The High Cost of Panic-Moving

Fleeing a big city because of the pandemic is a bigger gamble than it might seem.

A family in a suburban neighborhood
Carolyn Drake / Magnum

It took only a couple of weeks after the first coronavirus lockdowns in the United States for news reports to bear out what people in the hardest-hit cities immediately saw with their own eyes: When the going got tough, many residents—and especially the wealthy—got out.

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The outflux was most pronounced in New York City, where an estimated 5 percent of the population vacated the premises for some period of time, according to a New York Times analysis of cellphone location data. Some of the earliest leavers headed to their more spacious vacation homes, while others went to hunker down with their extended family in the suburbs. In Brooklyn, where I live, it was hard to miss the people packing up their cars in late March and much of April; they were often the only people outside who weren’t carrying sacks of groceries or delivering other people’s Amazon orders.

Soon, some people began to predict doom for America’s biggest cities. No city seemed to have a coherent plan to make cramped, confined public transit safe for commuters. Bars and restaurants wouldn’t be back to normal for months, maybe years, and some would close permanently. School reopenings were stuck in limbo. The people who left for the safety of the suburbs would stay out, some posited, and other high earners would follow them. Over the past few weeks, as protesters have been met with tear gas and rubber bullets in cities across the country, some who had predicted an exodus grew more resolute. Even The New York Times asked if New York City was still worth it.

These visions of an urban ice age have been buttressed by another recent prediction: that office work will no longer require physically going into an office. Employers that had resisted remote work have been forced to figure out the kinks, and now they’re under pressure to keep that option available even as states begin to reopen. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have extended work-from-home directives for their staffs into 2021 or made the option permanent, fueling the fantasy that former apartment dwellers in expensive cities will soon be able to take conference calls while far away, from a lounge chair next to their very own pool.

As coronavirus case counts begin to tick back up across the country and the specter of a second spike in infections looms, people in major American cities who can afford to may be tempted to pack up their apartment and get out. But fleeing cities is a bigger gamble than many white-collar workers might realize. Those who panic-move could soon find that the future of work and cities is far different from what they expected.

When we talk about people leaving America’s biggest cities right now, people largely means the rich. In The New York Times’ analysis of cellphone location data, 420,000 people fled New York City for some period of time from March 1 to May 1. Those who left were heavily concentrated in the city’s wealthiest zip codes, especially those in Manhattan. A similar phenomenon was found in the city’s trash-collection patterns, in which the amount of garbage dropped most sharply where rich people had vanished.

That snapshot of movement reflects long-standing trends in who is able to move from place to place in the U.S. “The ability to move is really concentrated among the higher-earning people,” says Samantha Friedman, the head of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany. Poorer people change dwellings much more frequently than their affluent counterparts, she told me, but their moves are almost always within the same area; they tend to bounce between rentals and the homes of friends or relatives.

The middle- and high-income people who could leave the city this year can be divided into two basic groups. First, there are the panic-movers, who hadn’t previously considered leaving before the pandemic hit. In one private Facebook group for panic-movers that I snooped around in for several weeks, the few thousand members looked for advice on how to persuade their New York–loving spouses to leave or asked for recommendations of small towns that are, somehow, very similar to the country’s biggest, densest city.

The second group of movers makes for less exciting trend stories: people who are taking part in normal attrition, of which New York City has plenty—tens of thousands of its residents move away every year. The city is expensive and cramped, and lots of people plan their exit to coincide with the predictable needs of their family or career, or just because they want something different. The pandemic may have accelerated these movers’ timelines by a few months or a year, but the decision to leave was already made.

By all indications, this second group of movers is far larger than those who have abruptly decided to flee. “There was this movement already of people starting to move out of the high-cost cities like San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C.,” Derek Hyra, a demographer at American University and the head of the school’s Metropolitan Policy Center, told me. Cities such as Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; and Nashville, Tennessee have picked up significant population gains because of their relatively affordable real-estate markets, Hyra said, ripe for house flipping and gentrification.

May was a historically bad month for the high-end Manhattan rental market, but there’s little reason to believe that the months ahead will be worse. While new leases in the borough dropped by more than 60 percent last month, the number of apartments that came on the market spiked by just 34 percent compared to last year. Some current vacancies might be held from the public until brokers are able to show them to prospective tenants in person again, but there’s also a simpler explanation: People decided that moving during a pandemic would be a big hassle and renewed their leases at greater rates than in a normal year. In the past few months, anecdotal evidence emerged that some landlords were taking advantage of tenants’ strong desire to stay put by jacking up their rent, a trend hardly in line with the narrative of a mass exodus.

Disasters may inspire plenty of people to fire up Zillow in a fit of anxiety, but for most people a lot more than that is needed to actually start filling up moving boxes. In the three weeks I spent reading posts in the panic-movers Facebook group, many of the people posting revealed themselves not to be actual panic-movers. They had long been plotting their exit to suburban school districts or smaller cities where child care and housing are more affordable. These affluent adults approaching middle age are leaving dense, expensive cities for the same reason many of them flocked there in the first place: not in reaction to the pandemic, but in reaction to the changing circumstances of their own lives. “There has to be a very good reason to move in this kind of environment, and I’m skeptical it’s just going to be related to this virus,” Friedman says. “When a person gets married and they have children, that often prompts a need for a move.”

Amber van Moessner counts her family among the group that was already looking to leave. In 2018, she took a job that she describes as “90 percent remote” with the expectation that she and her husband would need to leave the city if they wanted to raise a family. “After we had a baby—tale as old as time—we started thinking about how sustainable our life was here,” she told me. “Back in November, we started looking at real-estate upstate and [the pandemic] has really expedited our interest in leaving, because we’re just trapped in our two-bedroom apartment with our now-13-month-old son.”

For many people in both categories of movers, predictions for their own futures hinge on the same hope: that several months of remote work during the pandemic will have forced America’s white-collar employers to loosen their work-from-home policies for good. Now that companies have systems in place to accommodate employees who have dispersed around the country, why would they revert to the old normal?

But the work-from-home “revolution” is already off to an uneven start, with many people returning to offices at the behest of their employers in states that have more fully reopened. There’s reason to believe that will continue. “Everything is determined by the employers,” Peter Cappelli, a management professor and the director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “The idea that, Hey, maybe we should move from San Francisco or Brooklyn to someplace rural and I’ll keep working there, I don’t see that as a smart bet, to be honest.”

People whose employers are amenable to fully remote work might still see consequences if they stay out of the office. Some employers could use remote work as an opportunity to tighten budgets beyond just their office leases, especially if the economy stays in a recession for a while. Facebook, among the first big companies to make working from home a permanent option, has already made clear that it will cut workers’ pay if they relocate from the Bay Area to less expensive places—a cost-cutting tactic common among employers whose workers retain their jobs when they move to less expensive areas.

Early changes to remote-work policies from Facebook and across Silicon Valley are an indication that plenty of employers will be considering their options when it comes to the future of their workforces. Tech companies are highly influential in America’s white-collar corporate culture, and they’ve helped mainstream casual dress codes and open floor plans in the past 15 years. But Cappelli is skeptical that simply trying remote work will be enough to push most companies in that direction permanently. “We went through this idea about 20 years ago when hoteling became popular,” he recalled. Hoteling means that workers don’t have permanent workspaces in their offices, but instead wheel out their belongings from storage when they need to come in for a day or two. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s because almost all of the companies that tried it have since abandoned it.

Modern tools such as Zoom and Slack go a long way toward making remote work less isolating than it might be otherwise, but their existence alone didn’t do much to spur a new wave of work-from-home optimism before the pandemic arrived, and their predecessors—Skype, anyone?—weren’t enough to stop employers from concentrating jobs in big cities in the aftermath of the Great Recession. “There were all these predictions that teleworking technology would lead to an exodus of people from the cities, and actually it led to a recentralization in certain cities,” such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, Hyra, the demographer, told me.

Even if bosses let employees keep working from home, it wasn’t merely jobs that drove mostly white, young college graduates into cities during the 2010s. It was the tastes of those people themselves, who were pursuing the things that Millennials are now stereotyped as loving: dining out, craft cocktails, live music, dating without settling down into married life. “A big part of wanting to be in cities is wanting to be around other people, a diversity of ideas, a diversity of amenities, different types of food, restaurants and entertainment, racial and ethnic diversity,” Hyra explained. America had raised a generation of young people who, on average, valued the things urbanity had to offer.

There’s not much evidence that the pandemic has changed the tastes of otherwise enthusiastic city dwellers. And even if moving seems like an effective strategy to stay safe, it’s not exactly clear that it will look that way in hindsight. No one really knows how the pandemic will progress over the next year, in big cities or elsewhere. New York City’s outbreak now seems to be under far better control than those in many popular migratory destinations in the Sun Belt, which could change the calculus for panic-movers. The year is not yet half over, and the first five months weren’t particularly friendly to those with the temerity to predict the future; “may you live in interesting times” is a curse for a reason.

For those of us who have stuck around, New York City still likes to remind us what it has to offer. Diversity and community are terms euphemized to the point of meaninglessness, but they take on a new valence when people come together in the face of historic adversity. The panic-movers might have seen their favorite restaurant close up in March and decided to flee to the suburbs, choosing a route that has helped isolate millions of Americans from the friendship and support they might receive in more tight-knit places. The people who stayed behind assembled robust mutual-aid networks to deliver free groceries and supplies to their vulnerable neighbors.

Last weekend, while sitting on one of the benches that line Eastern Parkway in my Brooklyn neighborhood, it was hard to imagine a barren future. The whole borough seemed to be heading to protest, equipped with signs, hand sanitizer, and enough masks to go around. As I walked back to my apartment, along streets filled with cyclists and sidewalks lined with people waiting to pick up takeout, I saw something that had felt impossible in the siren-ridden weeks of early April: a family, gathered around their car, emptying it instead of packing it up.

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