Why American cities will never be the same again after COVID
Some Americans fled from cities during the pandemic, some went the opposite way. Will cities start competing for footloose workers instead of factories and sports teams?
Eric Scigliano is a freelance writer based in Seattle.
Seattle — In spring 2020, just as the first Covid-19 surge was peaking and businesses, schools, and whole countries were shutting down, a young couple named Elizabeth and Anton made a bold move. Little did they know it would put them in the vanguard of a pandemic-enabled geographic dispersion that demographers, economists, employers, developers and local governments are still figuring out.
Elizabeth grew up in a Seattle suburb and, after college and a spell working in Hawaii, returned to settle where she always wanted to live, in Seattle itself. She and Anton seemed to be living the Cascadia dream. Their apartment, in a walkable neighborhood packed with hip restaurants and bars, was small, but it had an iconic view of Mt. Rainier and the downtown skyline. She biked around the city’s scenic Lake Union to her job in the city’s shiny new tech district, helping oversee clinical trials at a biopharma company, and grew vegetables in a nearby community garden. On weekends they escaped to the woods and mountains.
But with each return to the city, her spirits fell. The dark, damp winter days depressed her: “When it rained, I smelled concrete rather than earth. It stressed me out to eat from my plot — two or three times I found needles there. I have a really bad image of leaving work in South Lake Union and seeing a man shooting up in his mouth. People like me were just walking by. It filled me with despair.”
Then the pandemic hit, and everyone who could was told to work at home. Elizabeth and Anton faced the prospect of living and working together, 24 hours a day, in just 550 square feet, or looking elsewhere for more space and the life they really wanted. Suddenly all options were open. They took an exploratory road trip around the Mountain West. “The call to Colorado kept getting stronger,” she recalls.
The tech giant Anton works for reluctantly agreed to let him stay remote indefinitely. Elizabeth asked the same but got shot down. She quit and landed at a smaller biopharma that was glad to let her work from home. They looked at a remote mountain village, but the broadband there was too slow to support online work — a critical factor in remote workers’ relocation choices. So they settled for a ranch house on the edge of Boulder with space for gardening and mountains nearby. Her urban blues evaporated. “Now the stressor of the day is building a barricade to keep the bobcat out of the chicken coop,” she says, laughing.
Just one hitch: Elizabeth and Anton, already priced out of Seattle’s real estate market, hoped to buy in Colorado. But prices have surged in Boulder, as they have in most of the country. They’re now looking south to New Mexico.
Meanwhile, another young tech-industry couple, Andrew and Amy, reached the same decision Elizabeth and Anton did, but it took them in the opposite direction. They’d had enough of life in San Jose, where they lived and worked for a streaming service: the sprawl and freeways, the wildfire smoke and surly neighbors, the general anomie of Silicon Valley. And with a 2-year-old daughter, they dreaded school prospects in California.
So they persuaded their employer to let them go remote permanently and chased their dream up the West Coast. They wanted to stay in a diverse, liberal coastal city; for many on the right and left, ideological compatibility is an important consideration in moving. But they also wanted a safe, cozy neighborhood and beautiful wild places to go camping.
They found it all in a quiet, leafy district of century-old bungalows with a prized public elementary school, a Carnegie library and a plethora of shops in easy walking distance, with water and mountains to east and west. With no income tax, their tax burden fell. Their immaculate three-story neo-Craftsman home cost $2 million, but they say it’s twice the house they could have gotten in a comparable Bay Area neighborhood. They still marvel at how friendly their new neighbors are. “Walking around, we get into conversations with strangers all the time,” says Andrew. “Everyone we pass says, ‘How you doing?’” All in all, the move “was a pipe dream come true.”
And not just for them. “When we sold some stuff we didn’t need on Craigslist, everyone who responded had just come here from California,” says Andrew. “Even Waffles, the neighborhood cat,” adds Amy. “His tag says 408” — San Jose’s area code.
Their dream came true in much-maligned Seattle, just two miles northwest of Amazon’s headquarters and a mile south of the apartment Elizabeth and Anton fled, on a hilltop haven overlooking the same urban landscape that oppressed her. One couple’s ordeal is another’s idyll.
Millions of Americans moved during the last 18 months, many of them spurred or influenced by the pandemic. But these two reciprocal moves to and from Seattle point up just how personal such choices are, and how they’re steered by individual circumstances. Amy and Andrew wanted a more urban setting; by selling the ranch house they’d fixed up in San Jose, they could afford a Seattle that was out of reach for Elizabeth and Anton, who longed for the country anyway.
As these divergent moves also suggest, it’s perilous to seek simple patterns and easy takeaways in complex demographic processes such as Americans’ response to Covid-19. But the pandemic has reset the residential choices and aspirations of millions of Americans, in ways that will last long after the Covid-19 emergency recedes. Those millions of individual choices together add up to forces that can sustain, reshape — and sometimes unmake — cities and communities around the country.
In March 2020, as the novel coronavirus spread from its initial beachheads in the Seattle, San Francisco and New York areas, a dire meme also spread: Americans were fleeing en massefrom crowded cities to the supposedly safer suburbs and countryside. Island communities from Maine to Florida closed bridges and raised road blocks to keep outsiders out.
It’s tempting to draw early conclusions from incomplete data when something as dramatic as a pandemic intrudes. LinkedIn News’ editor was one of many to call it an “urban exodus.” The Washington Post announced the “Great American Migration of 2020” and predicted that it “might contain the seeds of a wholesale shift in where and how Americans live.” Even then-President Donald Trump weighed in from the debate podium. “New York is a ghost town. … It’s dying, everyone is leaving.”
Such sweeping statements were bound to elicit a counter-narrative. “There is not a widespread movement of people prospecting to move out of urban areas,” Bloomberg’s CityLab declared in September 2020. In April 2021 it stated the case more boldly: “There is no urban exodus; perhaps it’s more of an urban shuffle” — movement within and between metropolitan areas, rather than away from them.
But this conclusion also rested on some shaky foundations. Its first iteration relied on data from Apartment List; the renters it tracks may be more dependent on transit, more rooted to the sorts of fixed, lower-paying jobs deemed “essential” and less able to take advantage of remote working opportunities than homeowners. The second version cited census and postal data showing 84 percent of those moving from cities stayed in the same states, 7.5 percent of them in the same metropolitan areas, while 6 percent moved to other large metros and less than 1 percent left metro and micro urban areas altogether. But that tally left roughly 10 percent unaccounted for. And staying in the same state, even the same metro area, generally means radiating out to suburbs, exurbs, smaller towns and rural areas within metro counties.
It also turned out that some of the headline-grabbing early outflow was temporary — students at closed colleges and laid-off young workers returning home, affluent urbanites sheltering in beach cottages and second homes. And as Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted this past May, plummeting immigration levels under the Trump administration had already depressed population growth in the large cities where immigrants tend to land. Then, in the words of Matt Mowell, a senior economist at the national real estate firm CBRE, “immigration ground to a halt in 2020” under pandemic restrictions, contributing to steep population dips in New York and other immigration hubs.
That’s just one of the ways the pandemic has mostly reinforced and accelerated trends that were already underway, rather than creating new winners and losers in a grand reshuffle between metropolitan areas. As Frey’s tallies show, Sunbelt and Western cities that were already growing robustly — Tampa, Sarasota, Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, Phoenix, Boise, Sacramento, Riverside — kept growing (with an extra boost from coastal California for the last four). Rust Belt and other post-industrial cities that had lost inhabitants for decades — Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Milwaukee — kept losing, though the outflow slowed in some. Mowell notes that “people just stayed put” in many shrinking or slow-growth cities, such as Dayton, Ohio. “The chaos of the pandemic and labor market uncertainty likely encouraged many households to delay moving plans,” he said. As a result, despite the much-publicized disruptions in some cities, about the same number of people — 35 million — filed address changes with the Postal Service in 2020 as in 2019 and 2018.
San Francisco, San Jose, New York — in particular Manhattan — and Boston were another story. Their populations, boosted by the tech and financial booms, had held strong until the pandemic, but then suffered the highest out-migration rates among major metro areas.
Boston’s loss has begun reversing as colleges reopen, and New York is showing signs of recovery. “More people are choosing to go there now,” says LinkedIn’s chief economist, Karin Kimbrough, who tracks workplace shifts through its millions of job and résumé listings. The University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, who prophesied the rise of the “creative class” in cities like New York, is confident the Big Apple will get its mojo back: “NYC is special,” he told me via email. “It is the world’s most dominant global center. It has a diverse economy spanning real estate, finance, media and entertainment, tech and more. It is the magnet for the young and ambitious.” And it has ample experience recovering from crises.
But San Francisco, which lost residents faster than any other major city after the pandemic hit, hasn’t gotten them back, and San Jose’s recovery also lags. Tech jobs have continued to proliferate there as in other hubs, but those jobs (unlike New York’s finance and arts) are especially suited to remote work. Florida likens the West Coast’s tech meccas to the once-dominant single-industry towns of yore — more versatile and adaptable, certainly, than Pittsburgh and Detroit were, “but still not New York.”
One of the most timely indicators of how the work-from-home revolution is affecting America’s cities is key card swipes. Kastle Systems, a national office security firm, uses them to track workplace occupancy in its largest markets.
In March 2020, office attendance plummeted from nearly 100 percent to a little over 20 percent in Houston, Dallas and Austin, 10 to 15 percent in Los Angeles, San Jose, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, lower still in New York — and just 4 percent in San Francisco. Those numbers have slowly risen since (aside from sharp drops in Texas during its February cold snap). Kastle clients’ office attendance is now about 50 percent in the Texan cities. It tops 30 percent in most of the others — except San Jose, with nearly 27 percent, and San Francisco, at just 24 percent.
San Francisco’s empty offices reflect other factors as well: its scarce housing, high land-use hurdles, nosebleed rents and home prices, and strict Covid rules (which gave it the lowest infection and death rates among big cities). But even there, the net flight seems to be abating, though not reversing. Apartment asking rents, which plunged 27 percent last year, “are almost halfway back up,” says Ted Egan, the City of San Francisco’s chief economist. “The flow now is both ways.” According to USPS change-of-address records, 12,058 individuals, households and businesses left San Francisco in January 2021, 4,442 more than arrived. By August that gap had shrunk to 1,752.
But none of the experts contacted expect San Francisco to fill up again soon. And none expect America’s suburbs to lose their growth edge over San Francisco and other cities. In 2020, according to census data crunched by the Brookings Institution’s Frey, suburbs grew 43 percent faster than central cities in the 55 largest metropolitan areas. The online real estate listing and data firm Zillow recently reported that “the ZIP codes with the highest page views per online listing … became increasingly suburban over the past 18 months.”
Frey’s lone outlier was Seattle, which experienced more growth in its center than its suburbs in 2020. Since then, however, even this exception has fallen into line. The Seattle area has charted record home-price growth even in 2021 — but prices rose more than twice as fast in the suburbs to the north as in Seattle itself, reflecting higher demand for suburban housing. In January 2021, the Postal Service received nearly 2,000 more address changes from those leaving the center city than those entering; by August that gap had grown by a fifth. Incoming and outgoing address changes were roughly balanced in Seattle’s inner suburbs, but arrivals outpaced departures in the outer burbs.
Nationwide, all this accelerated a trend that began in 2015. For nearly a decade before that, central cities had grown faster than suburbs, a trend Frey credits in part to the Great Recession of 2007-2009. He believes it left many new graduates and other young adults “stranded” in the cities scraping together what work they could, putting off forming families, and living “la vie bohème.” Also, the outsize millennial generation, a.k.a. the baby boomlet, was at just the right age to relish trendy cities’ restaurants, nightlife, and meeting and mating opportunities — and to put up with cramped apartments and shared housing. Then, as the economy recovered and the tech boom spread beyond Silicon Valley and Redmond, they were perfectly placed to take advantage. Yesteryear’s barista became today’s six-figure programmer.
But now the suburbs are hot again. As Frey told me, this seeming change actually marks a “return to normal” — to the pattern of suburban growth and urban contraction that began in the postwar years. The late ’00s and early tens, when young people and empty nesters flocked to revitalized urban centers, was actually an anomaly. Now those millennials are mostly in their 30s, ready to seek family-sized houses and yards and fret over schools.
“We know millennials move when they set up households, looking for more space,” says Kimbrough.
Remote working has added a new imperative (and another advantage to the suburbs): home office space. And it’s given those in tech and some other white-collar fields undreamed-of choice in where they look. “Everybody’s kind of dreaming right now,” says Andrew in Seattle, “because you have this opening.”
Employers have pushed back, fearing they’ll lose control and their companies will lose their edge without the secret sauces of spontaneous collision and workplace culture. “We’re hearing CEOs say that creativity and innovation wane as a result of not working in groups, especially for millennials and GenZ-ers, who like socialization and miss the ‘creative collision,’” consultant Jay Garner told ChiefExecutive.Net.
Tell that to the millennials and GenZ-ers. Survey after survey finds that majorities of workers — 68 percent in one study — would choose remote over in-office work. The same survey finds that 70 percent of those who are already working remotely would forfeit benefits to continue, and 67 percent would take salary cuts.
It’s become a point of pride: “The people who want to go back are the ones who don’t do that much work,” one tech worker told me. “Who spend their days in meetings.”
As a result, going remote can give employers a recruiting advantage. In July, only 11 percent of the jobs posted on LinkedIn were remote, but they got 21percent of views. They included about 26 percent of software and IT services jobs and 23 percent in media and communications and wellness (all those Zoom Zumba classes).
A study by researchers at Stanford, the University of Chicago, and the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México concludes that “the mass social experiment in which nearly half of all paid hours were provided from home between May and December 2020” proves that remote working works. They predict that 22 percent of workdays will remain remote after the danger passes, up from 5 percent pre-pandemic and 1 percent in 2010.
“I think companies are losing qualified applicants, so they’re conceding to that as an option,” says Anton in Boulder; he sees a “much, much higher number of permanently remote jobs advertised in the environmental field” for which he studied than he did in spring 2020. “And they’re saving on office space.” Or seeing the light: 52 percent of bosses surveyed by the consultancy PwC in December said productivity improved during the enforced work-at-home period.
“Remote work is the biggest shift in the nature of work in decades,” says the University of Toronto’s Florida. “It gives some workers more flexibility. And in these cases it shifts the balance of power from companies to workers.” And, to various degrees, from New York to upper New England and the Hudson Valley, from the Bay Area to Boise and Billings. In this way, the world is becoming flatter; remote work is leveling the field of opportunity.
Many more workers in manufacturing, service, retail, and some white-collar fields can’t join this shift. But what Susan Wachter, co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Institute for Urban Research, calls “the new urban dispersion” will affect more than just the fifth or so of workers who will join it.
Kimbrough believes it will “be really healthy, a spreading-out of skills across the country” from places like New York. Will cities now compete less for job makers and more for jobholders — lavishing money on schools, parks and arts rather than tax subsidies for new factories and warehouses?
“Towns near amenities are the new hot spots now and for some time to come,” Wachter said by email. “I think cultural capital will be a continuing pull,” says San Francisco’s Egan. “I’ve told people you need to think about office workers as the new tourists. Instead of traveling they commute.” Or don’t.
Egan’s watchword may be prophetic in an unintended way. Well-paid remote workers, like affluent tourists, retirees and other transplants, can drive up property prices, pricing out those dependent on local labor markets. This introduces new class divisions, within rather than between regions. “There’s a widening affordability gap throughout the Mountain West,” says CBRE economist Mowell. “A city like Phoenix never had an affordability problem. Now it does.”
Dispersion may bring other changes, for better and worse. As Florida notes, “remote workers do not just work from home. They work in coffee shops, cafes, restaurants, co-working spaces, libraries, each others’ homes. Communities need to focus on building more effective remote-work ecosystems.”
It takes more than such “ecosystems” to adapt to the influx. The Boise area, with by some measures the nation’s fastest rising rents last year and biggest home price surge in the first half of 2021,is still reckoning with its own success. “This is no longer an affordable city,” says Jeffrey Lyons, a political science professor at Boise State University, who leads the annual Idaho Public Policy Survey. “We’ve asked since 2016, do you think pace of growth is about right or too fast? Responses were evenly split in 2016. Now 75 percent say ‘too fast.’” Longtime residents grumble endlessly about rude, impatient newcomers overrunning the town and spoiling its traditional conviviality, but as Lyons notes, “the same stories about Californians ran here in the ’70s and ’80s.”
“People always think immigrants from places like California will help turn red states blue,” says Erik Berg, the Democratic Party chair in Idaho’s Ada County, which includes Boise. “But those coming here are predominantly conservative.”
Lyons’ research confirms that. “What we see in our survey data is that people who are moving here from California, Washington and Oregon tend to be Republican” — 55 to 60 percent, with 10 to 15 percent independent and 25 to 30 percent Democratic. Idaho and other mountain states beckon to those fed up with what they see as runaway regulation, taxation and disorder in a California where even Republican bastions like Orange County and San Diego have turned blue.
By contrast, argues Mowell, for liberal émigrés like Amy and Andrew, Seattle and Portland are “very easy places to adapt to. It’s the same social and economic ecosystem.” Covid-19, he adds, “has mapped onto these existing political divisions. People who were dissatisfied with government in California tend to be dissatisfied with the way California has dealt with the pandemic.” And attracted by the more permissive, mandate-free approach in Idaho, which has one of the lowest vaccination and highest infection rates in the country.
Such tendencies don’t bode well for any hopes that dispersion will soften the hardening ideological divides between regions. Rather the opposite: “We’ll see more people living in communities of choice as we disconnect from the workplace,” predicts UPenn’s Wachter.
That would reinforce prevailing political cultures, promoting local homogeneity rather than diversity. Work and the downtown areas that once depended on office workers will serve less as social mixing bowls.
So, for all the churn the pandemic has caused, the Great Dispersion may leave us even more economically and politically stratified than before, compounding, rather than easing, Americans’ isolation from people who aren’t just like them.