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The Great Return: Renters Jumpstart Large Cities with Surge in Applications in 2021

The 2021 rental season kicked off twice as strong as usual, with Gen Z and high-earning Millennials being the most active apartment hunters. In particular, New York City and San Francisco saw an astounding interest in apartments during the first half of 2021.

Renting activity is back to pre-pandemic levels — up 13% in the first half of 2021 compared to the same time last year — and two groups of people are primarily responsible for it. Specifically, our analysis of nationwide rental applications by age groups showed that the main players who propelled this renewed activity were Zoomers, who accounted for the largest increase in applications for apartments — 39% compared to the year prior — most of whom were entering the rental market for the first time. When we consider renters by income, those who earned upwards of $100,000 were the most active this year, with 34% more than last year.

Meanwhile, interest in big-city apartments is surging and rental applications rose in all of the nation’s 30 largest cities. New York City saw the most spectacular comeback, leading the trend, with double its rental activity compared to last year, while San Francisco had the second-highest increase in renters moving in. 

So, to see the complete picture of what renting looks like in the aftermath of the pandemic, we extracted in-depth market and demographic insights by analyzing 2.5 million nationwide renter applications from RentGrow. 

Rental Season Kicks-off with a Bang 

Renters are on the move again and, this year, they took the apartment market by storm. In fact, the peak renting season started out twice as strong as usual, with 45% more renters applying for apartments in March than in February. By comparison, during the same time period in 2018 and 2019, applications rose by an average of just 23%.

In contrast, last year’s rental season was atypical, starting in May, post-lockdown, and ending sooner than usual. Then, as vaccination rates went up, the job market started to recover, and household savings increased, a sense of newfound confidence motivated renters to get moving. In surveys we conducted earlier in the year, the opportunity to get a better deal was the top reason for moving, and most renters preferred to remain in the same city. Another significant reason for the heightened activity was an acute need for larger apartments to accommodate those who work from home, according to another recent renter survey.

Overall renting activity has returned to pre-pandemic levels. For instance, there was a 12% reduction in overall activity in 2020, whereas the hype in the first half of 2021 led to a 13% increase in rental applications. 

Gen Z Most Active Renting Generation

To understand who is behind this rental season’s renewed activity, we divided applicants by age groups. In doing so, we discovered that the highest spike in activity this year came from Generation Z. Specifically, the number of Gen Z renters who moved in the first part of 2021 was up by 39% compared to the same time last year, while the number of applications from all other age groups increased by 10% or less. 

Moreover, the youngest renter generation now makes up 27% of the nation’s apartment hunters and is also the only renter age group that’s growing in share (slide 2). Millennials are the largest segment of active renters (45%), but their share decreased 8% since last year. In fact, all generations of renters lost shares to Gen Z, the oldest of whom are turning 24 this year. 

High-Income Renters Hunt for New Apartments

Meanwhile, when we looked into the profile of rental applicants by income, earners in the top two income brackets proved to be the most eager to switch apartments this rental season, taking advantage of deals on luxury apartments. 33% more renters who earn between $75,000 and $100,000, as well as 34% more renters who earn over $100,000 moved during the first part of this year compared to a year prior. In this case, the need for larger, better living spaces to accommodate working from home and a more comfortable lifestyle were the primary reasons that renters began searching for a new place. Notably, the highly competitive real estate market may also be a factor for some high-earners who are holding off buying in favor of renting.

Interestingly, Millennials represent about half of the apartment-hunters with annual earnings greater than $100,000. They’re followed by Gen X, who make up about 30% of this income group. Of course, a more generous budget enables renters to move into a larger apartment or a nicer area, a preferable alternative to an intimidating real estate market, at least for the time being.

Apartments Filling Up Again in Nation’s Largest Cities

Although last year’s reports lamented about people “fleeing” the nation’s largest cities, this year’s rental stats put those worries to rest. Renting activity in all of the 30 largest U.S. cities was above that seen during the same period last year and was especially hot in the most popular renter hubs on the coasts. New York apartments led this astounding rebound, as the number of renters moving in the Big Apple doubled in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020. Across the country, the Bay Area was in a similar situation, with 79% more people applying for rentals in San Francisco. Similarly, apartments in Seattle and San Jose also saw a lot of interest from apartment hunters.

Renting activity includes all applications by people who moved within the city (urban churn), as well as people who moved into the city from a different city. Plus, what’s even more encouraging is that in a majority of these hubs, the number of renters on the move increased even above pre-pandemic levels, revealing the strong appeal that big city life has retained. 

While no other cities saw such a drastic increase in the number of rental applications as New York and San Francisco, Seattle and San Jose both scored over 50% more rental activity. A larger number of cities registered between 25-50% more applications from renters: Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia, PA; Detroit, MI; Chicago, IL; Denver, CO; San Diego, CA; Oklahoma City, OK; Louisville, KY; Los Angeles, CA; and Austin, TX.

Among the cities with the lowest change in rental applications (while still a positive one) are: Columbus, OH; Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso, TX; Las Vegas, NV; Phoenix, AZ; Indianapolis, IN; Milwaukee, WI; and Jacksonville, FL.

Renter Movement in Top 30 Largest Cities in H1 2021 vs H1 2020

City / StateMoving Into CityMoving Within CityLeaving City
New York, NY209%60%43%
San Francisco, CA105%61%17%
Seattle, WA69%43%23%
San Jose, CA43%64%57%
Washington, D.C.65%25%4%
Philadelphia, PA46%34%49%
Chicago, IL80%19%46%
Detroit, MI35%40%27%
Denver, CO47%16%10%
San Diego, CA59%13%20%
Oklahoma City, OK36%25%25%
Louisville, KY36%24%34%
Austin, TX57%9%43%
Los Angeles, CA47%12%27%
Las Vegas, NV55%8%30%
Houston, TX43%13%21%
Dallas, TX34%12%19%
Columbus, OH31%16%28%
Phoenix, AZ35%9%21%
El Paso, TX47%12%50%
San Antonio, TX28%16%28%
Indianapolis, IN31%10%26%
Milwaukee, WI12%15%60%
Jacksonville, FL21%7%48%
Portland, OR17%2%17%
Nashville, TN23%-3%9%
Charlotte, NC20%-2%13%
Memphis, TN35%-1%23%
Boston, MA15%-7%24%
Fort Worth, TX13%-8%28%
Percentages show change in rental applications coming from people moving in, out, within certain cities, in H1 2021 compared to H1 2020. Source: RentGrow.


  • Rental application data was sourced from RentGrow, Inc. and was received wholly anonymized and aggregated. No personally identifiable or other confidential renter information was disclosed or used in conjunction with this article. 
  • The top 30 largest U.S. cities are ranked by population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 ACS one-year estimate. 
  • The analysis is based on data from around 2.5 million rental applications from RentGrow, Inc. for approximately 34,000 apartment communities. Only properties that had data available for all years pertinent to the analysis were included. 
  • Gen Z is defined as the generation born between 1997 and 2012; Millennials are defined as the generation born between 1981 and 1996; Gen X includes those born between 1965 and 1980; and Baby Boomers are those born between 1946 and 1964.



Nadia Balint
Nadia Balint
Nadia Balint is a senior creative writer for RENTCafé. She covers news and trends in residential and commercial real estate and their impact on our everyday life, including rental housing, for-sale housing, real estate development, homeownership, market reports, insurance, landlord-tenant laws, personal finance, urban development, economy, sustainability, and social issues. Nadia holds a B.S. in Business Management from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. You can connect with Nadia via email. Nadia’s work and expertise have been quoted by major national and local media outlets, including CNN, CNBC, CBS News, Curbed, The NY Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Denver Post as well as industry publications, such as GlobeSt, Bisnow, Inman News, Multifamily Executive, and The Commercial Real Estate Show. Nadia also wrote for Multi-Housing News, Commercial Property Executive, HubSpot, and more. Prior to entering the real estate industry, Nadia worked in the legal field, where she gained over 10 years of experience in business, corporate, and real estate law.

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