Leaving Las Vegas: Has 'Sin City' gone bust?

Las Vegas's unemployment approaches 15 percent, prompting residents to move out in record numbers.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor / File
The Las Vegas strip glows in this file photo from June, 1999. The city's population grew from 1.2 million in 1998 to 1.9 million in 2008, but is now falling rapidly.

Back in the boom, Sin City’s population grew by nearly 200 each day. The Las Vegas metro area had a population of just over 1.2 million in 1998 and a decade later it was nearly 1.9 million.

But now with an unemployment rate approaching 15%, the gambling capitol’s hot roll has 7nd-out. The Las Vegas Sun reports, “a slow but steady stream of Las Vegans is moving away in search of better luck.”

Incoming migration has always been tracked by counting the out-of-state drivers licenses surrendered to the DMV. As the Sun article explains, this July only 4,683 were surrendered. In July 2004 a record 8,889 licenses were turned in, the same month Joel Stein’s “The Strip is Back!” article was Time magazine’s cover story.

Of course, Vegas newcomers don’t necessarily run to the DMV their first day in town to trade licenses. Most wait until their car insurance renewal date or some other prompting. It often takes hours to complete business at LV DMVs, so people put the trip off as long as possible.

But the number no one has ever had a good handle on was how many people were (or are now) moving out of Las Vegas. U-Haul’s estimate that 2% more people are moving out than are moving in might be right, but doesn’t jibe with what the guys at Bekins told me recently. They said they are very busy and that the ratio was 2 to 1 people moving out of Vegas to moving in and some days it is 3 to 1.

Another group leaving Las Vegas and not showing up to rent trucks at UHaul are illegal immigrants who provided much of the boom time construction labor in the city. According to today’s Wall Street Journal, “The influx of illegal immigrants plunged to an estimated 300,000 annually between March 2007 and 2009, from 850,000 a year between March 2000 and March 2005, according to new study released Wednesday by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group.”

And while plenty of people are leaving Vegas, many more want to but can’t. Polling by the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Channel 8 News Now found that 34 percent of locals would leave Las Vegas if they could find a job somewhere else, or if they weren’t underwater on their home loan.

The RJ poll indicates that 42% of those under 50 are ready to leave while only 25% of those over 50 want to move. A good portion of those over 50 are likely retired and have little if any mortgage debt, while those under 50 are more dependent of the job market and are likely underwater on their homes (various studies show that anywhere from 68 to 81% of Las Vegans owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth).

Las Vegas has been called the “New Detroit” by union officials. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that Detroit’s population has declined to less than 800,000 from a high of two million in 1950.

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