Leave the city

Anne Kadet:

Like many families with young children, Stan and Julia Usherenko had long planned to move to the suburbs, where they could afford a larger home and a yard. This year, they finally started what they assumed would be a leisurely search. Then the pandemic hit.

In mid-March—the last weekend that real-estate agents could hold an open house—Mr. and Mrs. Usherenko rushed to make an offer on a three-bedroom house in Midland Park, N.J., with a pool and fenced-in yard.

“If we didn’t go with this house, who knows when we’d find the next house,” Mr. Usherenko said. “We might have been stuck until much later. We went $25,000 over asking.”

Mr. Usherenko, a financial analyst, and Mrs. Usherenko, a psychotherapist, are both working full time in their two-bedroom apartment while caring for two toddlers. “We’re definitely not getting enough fresh air,” said Mr. Usherenko, whose grandfather recently died from coronavirus. “And it’s stressful. Every time we go outside, you don’t know who you’re passing by.”

They’re hardly the only family spurred by the pandemic to make a fast move, said Alison Bernstein, founder and president of Suburban Jungle, a company that specializes in matching city clients with their ideal suburban town, and helped the Usherenkos find their new home. “This whole thing is catastrophic and petrifying for families in urban areas,” she said. “People want out of the city and now.”

Ms. Bernstein said demand for her firm’s services is up 40% from the same period last year. Some are prompted by safety concerns. Others worry the shelter-in-place edict will drag on, confining them to small city apartments.

Carlo Siracusa, president of Residential Sales for N.J.-based Weichert Realtors said while inventory is low due to sellers pulling homes off the market, demand remains high because of a new wave of city dwellers shopping in the suburbs.

“They’ve been confined to a small space the last 45 days and want out,” he said. “There’s a sense of urgency.”

The real-estate market isn’t exactly lively these days, of course. In Manhattan, contract signings are down 77%, according to UrbanDigs. A National Association of Realtors survey, meanwhile, found that most buyers are delaying purchases.

But for some, the pandemic had the opposite effect.

By the end of March, Kristen Euretig was fed up with quarantine life in her Brooklyn rental apartment. She’s now enjoying a three-bedroom Airbnb rental outside Rochester, N.Y. with her husband, 18-month-old son and dog. And she’s surprised to discover how much her family enjoys country living.

When they want fresh air, there’s no need to don gloves, face masks and dodge neighbors crowding the apartment building lobby. They tumble out to the yard with its 16 acres of marshland that hosts ducks, geese and deer. “I’m not in a rush to head back,” said Ms. Euretig, who founded the financial advisory Brooklyn Plans, and is now working from home.

Indeed, the experience has the family rethinking its commitment to the city. Until the pandemic, the suburbs didn’t seem practical. But now that her husband, a lawyer, has proven his ability to work from home, they’re hoping his employer will be open to the idea. Last week, Ms. Euretig made her first call to a Hudson Valley real-estate agent.

The prospect of a mini-exodus is a real possibility, said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a Manhattan think tank focused on the local economy.

“New York is the epicenter for this pandemic,” he said. “Everybody knows that, and it’s understandable for people to think maybe a less dense place would be safer the next 12 to 18 months.”

But it is hardly a foregone conclusion, he said. Whether the flight from the city materializes depends largely on how authorities handle the situation during the coming weeks and months. “It’s all about whether people feel safe from another wave of the pandemic breaking out,” Mr. Bowles said.

After 9/11, some predicted the city would see a population decline spurred by fears of terrorism, he said. Instead, the population grew as the city demonstrated its ability to keep residents safe.

The catch: It may require long or repeated shutdowns to address the virus, which could itself spur suburban flight. What’s the point of paying crazy rent on a cramped apartment if you can’t enjoy the city?

Last month, after two weeks of quarantine living, Manhattan residents Eric and Heidi Matisoff packed their two toddlers and dog into an SUV and temporarily moved in with Mrs. Matisoff’s mother, who lives Northvale, N.J. On the drive over, the Suburban Jungle clients stopped to view an available four-bedroom house in Glen Ridge, N.J. They made an offer that day. The closing is scheduled for June 15.

The Matisoffs—he works at Adobe and she is a nurse practitioner who is on leave to care for the children—had been contemplating a move for a while. They are sad to be leaving the city behind, but the pandemic makes it easier.

“This could go on for six months, 12 months. And who knows what the city could look like after,” Mrs. Matisoff said. “The lure of leaving the city has increased.”

Jim Geraghty:

Yesterday on my work Facebook page, a reader asked, “Why is it that the places Covid-19 show up the most are in Democrat controlled areas?” As much as I’d like to believe that all the troubles in the world can eventually be traced back to Bill de Blasio, I responded, “Probably because ‘the places it shows up the most’ are large densely-packed cities with a lot of international and domestic air travel and high use of mass transit, where Democrats have been winning elections more than Republicans for at least a generation and in many cases several generations.”

You can split red and blue America in a lot of ways — race, age, religiosity — but arguably the strongest factor is geography. The “Big Sort” that Bill Bishop described has been at work for two decades. Sure, there are conservatives and Republicans who live in big cities and inner-ring suburbs, just rarely in the numbers that could make a difference. And there are progressives and Democrats who live in rural areas and exurbs, but again, rarely in the numbers that could make a difference in elections.

Kevin Williamson has noted that conservatives often don’t even try to persuade city-dwellers of the value of their ideas, and lapse into a casual to overt contempt of life in the big city.

Meanwhile, it is not hard to find examples of urban progressives looking at rural America with a combination of contempt, disdain, pity, smug superiority . . . heck, it’s not hard to find urban progressives who see suburbanites as somehow inferior and worthy of scorn, never mind residents of small-town America. …

Are cities still worth it? Many will conclude they are. The opportunities are unparalleled, lots of jobs are there, the arts scenes are thriving, the professional sports teams are there. Nearby international airports allow you to get anywhere in the world fairly easily. Cities have more people closer together than towns and suburbs, so they just have more things going on — fascinating museums, festivals, marathons, concerts, pedestrian-only streets lined with quirky shops, distinct ethnic neighborhoods, small businesses, unique non-chain restaurants, skyscrapers and observation decks, broad boulevards, huge libraries, inviting public squares. Even the train stations can be beautiful. People who appreciate all the joys of a city — and who can still afford the cost of living — won’t easily give up all of that. Our cities will not empty out.

Meanwhile, it is not hard to find examples of urban progressives looking at rural America with a combination of contempt, disdain, pity, smug superiority . . . heck, it’s not hard to find urban progressives who see suburbanites as somehow inferior and worthy of scorn, never mind residents of small-town America.

But they may shrink, and this outbreak is likely to accelerate the trend of seeing urban life as a luxury for the wealthy and young and a necessity for the poor and old.

Whatever you want to call the trend in urban planning over the past two or three decades — I’d characterize it as Richard-Florida-ization — it has reoriented American big cities’ offerings, enhancing their appeal to certain groups of people, often at the cost of other groups of people. Florida now gets mocked as “the Patron Saint of Avocado Toast,” but I think the demographic numbers don’t lie. Cities are terrific and exciting places for young people, particularly college students and recent college graduates, and double-income, no-kids couples — and probably retirees as well. But once a couple has a child, urban life becomes a lot more difficult and less appealing. A small apartment can become unbearable with a new baby. The public schools are hit-and-miss at best. Bigger kids want a yard to play in, or maybe a swing set. The cost of living starts to be prohibitive.

And now we are learning, once again, that densely packed cities are particularly dangerous places to be during a disease outbreak.

If you’re living in New York City right now, the good news is that you’re living amongst some of the best doctors and medical personnel in the world. But you probably live in an apartment. Leaving that apartment requires using an elevator (use a glove to touch the buttons) or the stairs (don’t touch the railings or doorknobs with your bare hands). Once you get on the street, you can try to keep space between yourself and everyone else, but there are just lots of people around. Advocates for public transportation insist the connection between the subway system and the virus is ‘tenuous,” but . . . how many other places are you forced into relatively close contact with lots of strangers with circulated air for a significant stretch of time? How many people use those stairway railings each day? How many people touch the turnstiles and subway poles?

Life in a small town or the suburbs is no guarantee of protection from the coronavirus. Tiny Cynthiana, Ky., population around 6,300, had a cluster of cases, fourteen in the town and surrounding county. My stretch of suburbia, Fairfax County, has 2,306 cases. But we’ve got 1.1 million people spread out over 406 square miles — roughly the size of Los Angeles. At least we can walk around our neighborhoods and the trails in the woods with minimal fear of exposure.*

The world has been forced to embrace telework and experiment with working from home like never before. The need for white-collar workers to all be in one central location — and paying some considerable rent for that office space — is shrinking before our eyes.

When authorities require or recommend you stay inside your home, your home becomes exponentially more important — not just a place to sleep and store your stuff. Kitchens matter when you’re cooking almost every meal at home. A yard, patio, deck, porch, or gazebo gives you the ability to enjoy fresh air within your own space.

Who knows if the coming year or two will have on-and-off social distancing and stay-at-home orders? All of those glorious amenities of the city aren’t that appealing if they’re closed.

Some reacted to the previous trend of the urbanization of America with satisfaction. After “White Flight” and “Brain Drain” and so many bad trends in American cities in the 1970s and 1980s, many urban areas were finally enjoying a renaissance. A handful became “innovation hubs for the knowledge economy” — New York City, Seattle, Austin, Boston, Silicon Valley — enjoying an explosion of jobs — with a much slower increase in the amount of available housing. Rents and the cost of real estate skyrocketed, creating glittering cities with much of the rest of America on the outside looking in.

And now some people in the cities may not want to live in them anymore. “Blue America” might be moving to the suburbs or right into “Red America” — and maybe we would be better off if we saw each other as neighbors, instead of rivals in a never-ending culture war.

The three biggest cities in Wisconsin — Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay — are the three biggest outbreak areas, thanks to Milwaukee and Madison’s density and mass transit. Six counties comprising those three areas (and Milwaukee’s suburbs) comprise 80 percent of Wisconsin’s coronavirus diagnoses. That should tell you everything you need to know about urban areas and disease.

 

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