North Carolina’s population is surging, though you might need an inner-city zip code to notice. The state added more than 312,000 residents from April 2010 to July 2013, trailing only Texas, California and Florida, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show. About half of that growth was in Mecklenburg and Wake counties, while nearly half of the 100 counties lost residents.
Growth in Mecklenburg and Wake outpaces suburban counties, reversing a long-term trend, UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute reported in April. That’s because newcomers want to avoid commuting and home-ownership hassles and enjoy nearby restaurants, bars and sports venues.
“I like that we can do anything without having to drive,” says Scott Curry, 28, who last year bought the downtown Charlotte apartment he and his wife first rented in 2011. “We could have a lot more space for the rent if we went to University City or south Charlotte, but we didn’t want to deal with the suburban-lifestyle junk that went along with it.”
Downtown apartments accounted for almost a third of the 7,900 units built in the Raleigh-Durham metro since 2011, a quarter of the 4,200 erected in Greensboro and Winston-Salem and more than a fifth of the 8,300 that went up in Charlotte, according to Charles Dalton, owner of Real Data LLC, a Charlotte-based real-estate research company. Downtown apartments accounted for 10% or less of construction in those areas during the last decade. The share will increase as several thousand units open there over the next three years, he says.
Charlotte’s downtown and neighboring South End district will have 25,500 residents by 2015, according to Charlotte Center City Partners, a nonprofit that promotes the area. That compares with about 9,800 in 2000, spokeswoman Lelia King says. In Raleigh, about 5,000 people live in the central business district, which will see 2,257 more units by mid-2016, according to Mike Stephens, operations director of Downtown Raleigh Alliance. Neighborhoods within a mile of downtown will have 15,000 people living there by 2017, the group estimates. In downtown Winston-Salem, where about 2,500 people resided in 2010, apartment building is accelerating, says Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. “We’ve had 880 units built since 2005, while we have about 600 units under construction now — that’s the telltale sign. The urban lifestyle is hot.”
Most urbanites are young professionals, though empty nesters also are moving in from the suburbs, says Davis Hahn, a Charlotte commercial broker seeking tenants near a Publix supermarket being built in South End. Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. plans to open a Harris-Teeter store a half-mile away. Both are within a block of the $463 million, 10-mile light-rail line that opened in 2007 and now averages 15,000 daily boardings. The neighborhood, just south of downtown, has doubled to 3,200 residents in five years, with more than 1,000 units under construction or completed in the past several months. “A lot of people in North Carolina grew up in suburban atmospheres, but now they are looking for a place to live where stuff is going on,” Hahn says. “They want to walk to restaurants and entertainment.”
An improving economy is spurring demand for apartments as recent college graduates land jobs and can afford to leave their parents’ homes, says Bob Metzger, a regional property manager in Durham with Charlotte-based Northwood Ravin LLC and president of the Triangle Apartment Association. The housing bust from 2007 to 2011 makes many potential buyers fearful of a mortgage, with a third of Tar Heels living in rental properties in 2012, up from 31% in 2000. Downtown monthly rents of $800 to $3,000 often exceed a mortgage payment, but many don’t care. “The desire to own fundamentally has been muted with what happened with home appreciation values,” says Ken Szymanski, executive director of the Greater Charlotte Apartment Association and Apartment Association of North Carolina. “They used to say homes double every 10 years. But when that becomes flat or negative, people scratch their heads and say, ‘Why would I do that?’”
Some businesses are expanding downtown, making urban living more attractive to their employees. Red Hat Inc., Citrix Systems Inc. and Ipreo Holdings LLC opened offices in Raleigh’s central district in the last five years. Coupon processor Inmar Inc. consolidated 900 jobs in downtown Winston-Salem, where former factories such as R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s Plant 64 are now residences.
Curry’s commute reverses that of many in the Charlotte region, where about 78,000 live or work within a mile of downtown, the center-city group says. Living near Johnson & Wales University, he rides a bus 22 miles north to Davidson, where he works for St. Louis-based The Lawrence Group Inc., an architecture and design company. He and his wife share a car. “I like that we can do anything without having to drive. I’d love to stay and have a low-maintenance house forever and never have to push another lawn mower for the rest of my life.”