The Most Dense Cities in America

The U.S. News Best Places Data Drill Down, separate from our overall rankings, is a regular series that sheds light on multiple data points in order to help readers make the most informed decision when choosing where to live in the United States. Visit our 2016 Best Places to Live ranking to see which of the 100 most populous metro areas made it to the top of the list based on good value, desirability, a strong job market and a high quality of life.

If your neighborhood is starting to feel a little cramped, you might have millennials to blame.

Urbanization has taken place on a large scale among millennials. According to a 2015 U.S. Census report, urban, coastal metros like Boston, San Francisco and the District of Columbia had the highest percentages of young adults moving in from 2007 to 2012.

[See: The 20 Best Places to Live in the U.S.]

It’s no surprise, then, that the population density in metros like those has gotten so high. More than half of America’s 10 most dense metro areas also rank among the most populous urban areas in the country. Below are the top 10 U.S. metro areas by population density, which measures the number of people per square mile.

Metro Area Population Density Total Population Population Rank
New York City 2801.5 20,483,268 1
San Francisco 1754.8 4,335,560 11
Honolulu 1586.7 953,207 53
New Haven 1426.7 862,474 60
Chicago 1314.6 9,461,537 3
Boston 1305.4 4,552,412 10
Philadelphia 1296.2 5,965,368 5
Tampa 1107.3 2,783,514 24
Detroit 1104.9 4,296,313 12
Miami 1096.0 5,566,299 8

Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-14 American Community Survey. San Juan, Puerto Rico, not included.

High population density can strain an urban area’s housing market. The real estate industry is currently facing an industry-wide inventory shortage , which has particularly impacted urban areas. According to the National Inventory and Price Watch, compiled by real estate search website Trulia, 95 of the nation’s 100 largest metros showed a decrease in the number of starter homes from 2012 to 2016.

[See: The 20 Best Affordable Places to Live in the U.S.]

Due to the inventory shortage, as well as low interest rates set by the Federal Reserve after the 2007 housing crisis to encourage homebuyers and a steadily improving labor market, home prices across the country are rising. From 2012 to 2016, the share of high-priced homes sold in the 100 largest metro areas increased 3.5 percent, while sales of all other home categories dropped.

Meanwhile, rents are rising faster than wages, especially in major metro areas on both coasts like Los Angeles, where rents were a nationwide-high 48.7 percent of income in 2014. This forces urban buyers to spend an increasingly high percentage of their income on rent. Due to rising prices and stagnant income, the U.S. homeownership rate reached a 48-year low in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The chart below demonstrates the rise of home prices in the 10 densest metro areas.

Metro Area Median Sales Price Median Sales Price Rank Change Over 2014-15 Percentage of Income Spent On Housing
Detroit $147,000 65 +12.5 percent 32.2 percent
Miami $210,000 33 +10.1 percent 42.7 percent
Tampa $140,400 67 +9.0 percent 36.2 percent
San Francisco $700,000 2 +8.8 percent 36.7 percent
Honolulu $466,000 6 +5.8 percent 36.7 percent
Chicago $205,000 34 +5.8 percent 36.0 percent
New York City $375,000 10 +5.6 percent 50.3 percent
Philadelphia $252,800 19 +3.5 percent 34.2 percent
Boston $350,000 12 +1.6 percent 35.8 percent
New Haven $441,250 8 +1.0 percent 39.1 percent

Source: Clear Capital and the U.S. Census Bureau

The effects of the inventory shortage fall hardest on residents of big cities like New York City, San Francisco and Chicago. New York City’s Bureau of Fiscal and Budget Studies reported that the median rent paid by people living in crowded apartments — defined as more than one person per room — increased almost five times more than the real household income from 2008 to 2013. Since large metro areas tend to offer the best wages, people continue to move to them, further exacerbating the effects of high population density.

Many have dealt with the new difficulty of buying a home by living together and renting rather than buying. According to Zillow, the percentage of adults living with roommates rose from about 25 percent to about 32 percent from 2000 to 2012. This trend is especially common in millennials, among whom the number of people living with housemates is even higher. A Forbes study showed that the number of 25- to 34-year-olds living with housemates increased about 39 percent from 2005 to 2015.

High density in big cities isn’t limited to millennials; the median age in dense cities like New York City and San Francisco, as of 2015, is comparable to the national median age. High density among all age groups can cause satellite effects like pressure on the public school system. In the Chicago Public School District, for example, about 20 percent of elementary school classrooms were overcrowded in the 2014-15 school year. In New York City, the city’s Enrollment, Capacity and Utilization Report listed 10 percent of all school buildings as overcrowded in 2015, which affected nearly 540,000 students.

There’s strain on the infrastructure in these metro areas, too. The 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, compiled by Texas A&M University, showed that of the 10 U.S. metro areas with the highest population density (as listed above), six ranked among the top for traffic congestion, with an average delay of 63 hours per year per driver for very large metro areas like New York City, Boston and San Francisco.

The flood of people into urban areas has had the fortunate effect of growing some of America’s smaller metro areas. According to research by Smart Growth America, about 87 percent of small metro areas saw a population increase between 2010 and 2011. American Community Survey data show that the fastest growth of millennial populations took place mostly in cities in the Sun Belt and West, which are smaller than coastal centers like New York City, Boston and Los Angeles. As the chart below demonstrates, the 10 smallest U.S. News-ranked metros all saw some degree of population growth from 2010 to 2014.

Metro Area Population Density Percentage of Population Growth Population Rank Percentage Of Income Spent On Housing
Boise 52.4 7.76 percent 82 29.3 percent
Albuquerque 95.6 1.97 percent 57 31.0 percent
Bakersfield 103.3 4.16 percent 61 33.7 percent
Tucson 106.7 2.47 percent 52 33.2 percent
Salt Lake City 134.6 6.6 percent 23 31.2 percent
Jackson 144.7 1.84 percent 88 29.7 percent
Fayetteville 146.4 8.3 percent 99 23.9 percent
Tulsa 149.5 3.39 percent 54 28.4 percent
Wichita 150.2 1.61 percent 79 28.1 percent
Fresno 156.2 3.82 percent 55 36.7 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-14 American Community Survey

[See: The 20 Best Places to Live in the U.S. for Quality of Life.]

A high quality of life helps make these areas attractive. In U.S. News’ Quality of Life rankings, which were based on factors like crime rates, commute times and access to quality health care and education, low-density metro areas scored highly. For instance, both Boise, Idaho, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, ranked in the top five. Millennials may also be drawn by the low cost of living in such areas, some of which are among the best value buys in the nation: Fayetteville, Arkansas, Wichita, Kansas, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, all ranked among the 10 major metro areas with the most affordable housing. Millennials, as Bentley University reported, are moving to smaller cities at high rates, in large part because they offer high quality for high value.

More from U.S. News

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