COVID-19 Pandemic Pushes Many In New York City To Suburbs

7 hours ago
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Trends often start in New York, like B.J. Lederman, who writes our theme music. People have been moving to the suburbs for decades, but now the coronavirus outbreak may have hastened that movement, even in New York, and that has a lot of people talking about the future of cities. NPR's Uri Berliner reports.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Susan Horowitz has never seen anything like it.

SUSAN HOROWITZ: We are seeing 20 offers on houses. We are seeing things going 30% over the asking price. It's kind of insane.

BERLINER: Horowitz is a veteran real estate agent and she's talking about the frantic hyper-competitive market in Montclair, N.J., a suburb about 12 miles from New York City.

HOROWITZ: It is a blood sport.

BERLINER: Montclair is the kind of suburb that even appeals to demanding New Yorkers. It has yoga studios, restaurants you can walk to, art galleries, even a film festival. Horowitz says it's always been popular but now on a completely different scale.

HOROWITZ: Every last bit of it is COVID-related.

BERLINER: New Yorkers used to say maybe we'll move there one day. Now they've decided.

HOROWITZ: We don't have looky-loos anymore. We don't have people coming out to sort of test the market and see what's out there.

BERLINER: Horowitz says people are eager to buy, like Miriam Kanter and Steve Kanaplue. They're expecting their first child in September. Miriam works in ad sales, Steve's in risk management, and until recently, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side with their dog, Booey. As the virus spiked in the spring, their anxiety about going outside mounted.

MIRIAM KANTER: So it was coming in and out of the building at least four to five times a day to walk him. It was getting really stressful.

BERLINER: Miriam and Steve had been planning to move to the suburbs since January. The pandemic clinched it.

KANTER: Being in the epicenter - the washing of the hands - it's just the nerves of it all. It was pushing us out the door for sure.

BERLINER: Out the door to Montclair. In late April, their offer on a colonial with black shutters and a big front porch beat out four other bids. Miriam says they paid almost 20% above the asking price. She thinks it would have cost even more if they waited. And so on June 1, they moved in and officially became suburbanites.

KANTER: Everything changed the moment we could let the dog out in the yard.

BERLINER: Similar stories are playing out throughout the Greater New York area. Since March, around 10,000 New York residents applied to change their address with the postal service and moved to Connecticut - that's according to Hearst Connecticut Media. And in the suburbs north of the city and further upstate, here's real estate agent Monica Schwerberg.

MONICA SCHWERBERG: In the month of April, where we typically would get maybe 75 inquiries in a month, we had over 400 inquiries.

BERLINER: Ditching the city and buying a quiet place away from the crowds takes money. Only the relatively well-off can do it. It's not really an option for low-wage workers who take the subway and worry about getting sick. But for those who have the option of moving, it's not just anxiety over the virus. Glenn Kelman is the CEO of the national real estate brokerage Redfin. He says remote work has offered a new kind of freedom.

GLENN KELMAN: COVID has changed what people want. They want that house in the hills near a lake that's far away from everyone else. But work from home has also liberated them.

BERLINER: People leaving congested cities for the suburbs - it's the story of America and has been for many generations. There was a period about a decade ago when big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles grew quite a lot.

WILLIAM FREY: That's unheard of.

BERLINER: William Frey is a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

FREY: Since they invented the car, I don't think we saw a few years where cities as a group were growing faster than suburbs.

BERLINER: All that got a lot of media attention, especially about millennials in Brooklyn. But the picture has shifted once again over the past few years.

FREY: There was more movement to the suburbs, more movement to smaller sized metropolitan areas.

BERLINER: So does that mean that a superstar city like New York will wither away? Frey doesn't think so. He says New York is resilient. Its appeal is timeless, and maybe members of Gen Z will flock there, just like the millennials did a decade ago. Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.