This article appeared on AL.com on May 18, 2014.
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Wes Cardwell didn’t think Birmingham was perfect when he moved here three years ago. He’d heard about crime rates, about the school system, and didn’t think the city’s center would be the best place to live. But the city still had plenty worth moving for.
“I grew up in the Enterprise area and just wanted to be in a place that had more to offer,” he said. “If you’re wanting to be somewhere where you can be close to your family, within a couple of hours, and be in a place with a lot to offer, something to do, then it’s the first choice in Alabama, I think.”
Now Cardwell has changed his mind about living in the city’s center. He’s the managing partner of Urban Spaces, a company that helps people looking for places to rent in the area, and always encourages people to take a look in the city itself.
“They read online and their idea is to move to Hoover or somewhere else. Usually that’s because they’ve read that the crime rate is high or something about the school system,” he said. “A lot of times we’ll just get let them ride around and see things for themselves, and a lot of times that perception changes.”
Birmingham is centered in Jefferson County, the state’s largest county but one that saw more people leave than move in, according to an AL.com analysis of IRS records of those who moved from 2010 to 2011. That year brought 20,805 people on 11,019 tax returns to the county, and most of them, 11,855 people, came from within Alabama. The county also saw the departures of 23,059 people on 12,003 tax returns, most of them (13,024) also moving within Alabama.
The people who moved to Jefferson County had a per capita income of about $22,223, according to the IRS data. Those moving out of the county made more than $200 more, at $22,469 a year.
Where are those people coming from and where are they going? For Jefferson County, the answer is found not far from home. More than 4,700 people moved just down I-65 and U.S. Highway 280 to Shelby County. Meanwhile 3,620 people moved from Shelby to Jefferson County.
Cardwell said about three-fourths of Urban Spaces’ clients are from outside of Alabama, but there are some trends in who’s moving where. There’s one key indicator that makes people want to move to suburbs, whether that’s to Homewood, Mountain Brook, Gardendale or other Jefferson County suburbs or to Shelby County.
“Usually if somebody ends up moving to the suburbs, it’s usually people with children,” he said. “I think that’s mostly because of the school systems and not for any other reason, because we do notice it really isn’t an age thing. We have empty nesters, young professionals, college students who want to move into the city center. But if they have children, it’s usually a hard sell.”
Family life is one reason people are drawn to the area. Arturo LaCruz first came to the Magic City in 1994 from Boston, expecting to be here a couple of years while he studied at Samford University. In 2001 he left, first to Hilton Head Island, S.C., and then to Kansas City, Mo., to work on sound and other issues for a large church there.
The economic turndown cost LaCruz his job in Missouri, so he and his family moved back in 2009 to be with his wife’s family.
“I came here for just a little bit to wait and see what happened next,” he said.
He lives in Birmingham’s Southside now, and works in the city and travels to Atlanta to work on sound design and editing for art displays, movies and exhibits.
“I’m looking forward to better years here in the city,” he said.
Jefferson County is by far the biggest source of migrants to its southern neighbor Shelby County, with nearly half of the 10,979 people who moved into the county coming from there. Shelby County also had 10,115 people leave, most of them, 6,262, moving to other places in Alabama.
Cardwell said people still want to move to Shelby County for the schools, the neighborhoods and other reasons, but he’s seen that people don’t necessarily want to live in the big, popular suburbs of years before.
“It seems that people are moving away from some of the better known places like Hoover and into Pelham, Helena, and places like that,” he said.
And the lack of apartments in many of those areas mean people often have to be able to buy houses to get into them, Cardwell said. Apartments in Chelsea, for example, are really hard to come by, so people who really like the schools there usually have to buy houses instead.
The IRS numbers also show where people from Shelby County are moving. That includes Chilton County, just to the south of Shelby County, from which Shelby County gained 321 movers and lost 443. Another county that Shelby County lost people to was Baldwin County, down on the Gulf Coast.
One thing the IRS data showed about Shelby County is how much money the people who are leaving are making. Those leaving the county made about $25,294 on average and those moving in made $23,989.
That disparity could be explained by people moving away because of economic forces during the economic turndown. Shelby County has a number of people with high incomes and lots of upward mobility, and those people may have been transferred to other areas during the recession, said Christie Pannell-Hester with the county’s Department of Development Services.
Another explanation could be that Shelby County has people with high incomes who may have chosen to retire because of the economy and move elsewhere, while younger people with relatively lower incomes decided to move into the county because of quality of life, Pannell-Hester said.
The link between Shelby and Tallapoosa counties showed that the 64 people moving into Tallapoosa County made more per capita, at $20,500, than the 53 people who moved into Shelby County, who made $16,905. That trend holds up for all of Tallapoosa County, which saw 1,867 people move in with a per-capita income of $18,063, and saw 2,957 people leave, at a per-capita income of $11,048.
Part of the explanation could be the number of retirees who head to the shores of Lake Martin, said Ann Rye, the president and CEO of the Alexander City Chamber of Commerce.
“We are a huge attraction for very, very affluent retirees,” she said in an e-mail.
Young people are often lured away from the area for higher-paying jobs, but many people return because of the school system and the fact that they can commute to Auburn, Montgomery and Birmingham.
That draw for families and retirees could be similar to the draw for many people who come from across the country.
Mark Sellors came to Alabama from Los Angeles nearly 13 years ago. In Hollywood, he was a carpenter, building scenes for movies. Then he got offered a job at the Eternal World Television Network in Irondale.
Sellors, who’s originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, had lived in the United States since he was in eighth grade in Minneapolis, Minn. He joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Rucker in southeast Alabama. So when EWTN called, wanting him to leave Hollywood for Irondale, he knew what Alabama was like. He didn’t have to listen to friends who had only seen the state in old news clips from the Civil Rights Movement.
“I didn’t have those black and white films with the police dogs going on in my head. I was saying ‘It’s green there,'” he said. “Things have moved on in the last 50 years, but people who aren’t here don’t necessarily know that.”
People who come from out of state aren’t the majority of Jefferson County’s new residents but they are still a significant number. Nearly 9,000 people came from outside of Alabama from 2010 to 2011, 8,808 of them from different states and 142 from different countries. The state with the most movement was Georgia, which had 1,315 people move into Jefferson County and 1,452 people move out of Jefferson and into Georgia. Other states that saw a lot of movement were concentrated around the southeast, with Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi rounding out the top five in terms of people moving into the county.
Miguel Carpizo-Ituarte came to the Birmingham area just over a year ago from Knoxville, Tenn. The Mexico native who hopes to become a U.S. citizen next year came to take a position as a community organizer at Greater Birmingham Ministries. He had worked with a coalition for immigrant justice in Knoxville and had previously been a minister in the United Methodist Church.
“I didn’t know a lot about Birmingham,” he said. “I moved because of the job and the opportunity of working with an interfaith nonprofit.”
He found a place in Birmingham’s Glen Iris neighborhood because he wanted to be in the city and close to GBM’s office north of downtown. He said he really chose Birmingham because of the job, and basically all he knew about Alabama was that the state had recently passed House Bill 56, which cracked down on illegal immigration, and he wanted to work with the people affected by it.
“This is like the front line of a lot of issues happening,” he said. “There are a lot of states where a lot of people are already doing a lot of work, but Alabama is where you are if you want to start something.”