte, are among the top six real estate markets for 2021.

The changing dynamics of the housing market in North Carolina could tilt that state to Biden, according to professors at Duke University.

"There's a definite trend of the rural areas of North Carolina becoming less important because of population changes," said Kerry Haynie, political science professor at Duke, in a Zoom chat with journalists. "The power is moving to the suburban parts of North Carolina."

"It makes North Carolina an interesting state, a state that's up for grabs," Haynie added. "I think this cycle around it's an advantage for the Democrats."

The other four top real estate markets cited in The Urban Land Institute/PwC report are also in Sunbelt states that voted red in 2016: Austin and Dallas/Fort Worth in Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida.

R. Byron Carlock, Jr., national real estate practice leader with PwC, said he did not think that the flight to the suburbs in these states is motivated by the election. He points out that many older millennials are getting married, having kids and need more space.

Work dynamics in the pandemic have also played a role. More people are working from home, which may give them a newfound freedom to move to states with a lower cost of living and lower taxes. They tend to be red states.

"I don't think it's a political statement," Carlock said.

Flight to the suburbs shows no signs of slowing

While the shift in population is new, it's already significant.

"The flight to the suburbs is more of an exaggerated trend than a new trend, but home sales are unstoppable," said Ali Wolf, chief economist with Zonda, a real estate data and analytics firm. "It could change the Electoral College map."

Redfin said in its report that many people living in California and New York were considering moves to Texas, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

"For Arizona, this could be the first time in 24 years that the Democratic presidential candidate could win, which could be due to migration patterns," Redfin added.

But Zonda's Wolf wonders how long these trends will last.

If there is a vaccine in the next year and life starts returning to normal, she said, some people who have left cities for the suburbs could reverse course and return in a couple of years. The map could change again.

"If someone is moving from a blue state to a red state, I wonder if that's sustainable. Could you have a snapback?" Wolf said. "Someone moving from New York to Florida who finds themselves surrounded by less like-minded people could eventually move back."

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