Is “Covid Flight” a Thing?

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S1: So, Steadman, tell me what you’re looking at right now.

S2: What do you see out the window right now at the window? It’s just it’s a wall of trees.

S1: This is Steadman Hood. He’s working remotely in case that wasn’t clear very remotely.

S2: So were on the top of this mountain. And we’re looking down into a valley and on the other side, it’s another mountain range.

S1: Steadman is renting a house in the Santa Cruz Mountains a few hours south of San Francisco, where he lived until just a few months ago. So far, he’s finding his new lifestyle pretty agreeable.

S2: So what is there to do? It’s basically a lot of introspection, exercise, I think, self care generally. There’s a little more time for that. And just the pace of life is slower. It feels like there’s more there’s more time out here for the important, not urgent things.

S1: What what falls under that category for you that you’re able to do now that you weren’t doing before?

S2: One thing is learning Chinese. That’s something I’ve been meaning to do for forever. And and now I just I feel, you know, I’ve no commute and I’m sort of like looking for things to fill the space of the downtime.

S1: The good life. It wasn’t so long ago that Stedman was a worker bee in the big city.

S2: So in San Francisco, for the past five years, I was living in a I guess a co-op is the best way to describe it. It was a house of 11 people. It was itself really loving, kind of wholesome community where I felt like I could go down into the living room or the kitchen and just be at a house party with some of my favorite people. And I didn’t even have to plan it.

S1: But this classic millennial living situation was about to reveal its shortcomings.

S2: Living in a co-op under with a pandemic, you need to be very aligned in terms of your safety preferences and kind of what level of precaution you want to have.

S1: It struck me that would Steadman had been through in his group house is what all city dwellers are dealing with. Suddenly you need to trust the people around you. You need to count on your neighbors to wear masks, and you have to hope your friends and family haven’t been out doing karaoke at the same time.

S3: The things Steadman like most about the city now, he doesn’t miss much at all.

S4: The big thing to me about San Francisco has always been the people, all my loved ones in the city I can still instills in them. I actually I have some friends in the city that I talk to you more now than I did when we lived in the city together, because when you’re in the same city, you’re like, oh, we got to meet up. But when you’re not, you know, that’s not going to happen. So you can just have a call.

S3: At first I thought Stedman was an extreme outlier. He didn’t just flee the city for the country. He moved his whole startup team there and their partners, too. They all live and work in this one big house where they have whiteboards in the basement and weekly conflict resolution meetings. Most people can’t just pack up like they did, nor can they work remotely. And not everybody wants to do dishes with their boss.

S1: But in some other ways, according to research by Pew, Stedman is representative of the people who have left the city since the start of the pandemic. He’s a young adult. The most likely group to have moved, he left explicitly to escape the coronavirus. The number one reason people have moved. And he left a city known for its soaring rents and culture of remote work since the Corona virus Shut Downs, began in March. Everyone’s been wondering the same thing. Are city residents really leaving? And if so, are they ever coming back?

S5: Big cities have been awfully quiet, and there’s evidence that urbanites aren’t just lying low.

S6: They’re lying on a beach in South Florida. Miami was the number one destination for the 80000 mail forwarding requests. The U.S. Postal Service received four New York City in April. That’s four times the usual number. Eager journalists have rushed to, quote suburban real estate brokers, which is like asking Oscar Meyer if people like hot dogs, local TV following families out to greener pastures and Instagram shows a never ending stream of vacations. Still, it has been hard to tell how many people have really left. I’m Henry Goodbar, filling in for Lizzie O’Leary. This is the second episode in our six part series on the future of the city during and after Kovik 19. Today on the show, who’s really moving and where and for how long? We’ll talk to three reporters who write about cities and suburbs on what might be next. Stay with us.

S1: All right. So should we do some interest maybe? Emily, you go first and then Natalie and then I mean, I wanted straight talk on whether cities were emptying into their suburbs. So I called three of the best reporters I know.

S7: My name is Emily Badger. I’m a reporter with The New York Times.

S1: If you read about cities, you read Emily Badger.

S8: I’m Natalie Moore, a reporter at Chicago Public Radio WB Easy.

S1: Natalie’s book, The South Side, is one of the best new books I’ve read about cities and race. I’m Amanda Carlson Hurley.

S9: I’m an editor at Bloomberg BusinessWeek and I live outside of Washington, D.C..

S1: It’s hard to think of a writer and editor who’s done more to revise our simplistic, outdated understanding of American suburbs than Amanda. I was psyched to get these three people into a virtual room. Forget those suburban real estate brokers. This group knows their stuff.

S10: Maybe the place to start is to ask what would be the data or or the anecdotes. You guys are looking at or would look for to tell if there really is an exodus going on from cities. Natalie, maybe we should start with you.

S8: I think if we’re trying to capture the moment now, I would start looking at vacancy rates for apartments, checking in with apartment buildings, with real estate agents to see if people are pulling out of deals. And this is for rentals and for home sales or or condo sales. So I think that that would be the first starting point to see if there’s any pandemic panic.

S11: Right. It’s a sort of frustrating to ask people to be patient when everyone wants to talk about how the world is fundamentally changing right now. But I think it will it’s going to take a while for us to really sort of sort out whether or not something is happening right now that’s fundamentally different from what would have been happening right now otherwise.

S10: Right. I wonder how much of that early buzz was driven by what seemed to be visual evidence that people were gone because businesses were closed and mail was piling up and all that kind of stuff?

S11: I mean, we definitely know that people have left.

S7: We can see it in cell phone data or you can see it in like garbage collection data. I mean, it’s clear that people have temporarily left. But I don’t think that we can necessarily translate that to. That means that those people are never going to come back again.

S5: Here’s a point that suggests they will. This week, David Cohen at Pew published a survey of almost 10000 U.S. adults taken in early June. She found just three percent said they moved. And among that group, 60 percent moved in with family. Combe quoted Robert Frost, Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Which suggests that these moves, the ones that happened during the worst of the pandemic, aren’t permanent, or at least they weren’t supposed to be.

S1: I asked if anyone had seen signs of cities being flexible, adapting, working for the people who live there. Reviews were mixed.

S8: When people are facing eviction, when they are losing their jobs and you have all these very other immediate things, and then there are folks who want to talk about urban planning. I look on social media about people complaining really, really strongly about the lakefront not being open because they want to take walks. And, you know, the transportation folks are like, here’s our moment to close down streets and become a Kahless society. And I don’t think that’s the message that black neighborhoods in particular want to hear right now.

S11: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been talking a lot over the last couple of months about the benefits of cities, the benefits of density. And to some people, that’s a conversation about the benefits of having lots of diverse kinds of restaurants or having amenities and cultural institutions. But then there’s this whole other category of benefits, which are things like really big hospital systems, a lot of beds in ICU use, hospitals that have ventilators. There’s this kind of infrastructural social service side of things that we have in cities that a lot of less dense communities don’t have. That includes a lot of social services that are designed to support the poor that, you know, creating a safety net that is a lot more frayed in other kinds of communities. But those conversations to come back to Natalie’s point, I think, are a little bit different from the conversations about whether or not we’re giving people access to restaurants on the street right now.

S1: Amanda, there’s a lot of suburbs that have some city like features, including yours. Do you think it makes sense to draw this hard line between cities and suburbs? When we talk about the pandemic?

S9: Yeah, I mean, I definitely think the distinction is limited in its utility. I think in the early days of the pandemic, there were a number of articles speculating about is covered a sort of urban disease. Is this an urban phenomenon? Is it because of density? Is it because of the subway? And from the beginning, that struck me as as just the kind of the wrong question to ask people in suburbs, whatever level of density, you know, whatever that suburb looks like, people are going to houses of worship. Kids are going to school. People are going to the gym. They’re going to Wal-Mart or whatever. They’re going to the grocery store. And actually, the more that we’ve learned about how the virus spreads and kind of what the riskiest situations are for becoming infected, I think the more that kind of city suburb distinction really breaks down.

S1: It turned out you can’t escape Cauvin, 19, in the suburbs, but at least you could get a backyard for your kids. Right.

S8: It takes a lot to move. It takes money. It takes time, resources. So I have a hard time digging. Someone’s going to move just because of the pandemic, whether we’re in it right now or if they’re looking six months from now. But with child care, you know, everybody is suffering with that no matter where you live. And I don’t know if you get a house in a suburb where you’re going to pay higher taxes. So you have a backyard for your kid because she might not be in school five days a week, if that’s worth it.

S3: It may not be worth it just for that. But here in Chicago, people have been moving to the suburbs for decades, especially black Chicagoans. Fifty thousand people have left since 2015. Despite all the talk about the resurgence of cities before the pandemic, suburbanization has never really gone away in most cities. It’s as much a part of the big city life cycle as ever. If the families moving out now are the same ones who would have moved out next year, the year after that. And what’s happening right now might not be so significant.

S1: But what is new is what we talked about last week, remote work, if that becomes very widespread.

S9: That would be enough of a push factor, I think, to actually accelerate suburbanization. If your family is where you used to have, you know, two people commuting two jobs to two adults commuting to jobs and one or more children commuting to school. And now everybody is at home and this becomes a long term or medium term situation. I think that the facial strain at that point would be enough to push people to say, finally, OK, we just need more space.

S8: I can tell you really quickly that the the commuter rail line here is concerned because the suburbanites, many of them come to the central business district, but they’re not living in the city. So will that transit line or system be able to sustain itself? If you have all of these workers staying home? So I do think that the short term thing to look at is office buildings in space. I think we can see some clear things they are right now about how they’re being retrofit it, how people aren’t coming back. Buildings that are vacant or had vacancies probably won’t be able to be filled. And what does that mean for the commuter? And I think this is a good example of also reminding ourselves how tight it’s not always just city versus suburb. How are we connected to a region?

S10: I guess another question is, how fragile are the amenities that keep people in the city that make cities exciting? I’m thinking about fast frequent transit and the sort of public bucket. And then also all the sort of private culture of a city, which is to say it’s little live music venues and restaurants and comedy clubs. And it seems like even under the best case scenario, some of these places are going to be in real trouble. And I’m wondering how durable you think that infrastructure is.

S7: Yes, I think, one, it’s really hard to predict. Like, what does that landscape going to look like? And then the other question that you’re asking, Henry, is how are people going to respond to that landscape if it really changes? I think it depends on who you ask. So I think there are clearly some kind of young professional 20 somethings who have a lot of disposable income for whom the appeal of city life is that they would have those places to spend their disposable income. But then I also think there are a lot of people who wouldn’t want to move away from the city because the infrastructure that they rely on is that they have extended family who live nearby or they have social networks that they’re embedded in. And those kinds of things are going to still be here regardless of what happens to the economy.

S10: It seems like one thing where we’re coming around to is that this is all it’s kind of a luxury to to be able to uproot your life in an even remote work, which is what enables a lot of this conversation about suburbanization to even happen is something of a luxury. If it is only the richest urbanites who decide that they’re going to a farmhouse in the mountains for the fall so that they can send their kids to school every day and go for walks and what not. Why should we care? Does that matter for cities?

S7: If if in fact there is some exodus of wealthy people, it definitely matters for cities if their tax base is going to further shrink. On top of, you know, the fact that sales taxes have completely disappeared. Cities are going to be in this terrible moment going forward with their budgets, regardless of what happens with these demographic changes at the very same moment when there’s going to be enormous need for spending on a lot of programs by cities. So simply from the point of view that we would like to spend some of rich people’s money on things that benefit everyone. I think we should care whether or not those people leave.

S10: That issue of municipal budgets is about to be pretty pressing. In the sort of longer term, if city schools lose their guidance counselors, if the bus only comes once every 20 minutes, does that weigh on these places?

S9: Appealed the idea that you can sort of relocate your way out of away from the problem is is false.

S12: I mean, I think that all types of urbanized areas have hard times ahead. Mean, I don’t think that there’s any retreat to some kind of idyllic place. It’s not going to be affected by this economic crisis.

S13: Amanda’s right since the four of us talked a couple of weeks ago. The extent to which we’re not going back to normal has only gotten more clear. It’s not looking good for schools in cities or suburbs. And anecdotally, I keep hearing about more people leaving. But here’s the thing about the American city. Tens of thousands of people leave every year in a place like New York. That’s hundreds of thousands. And that’s in the best of times. But normally they get replaced by two groups, first by Americans going to new jobs and enrolling in new schools until offices and classrooms come back. That inflow of residents won’t come back either. The second and the most important is immigrants without new immigrants. Most big U.S. cities wouldn’t have grown in decades. Right now, with Trump in office and a pandemic raging, that historic generator of American city neighborhoods has been shut off overnight.

S14: People are always leaving cities. So what’s different this year? Nobody’s arriving to replace them. And that’s the show thanks to Emily Badger at The New York Times. Natalie Moore with Chicago Public Radio WBC and Amanda Colson Whurley from Bloomberg BusinessWeek. TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks. Derek John and Alison Benedict helped with editorial direction for the series. Thank you, Alison and Derek. TBD is part of the larger What Next family. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. I’m Henry Rahbar. Thanks for listening. Mary will be back in your feed on Monday and a big TBD. Congrats to Lizzie O’Leary, who had a baby last week. See, someone moved into New York.