Colorado’s red-hot population growth rate is cooling, and while current residents may celebrate, those who are leaving in increasing numbers say they were driven away by rising housing prices, jobs that don’t pay enough and traffic jams.
The state in 2016 saw its first drop this decade in the number of people arriving from other states, while those leaving Colorado hit a record high, resulting in the lowest net-migration number — 30,000 total new residents — in seven years.
New annual figures from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show that 193,000 Coloradans moved away last year, 10,000 more than in 2015, while 223,000 moved here, down about 4,000 from the year before but still well above recent years.
“We are seeing that there has been an increase in outs — the highest on record,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.
Nicole Parkin moved to Colorado from New Jersey in 2009, lured by a combination of “beauty and affordability.” On Friday night, she planned to start the long drive back, her Toyota Corolla loaded with personal belongings, a pet dog and a deep sense of resignation.
“The growth of our beautiful city has brought nothing but increased traffic, angry entitled transplants who have no respect, and a cost of living that is through the roof,” the former Aurora resident said.
The Census survey numbers don’t include people who have moved to the state from abroad. And because the counts are based on surveys, the margin of errors can be large, especially when looking at movements to and from individual states.
Tax-return counts from the Internal Revenue Service show that Colorado experienced a big jump in both households arriving and leaving from other states last year versus 2015. But on the whole, net migration among people who file tax returns isn’t declining.
The Denver Post asked readers who recently left the state to share their stories. Some common themes emerged, including a desire to take advantage of better job opportunities and lower living costs elsewhere and the draw of a less stressful lifestyle.
Despite having a paralegal degree and what she describes as a strong resume, Parkin, 31, said she couldn’t find a job paying more than $15 an hour, a wage that fell far short of covering Denver’s ever-escalating living costs.
Her first apartment in 2009, a one-bedroom unit on the University of Denver campus, rented for $525 a month. As rents rose, she gave up on trying to live in central Denver. This year, she was paying $800 to rent a bedroom in an Aurora condominium near Denver International Airport.
But that trade-off resulted in more time stuck in traffic on roads that she views as poorly maintained. Parkin lost a rear strut on her car to a gaping pothole.
“It’s kind of ironic because the reasons why I’m leaving Colorado are the same reasons why I left New Jersey — too much traffic, not making enough money and angry people,” she said.
Parkin said her new rent will be $800 a month for an apartment in Farmingdale, N.J. She said she can find a paralegal job paying double the wage she could make in Denver.
Home prices in metro Denver are up 57 percent the past eight years through October, as measured by the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller home price indices, while the average apartment rent since mid-2009 is up 63.6 percent, according to rent figures from the Apartment Association of Metro Denver.
The average hourly wage, by contrast, rose from $25.07 to $28.94, an increase of only 15.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meanwhile, Colorado’s population grew by 11 percent from 2009 to 2016 to 5.55 million residents.
Eden Reich, 30, moved to Colorado in 2008, left for Iowa with her husband in 2015, only to miss the state so much they moved back in 2016. They now plan to leave again, probably for good.
“The reason for our move this time still has to do with cost of living. We decided as we try to start a family, it will be easier for us to afford the possibility of one income being in a state like Iowa, where you can rent a decent home for less than $1,000 a month,” Reich said.
The jobs available to them in Iowa pay a decent wage, so they aren’t losing in terms of income. Yet Reich said she won’t leave without regret.
“In all honesty, I love Colorado. My husband does, too. It’s just difficult to stay here when living costs continue to go up,” she said.
If millennials cite the tension between high housing costs and the inability to earn enough income, older adults and natives complained about rising stress levels and a cultural coarsening, which some linked to the legalization of recreational marijuana five years ago.
Mark Conner came to Colorado in 2002 to work as a finance manager at a Front Range refinery. He and his family first lived in Brighton and then moved to Parker as his work location changed. Regardless of whether he drove, took light rail or rode the bus, the commute to downtown and the airport was a struggle.
“When my wife and I were debating to leave my job, we talked about how Colorado just wasn’t the Colorado we had moved to in 2002. It had become too crowded, traffic was horrible,” he said.
Connor, a conservative, also said he observed a changing political climate that made him uncomfortable.
“Colorado had become very liberal, anti-religion, anti-gun and way too sensitive about stuff,” he said.
Conner said he was sitting on a home-equity windfall when his employer offered a buyout last year. As he looked around, living costs in his native state of Oklahoma were 42 percent lower than Colorado.
“I won the real estate lottery,” Conner said of the sale of his Parker home.
Conner and his wife bought a four acre spread with a 2,600-square-foot custom ranch home and a three-car garage in the Oklahoma panhandle and still had money left over. The property includes a shop building nearly as large as the home. Conner has remade the building into his “man cave.”
He found a job shielded from the boom-and-bust cycles of the petroleum industry in the town of Hooker, and Colorado’s mountains are only a four-hour-drive away.
As more Coloradans pick up and move, more states are starting to win the migration tug of war. Washington state received a net 8,528 residents from Colorado in 2016, making it the top destination state.
Washington doesn’t offer a lower cost of living than Colorado, especially Seattle, noted Garner, the state demographer. That contrasts with states such as Arkansas and Nebraska, which saw strong gains against Colorado and are much more affordable.
Idaho and Montana were big winners. That might be explained by a desire of some of those leaving to create the kind of life they view as now lost in many parts of Colorado, as one person who relocated said.
“We were ready to remove ourselves from the ‘It’s always about me’ attitude the majority of people seem to have these days. We are happy to say we have found that. Tell your readers there are no vacancies in Montana,” said Thomas Molloy, who left Colorado in July.
After six years of mostly heavy outflows to Colorado, Texas finally reversed the trend and gained residents against Colorado last year. Colorado continues to win against California, but the net number is shrinking.
Illinois remains the one state where residents are moving to Colorado in large numbers with comparatively small flows in the other direction. Colorado’s net gain was 8,112 people.
The drop in net migration could help explain why Colorado’s unemployment rate dropped sharply to a record-low 2.3 percent this spring.
But slower population growth could help housing markets along the Front Range rebalance after years of strong gains in home prices and rents and allow builders to catch up on supply shortages, especially for single-family homes.
Still, professionals in real estate and moving businesses say they aren’t yet seeing a slack in the number of people moving here.
“I suppose if we had negative or slowing migration numbers, then, yes, it could help the constrained market. But I have not experienced that yet and would be surprised to see a slower market in 2018,” said Steve Thayer, chairman of the Denver Metro Association of Realtors and owner of the Keller Williams Action Realty office in Castle Rock.
Bill Graebel, CEO of the Graebel Cos. in Denver, which helps employers relocate staff and operations, said his company saw a 22 percent jump in clients moving into Colorado and a 10 percent rise in people moving out from January through October versus the same period in 2016.
“A company would have more reluctance moving into Colorado than they did in the past if there is virtually full employment. But the majority of the country is at full employment. Everywhere is going to be tough,” he said.
Tribune Content Agency