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Mitchell Harrison poses for a portrait at the future site of his photo studio in Traverse City on Saturday.

TRAVERSE CITY — Rob Peterson’s job isn’t to drive U-Haul trucks cross country.

It’s to find a place to park the trucks end one-way trips at The Packing Store on South Airport Road.

Lately, that parking lot shuffle became a puzzle. The number of households moving to Traverse City from cities on the east and west coast are up since July.

“Inbounds are definitely up,” he said. “We have a lot more equipment coming in from one-ways out of the area.”

It’s because remote work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 has made cramped, city-priced studio apartments less attractive or necessary.

Since March, according to records obtained by the Record-Eagle through a Freedom of Information request, 1,000 additional households from areas that do not have zip codes starting with 496 (the first three digits for most of northwest Lower Michigan) have requested mail forwarding services from the U.S. Postal Service than the same time period in 2019.

It amounts to a 2.5 percent increase in out-of-state migration for the summer of 2020 — and a 50 percent increase during the months of July and August. That means you likely saw an additional out of state license plate this summer on 1 in every 40 cars you wouldn’t have seen last year.

The largest increases in mail forwarding requests came from states that have some of the nation’s largest population centers. Requests from New York households this summer have increased from 50 to 225; Illinois was up from 335 requests to 502; California was up from 309 requests to 502.

Other states with significant percent changes compared to 2019, but a relatively low volume in additional households were Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey, Georgia and South Carolina. All saw requests increase more than 20 percent.

It’s unclear how many of those transfers are temporary, as USPS did not disclose that data in records generated in response to the FOIA request.

But when the Record-Eagle filed the same FOIA with the USPS in June, a large majority of households in that time period were from the western coast of Florida and central Arizona.

In the data generated from the second FOIA, those requests didn’t appear in the late summer months of July and August. Still, requests from outside the Traverse City area were 500 households higher for those months, compared to last year, while intra-region requests were down by 15 percent.

Several realtors in Traverse City say they’ve worked with clients moving in from outside the area. The already difficult housing market in the Grand Traverse region became further tilted toward sellers as the summer came to a close, with several reporting above-asking cash offers minutes after homes hit the market.

Morgan Engle and her fiance came to Traverse City from San Francisco just before a historic fire season.

They already had family in Manistee, and found a home on Eighth Street when her husband was cleared to retain his job and work from home. He creates video games for independent video game developer Modus.

To her surprise, both of her neighbors were from California.

“We moved from 400-square-foot studio to an 800-square-foot house,” said Engle, who shaved $1,000 off her monthly expenses in the process.

Mitchell Harrison flew in to stay his family’s lake house on Platte Lake to escape his apartment New York City, the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic in March. He grew up in Interlochen and graduated from Traverse City West before moving to the city 10 years ago.

When he returned, he didn’t have a car, he didn’t have a job, and he didn’t know how long he would stay in town. For a while he kept his lease in a $2,600-per-month studio apartment.

“My lease was coming up and I was like, ‘I can’t stay here and continue to pay rent in New York City,’” Harrison said.

Harrison flew back, packed up and moved everything to northern Michigan. When he got back to New York City, there was only one person still living in the six-apartment complex.

He bought a car for the first time in eight years, he’s renovating an industrial building near Turtle Creek Stadium into a photo studio, and seeking a small house to buy.

“I always knew I kind of wanted to come back eventually, I think that this just fast tracked it by five years,” Harrison said. “It really just forced me to make those decisions earlier, when I would probably would have been happy living in the city for another five years or so.”

Noelle Hile had lived all over the west coast after growing up in Ohio. At 21 she had a chance to move to the Bay area and met her husband there working retail management. With a 1-year-old, they lived in Portland, Oregon, then Olympia, Washington, after job transfers.

“With everything going on politically, the west coast is getting more and more intense in all the big cities,” Hile said. “Us having a small child, we just kind of wanted a more family oriented small town kind of feel to raise him in.”

After another round of layoffs, her husband was hired by Burlington Coat Factory and was handed a sheet of 50 locations to choose from. The location under construction in Traverse City was on it.

Remembering how well people got along in northwest Ohio, the two picked the Traverse City location as their first pick. He got the job, and they moved to northern Michigan late May after staying with family and working in Ohio for a bit.

They didn’t know at the time the time the store he was hired to work at wasn’t exactly built yet — or there would be a pandemic that’d put him out of work until just this past week when the store finally opened.

“I myself am a brown woman and half Japanese and half Navajo Indian,” Hile said. “In the past, in certain places I’ve lived, I’ve had issues just because of the color of my skin. So far here in Traverse City, I haven’t faced any of those same issues.”

Harrison said he anticipates the convergence of different U.S. cultures to have a positive impact on the Grand Traverse Region.

“A good melting pot of ideas from all over, I think is good,” Harrison said. “I think TC is a good place for that. There’s a lot of arts here. There’s a lot of things to do, and ultimately I think it’s going to be a good thing.”

Coast Guard Transfers

One line in the USPS data release stood out from other locations in the list of mail transfers.

In July, 13 requests were made from Alaska.

That’s because The U.S. Coast Guard transferred in at least 10 units from Kodiak Coast Guard Air Station Commissary. A spokesperson said the transfers were delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lone Star state

There continued to be a flow of residents moving from Texas to Traverse City this summer.

Both 2019 and 2020 had more than 400 requests to redirect mail from addresses in Texas to Traverse City making the Lone Star state fourth on the list of top transfer locations. Florida, Arizona and Illinois were the top-3.

Mail forwarding requests from Texas this summer were up 3.5 percent overall. The volume of requests in July and August was up 50 percent.