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Could The Coronavirus Be A 'Turning Point' For New Yorkers To Leave En Masse?

At first, Campbell Will and his wife, Claire, were planning to stay in New York as the coronavirus pandemic raged through the city. But within days, the Manhattan café where he was working shut down. His nascent corporate wellness business, needing yoga studios and gyms and live customers, could go nowhere.

New Yorkers have been told to wear masks.

Although they had a sublet room in the city until the end of April, they decided to decamp to Claire’s parents’ house in Philadelphia, where the entire family has now converged. There are nine of them living together now, including two children under age 2.

Campbell specializes in teaching breath work, and while rents are markedly cheaper in Philadelphia, 2020 was the year they were planning to give pricey, competitive New York City a crack.

“We had always considered [living in] Philly, but New York has so much alternative wellness, a boutique-y vibe,” Will said. “There are so many more opportunities for my work in New York, the general vibe of [it] is much more accommodating to that sort of thing. But now it’s all so unknown, all our plans are thrown out.”

In the last two weeks, New York has become the worldwide epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis, with more than 4,750 deaths recorded across the state as of Monday. Government officials have called for healthcare workers to volunteer their services amid mounting fears of understaffed hospitals and a shortage of ventilators. 

More than a quarter of the country’s economy has reportedly gone dark as a result of widespread shutdowns, and untold numbers of jobs have been wiped from the city. And as the situation has become more and more dire, many New Yorkers have fled their city dwellings — mirroring a similar trend around the country.

Many of those who have left describe it as a temporary move to sit out the virus, but they don't know yet if the jobs that have been erased will actually return. Then there is the question of whether people, scarred by having to make a dash for it or living through quarantine in a tiny apartment, will want to come back at all.

“This could be a real turning point [for New York] and could accelerate what has already been happening,” said Joel Kotkin, the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in California.

New York City was experiencing a soaring cost of living and a housing affordability crisis, and it was losing population, well before the last month. Kotkin said people will be anxious about future pandemics well after this immediate threat has passed.

“The kind of city that we in the West like, the sort of jostling city where everybody is packed together and we carouse late at night … like London, Paris, Sydney and San Francisco, are all far more vulnerable,” he said. "The cities are going to have to reinvent themselves, and places like New York in particular. These pandemics are going to keep happening.”

Campbell Will is one of the many people to have left New York City amid the pandemic crisis.

With everything from Broadway to local cafés closed, most of what makes New York attractive has evaporated. Locals have been told to stay inside as much as possible, and have now been advised to cover their faces in public. In The City That Never Sleeps, the streets lay mostly dormant — apart from the increasingly frequent wail of sirens.

Some who have left are banking on returning once the crisis eases, whenever that may be.

“Friends and co-workers have all made different decisions about staying in the city or not," said Elliot Stein, who moved to New York from Australia two years ago to work for a communications firm. "Universally everyone is treating this as a temporary moment … [And plan to] resume our lives in New York City.”

Stein opted to fly home when the pandemic started breaking out. He is now working remotely from Wollongong, a town south of Sydney.

“My view and love of New York hasn’t diminished one bit,” he wrote in an email. "It is a deeply resilient city and people will bounce back from this."

While New York is famous for attracting ambitious young professionals over the years, the figures were already suggesting it was losing its edge

Its population shrank by a half-percent to 8.4 million between 2017 and 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Almost 1.4 million people have moved away from New York since 2010, according to a December analysis of census data by the Empire Center for Public Policy.

As of July 1, nearly 181,000 more residents had moved out of the state than had moved in over the previous 12 months. New York attracted just under 46,000 migrants to the state between July 1, 2018, and 2019, which was the lowest annual immigration total in nine years and the second lowest in nearly 60 years.

In total, New York State experienced a net migration loss of nearly 135,000 people in 2019, the second-largest loss in 39 years. 

Fewer people hasn't equated to lower living costs in New York City. The influx of people as the city grew over the last few decades has squeezed housing supply. According to a report from the NYU Furman Center released in 2018, the city's job growth increased by 16%, its total population increased by 11%, but its housing stock increased by just 8% between 2000 and 2016.

Over the 2010s, average rents went up in Queens by 30%, in the Bronx by 19% and in Brooklyn and Manhattan by 18% each, according to StreetEasy data. Median rent in Manhattan is at $3,500 a month and the median sale price in the borough was just over $1M as of last month, according to data from appraisal firm Miller Samuel.

Concerns about companies leaving to follow workers to lower-priced markets were already gathering steam. JPMorgan is reportedly planning to relocate thousands of workers out of the city. AllianceBernstein announced in May that it was moving its 1,000-person headquarters from New York to Nashville, and Carl Icahn revealed in September that Icahn Enterprises would shutter its New York City and White Plains offices and reopen in Miami.

Simon Schaitkin left New York City to live with his family in Pittsburgh during the pandemic.

The handful of high-profile departures have been happening against a backdrop of Silicon Valley tech companies throwing their support behind the city. Facebook agreed to open a 1.5M SF campus at Hudson Yards, and Google is building a massive new campus in the Hudson Square neighborhood of Manhattan.

Last month, Amazon bought the historic Lord & Taylor building on Fifth Avenue for $1.15B, almost exactly a year after the tech giant's decision to change course on building a second headquarters in Long Island City. It now plans on building a New York headquarters where WeWork once planned to put its own global HQ. 

Most of those deals are investments predicated on tech companies' forecasts of long-term growth, anticipating that New York will continue to be a magnet of young, well-educated workers.

Brown University Professor of Sociology Michael White cautioned that it will take a while to know if the pandemic has truly affected the demographics of the areas across the city. He noted that sometimes people cite a major dramatic event as a catalyst for moving somewhere, but it is often a decision that was in the works for some time.

And while major events like World War II and Hurricane Katrina have reshaped where people have chosen, or been able, to live in the U.S., a health crisis of this proportion is uncharted waters.

"I think it's too early to say what what would happen," White said. "I think it will follow on what the economic fallout is. If it takes more or less of a toll on specific industries, if people feel that certain kinds of environments are more or less attractive than they were before, we could see some shifts of population.

"It's premature," he continued. "Things are quite stressed and dramatic and quite worrisome in New York now. But this pandemic is, of course, very active in many other parts of the country."

And amid the fear and the chaos, many long-term New Yorkers are steadfast in their resolve.

“It’s scary right now — but, look, it was also scary after 9/11,” said Jonathan Bowles, the executive director at the Center for an Urban Future.

“I’m not convinced we’re going to see people wanting to live in the suburbs to be safe from the next pandemic," he said. "I'm pretty optimistic that New Yorkers are going to persevere through this and stick around."

Elliot Stein at Sydney Airport

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill design partner Colin Koop, who is part of the team working on Disney’s new headquarters at 4 Hudson Square, agreed.

“A lot of the pronouncements that were made after 9/11 turned out to be completely the opposite,” he said. "After 9/11 no one thought anyone would build a tall skyscraper in the city again and instead we have the greatest building boom of supertall skyscrapers the city has ever seen."

In the future, offices may have new approaches to the number of people at a desk, the way air is cycled or potentially the creation of specific areas where people can sanitize when they come into the office, Koop said.

"While there may be some lasting implications to this pandemic, I do not believe that the death of cities will be one of them,” he said in an email.

RXR Realty CEO Scott Rechler acknowledged on CNBC last week that what is happening with the coronavirus "is going to change the way that people live."

"Even five years from now, people are going to be concerned over another pandemic," Rechler said. "We’ve now had this experience and see how extreme it impacts our lives. That being said, people are going to find a new way to enjoy New York City. New York City has become the capital of the world and people are going to want to be there, but it’s going to be different."

For Simon Schaitkin, a New York City-based actor and academic tutor, packing up and heading to his family in Pittsburgh made sense for a few reasons. For one, his acting work in the city has entirely dried up, and he wanted to be there for his younger siblings and his healthcare worker parents if they get sick.

Secondly, he shares an apartment with two roommates and their significant others, making for a cramped quarantine. He is still tutoring online and paying his share of the rent, and he plans to return to the city, he said.

“I am currently living in Pittsburgh. I would not say it’s convincing me I want to live in Pittsburgh,” he said.

But he said his view of New York has been fundamentally altered.

“[We like to think] New York is the ultra-liberal bastion and the people are in charge and effect the politics they want to effect,” he said. “The pandemic has shown me that is not true. Everywhere I look, my friends are applying for unemployment, or requesting that rent be frozen because mortgages are frozen.”

As for Will, while he and his wife’s plans for New York City are up in the air, he still thinks he has “unfinished business” that he'd like to settle.

“Our time in New York was cut short," he said. "I wouldn't feel like we got to give it a red-hot go if we didn’t go back."