|How Many People Are Actually Fleeing to the Suburbs Permanently?|
by Madeline Bilis
published Jun 28, 2020
You’ve seen the headlines: “ Coronavirus Escape: To the Suburbs” in the New York Times, “ Coronavirus: Americans flee cities for the suburbs” in USA Today, “ Will the Coronavirus Make the Suburbs Popular Again?” in Architectural Digest.
The coronavirus pandemic’s stay-at-home orders have residents of dense urban areas like New York City pondering a permanent move to somewhere more spread-out for obvious reasons: more space, more land, lower prices.
Mulling the decision to leave New York has almost reached cliche status (there’s even a Leaving New York” essay genre, as the Times notes points out).As more New Yorkers leave, it invites near-constant speculation about a “mass exodus” out of cities. But are the folks skipping town getting outsized attention? Are there really that many people moving away—for good?
Some are leaving their cramped apartments behind for greener pastures
A not insignificant subset of New York’s population—estimated to be about 420,000 people, according to smartphone data acquired by the Times—left the city between March 1 and May 1. Wealthy urbanites fled to their second homes in the country, younger millennials decamped to their parents’ houses in the suburbs. And there are predictions that these people won’t be back.
Of course, privilege is one of the main drivers in the ability to leave. For many, it’s financially out of reach to just up and go. The Times’ findings show that the highest-earning (and whitest) neighborhoods in New York emptied out first. Large swaths of Queens and the Bronx do not reflect nearly as many moves. The Bronx is the borough hardest hit by the virus, aligning with data illustrating that Black, Latino, and low-income populations suffered higher death rates in the city.
For many families in Manhattan and Brooklyn who either lost their jobs or were able to work remotely, the pandemic gave them time to review their priorities in a living space.
“Some people, while being confined, have had a lot of time to think and reflect,” explains Su Jin Feuer, a psychotherapist with expertise in life transitions. “They’ve come to the decision that maybe they’re not satisfied in an area of their life.”
Whether prompted by a job loss that necessitates lower housing costs or simply wanting more space for their children, urbanites who needed an extra push to make changes in their lives got one.
“I am finding that people, now more than ever, are really examining their happiness, their life satisfaction, and what’s most meaningful to them—and are moving towards that in a much bolder way than before,” Feuer says.
Case in point? A 34-year-old Manhattan resident who preferred not to be named said that after almost a decade of living in the city, he’s never “had to take a second to pause and think about what the future means.” Now, after reevaluating what he and his wife want going forward, they’ve decided to move upstate. He adds that he used an Instagram poll to see how many of his friends were moving, too, and found that 85 percent of them planned to.
But deserters don’t represent the majority just yet
Apartment rental platform PropertyNest surveyed 1,001 people in May and found that 86.2 percent of them said coronavirus isn’t making them want to move away. The remaining 13.8 percent, however, said they planned to move either out of state, out of the city, out of their borough, or into a new home within the city. (New York City’s population is around 8.39 million people, according to a 2018 U.S. Census. If 13.8 percent of people were to move, it’d mean more than 1 million people would be waving goodbye.)
Another report from real estate giant Zillow notes suburban home listings are not garnering more pageviews on Zillow than last year, relative to urban or rural listings. “In both 2019 and 2020, suburban listings garnered the majority of page views from Zillow users, but there has been no suburban surge this year in the wake of the pandemic,” reads the report.
Both reports, however, contain data sets that are almost two months old. In a time when new information and guidelines are changing rapidly—and as the virus seems like it’s here to stay—it’s important to note that moving trends could change on a dime.
Findings from real estate analytics site UrbanDigs show that leasing activity in New York is far below seasonal levels, with a decrease of 62 percent of lease signings compared with late June in 2019. However, the second and third weeks of June 2020 are up 15 percent over the previous two weeks. This “hints that market activity, while still suppressed, is beginning to increase as the typically large number of summer leases roll over,” according to the report.
Further data from Zillow suggests that casual browsers are eyeing other metro areas, rather than suburban cities and towns. It also shows a 10 percent uptick in searches for home offices compared to last year. The site’s early research concludes buyers are “more concerned with a home’s features than where it’s located.”
Bonnie Chajet, who’s been a real estate broker with New York City-based Warburg Realty for more than 30 years, says she’s seeing buyers reassessing their needs in a home.
“They say, ‘Maybe we need another apartment with an extra room as an office. Maybe we want to move to an apartment with outdoor space like a balcony,’” she says. “There are people who are definitely New Yorkers who’ll want to stay here. But now they want to move to larger spaces that work for them.”
While working as a real estate broker after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Chajet says she saw some panicked residents flee the city.
“Did people talk about [moving] then? Yes—just like they may be talking about it now,” she says. “But I would say that there is not going to be a mass exodus.”
An estimated 4,500 residents left Lower Manhattan after 9/11, but that population “not only rebounded, but returned to considerable growth,” by 2005, according to a report from New York’s Department of City Planning. While coronavirus and 9/11 are entirely different tragedies, the knee-jerk reaction to leave during a crisis is the same. What remains to be seen is if the folks leaving New York now will come back after the virus’ high transmission rates subside.
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So, who’s staying?
The short answer: Everybody else.
Kristin Gorman, a 42-year-old living in Queens with her husband and children, was born and raised in Brooklyn, as were her parents. After getting married, she decided to move to Austin, Texas, with her husband. They worked to renovate a house there, but within six months, she knew she had to return home to New York.
Now, Gorman is watching other families decide to pack up for other states.
“There is not a New Yorker alive who hasn’t occasionally questioned why they bother to put up with small spaces, high prices, noise, and endless competition for resources, when there are so many less complicated places to live,” Gorman says. “For many, COVID-19 has brought those feelings to the forefront of our minds.”
Even without the pandemic, she reasons, New York can be a punitive place for a middle-class family to raise children. Gorman says she wants to stay simply because it is home—and nothing feels more comforting in times of crisis than home. But even her unending love for the city doesn’t mean she can’t see the appeal of leaving.
“My husband and I are tempted every day by the incredible quality and simplicity of suburban school systems,” she says. “I still think we may feel compelled to relocate as our oldest child inches closer to middle school, whether it is to a suburb or perhaps to another global city outside the U.S.”
Younger renters without children are also staying put. Jamie D., a 26-year-old living in Brooklyn, says she thinks people are overestimating how long they will change their behavior because of the pandemic.
“I’m staying because optimistically I feel like the city will recover before too long, and the things that drew me to the city have not changed. I still feel as though the city is generally a more exciting, vibrant, and interesting place to live than the suburbs for this portion of my life,” she says. “My life is still in the city. My friends are here, my job is here, the things I like to do are here. And as much as I would have loved some more outdoor space and generally more space during the crisis, I don’t think that is enough to make me not care about the things I cared about before.”
Gorman, like others who have stayed, believes the fundamental elements that make urban living attractive haven’t disappeared. Instead, she says, they’re paused.
“Try to fast forward one to two years in your mind, and imagine yourself and your family in your new city or town. Will you feel at home?” she says. “You are the only person who can answer that question.”
Real Estate and Finance Editor
Madeline Bilis is a writer and editor with a soft spot for brutalist buildings. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Boston magazine, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. She has a degree in journalism from Emerson College and published her first book, 50 Hikes in Eastern Massachusetts, in August 2019.