People & Places

Census shows explosion of migration into Vermont in pandemic’s 1st year

More than 4,800 people moved to Vermont between 2020 and 2021, the highest net migration total the state has reported in at least a decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates

The trend represents a complete reversal of the previous decade, when domestic migration meant people left Vermont to move to other states, while most migrants to Vermont came from outside the country. 

Instead, about 4,500 of the state’s new arrivals in the past two years came from other areas of the U.S. while 275 people came from other countries.

Peter Nelson, a professor of geography at Middlebury College, said the trend was “wildly unusual.” 

He studied cellphone data from the early days of the pandemic that suggested people were moving to rural New England during that period. But the Census Bureau’s data was an important confirmation of the trend.

“It's real,” he said. “It wasn't just a few anecdotes that appeared in the news media, but there’s been a migration of four or five thousand people (to Vermont).”

Questions remain about the significance of the migration, including how many people were “fresh” migrants rather than second homeowners making a more long-term jump to Vermont. Greta Brunswick, a regional planner at the Northwest Regional Planning Commission, said it’s “something that we're still trying to understand.”

“It does seem to indicate that there is some new mobility into the region,” she said. “But I want to peel back the layer a bit to really see what other data points can help us understand what that means.”

Another question is whether those 4,800 people are here to stay. A reduction of remote work — or of interest in the Vermont lifestyle — could send new residents back to the places they came from.

But Nelson said that workers may have more choice about remote work going into the future. For every company telling workers to come back to the office, he said, “there's just as many firms who have said, ‘actually, you know, we were able to get our work done with these different kinds of work arrangements,’” he said. 

“Some people are gonna say, ‘I really want that social element of work. I liked going to the office,’” forcing them into close proximity to their job, while other employees might say, “‘Actually, I really want to be able to go mountain biking at lunchtime,’” he said. 

Regional trends

Vermont, New England’s smallest state with a population of 645,000, is not the only one in the region to report an influx of out-of-staters during the pandemic. 

Maine and New Hampshire, each with a population of about 1.4 million, both gained around 15,000 new residents, compared to around 6,000 or 7,000 in the year prior to the pandemic. Just comparing 2019 to 2021’s net migration shows dramatic changes in how people moved around New England states.

Nelson theorized the interest in southern Vermont could be due to out-of-staters’ desires to stay a little closer to their hometowns, or to population centers like Boston. “Depending on where someone locates within those counties, you can hop on (Interstate) 91 and get to southern New England pretty quickly,” he said.

Kevin Geiger, director of regional planning at the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission in Windsor County, said it’s something he’s observed “anecdotally” and through smaller trends like school enrollment and property sales.

He characterized the pandemic’s migrants as “discretionary buyers” — people who have the means and opportunity to leave their homes and settle in Vermont. 

But he believes the influx could be the start of a long-term trend of new residents if climate change escalates in other parts of the country. Some planners have theorized that Vermont will see an influx of “climigration” from people fleeing places that are relatively more affected by wildfires, floods and extreme heat.

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said via email that he’s concerned about the capacity of Vermont’s housing to take in out-of-staters and still provide homes for current residents. 

“In a state as small as ours with an existing deficit of homes, it doesn’t take a large influx of people who can afford homes here to make a significant change in housing availability and affordability,” he wrote.

He wrote that in the absence of infrastructure to support developing affordable housing, “we will be (and likely already are) going to lose Vermonters because they can’t find affordable, appropriate housing at all stages of life.”

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Erin Petenko

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