The Urban Exodus That Wasn't
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BOB GARFIELD: This is an on the media podcast extra. I'm Bob Garfield. Since the pandemic forced millions of Americans into lockdown, it's also pushed them out.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, a perfect storm of COVID, economic uncertainty and social unrest is prompting waves of Americans to leave big cities and permanently relocate a more sparsely populated areas.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It seems the coronavirus has robbed New Yorkers of their empire state of mind. Many longtime city dwellers are picking up and moving away to smaller towns in other parts of the state or to other states altogether.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: O'Neal and Sons moving and delivery service in Stamford, Connecticut, has never seen demand like this in their 25-year history.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We move them out. We getting a lot of work. You know, we're getting - you know, we're getting work from all over.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: New York, LA, Chicago, they're all losing people. New York City alone lost more than 500,000 residents just during the first few months of COVID. Millions more are expected to leave.
BOB GARFIELD: Out of increasingly hellish virus infested cities and into the safe idyllic suburbs where bluebirds sing, kids roam free and there's a Mattress Firm in every strip mall. It all makes so much sense. It just isn't, you know, true. Jeff Andrews is a data researcher at Curbed where he recently wrote a piece called "No, The Pandemic Is Not Emptying Out America's Cities." Jeff, welcome On The Media.
JEFF ANDREWS: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: From the New York Times to what you call one of the worst offenders, CNBC various news outlets have been releasing a torrent of stories about the pandemic induced urban exodus. How do these stories typically go?
JEFF ANDREWS: Well, with the New York Times and The Washington Post, they are essentially talking to realtors who were talking to them about what they are seeing in their little corner of the housing market. And the stories go that lockdowns have made city life less appealing. People want more space, so they're going to the suburbs to find it. And suburban housing markets are booming out there.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I happen to know this is absolutely true because I've just recently sold my suburban house. And there was a little bidding war that jacked up the price. And then I bought another house. And there was a bidding war there, too, which also jacked up the price. And I have some friends on the Upper East Side who claim that their apartment has 20% of its value. So obviously this all makes perfect sense for me other than, you know, not being worn out by the data. Tell me about the data.
JEFF ANDREWS: Yeah, it's true that suburban housing markets are booming. It's just not being caused by outbound migration from America's cities. It's really just plain old supply and demand. So when cities went on lockdown, the housing markets across the country were essentially put on pause. They were not allowed to function. When the lockdowns were lifted, they've come back to some degree, but some sellers and buyers are understandably hesitant about shopping for a home in the middle of a pandemic. So one of the consequences of that is that the number of homes for sale is down about 30% compared to this time last year. And at the same time when people wanted to buy houses in the spring, they couldn't because the housing market wasn't functioning. So those people are now shopping in the summer. And spring is usually the busiest time for home buying and selling. So you take those two things together and what you have is about two-thirds of the usual supply of homes for sale and twice the demand. So that's what's driving prices up and not outbound migration from the cities.
BOB GARFIELD: What I'm going to do is read a series of questions that you pose in your piece and then please answer them in exactly the way you did in the piece. Ready? Here's the lightning round.
JEFF ANDREWS: All right.
BOB GARFIELD: Are pending home sales between urban and suburban areas different now than they were before the pandemic?
JEFF ANDREWS: Nope.
BOB GARFIELD: Are suburban homes selling more quickly than homes in urban areas?
JEFF ANDREWS: Not at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Are suburban homes selling above their list price at a higher rate than urban homes are selling at above their less price?
JEFF ANDREWS: Not at all.
BOB GARFIELD: Are urban homes seeing price cuts at a higher rate than suburban homes?
JEFF ANDREWS: Definitively not.
BOB GARFIELD: (Laughter).
JEFF ANDREWS: You can find any piece of housing data right now and compare the relationship between urban and suburban environments and then compare it to prior to the pandemic and the relationship if it has changed at all. It is to a totally negligible degree.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, I just got to keep going because I love watching the conventional wisdom just simply exploded before my eyes. Are home valuations accelerating faster in suburban areas than in urban areas?
JEFF ANDREWS: They are, but they were before the pandemic.
BOB GARFIELD: And are suburban home listings getting a larger share of search traffic relative to urban home listings compared to let's say last year?
JEFF ANDREWS: It's actually dropped for suburban homes.
BOB GARFIELD: OK, so I think you've explained what's going on here mainly pent up demand as the market was frozen at a time where it's usually the most boisterous. But there are two major exceptions to the general principles you're describing and they are San Francisco and not New York City. But the Manhattan borough of New York City. What's happening there?
JEFF ANDREWS: Those are the two most expensive housing markets in the country, and they are among the most expensive housing markets in the world. Those two markets were seeing some attrition prior to the pandemic. So two years ago, housing market data was really pointing to the San Francisco market hitting a wall as far as prices go, and that was just basically the market had gotten overheated to the point that nobody could afford it. So prices started coming down a little bit. And a similar thing was happening in Manhattan. So when the pandemic hit, it sped that up a little bit. So let's say your - Manhattan Eye, you moved there six years ago. Four years later, you met someone and got married. And then you had a kid. Maybe you were planning on moving out of Manhattan in two years when your kid got old enough to go to school. But now with the pandemic, it's sort of accelerated your migration out of New York City. People leave Manhattan all the time, and the other caveat to that is some of the people leaving Manhattan they're just going to Brooklyn. So it's not like they're even leaving New York City. So the New York Times aptly pointed out that there are people leaving Manhattan. It's just that was happening before and it was not related to the pandemic.
BOB GARFIELD: Correlation is not necessarily causation.
JEFF ANDREWS: That is something a lot of people need to learn about this topic.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it possible that some of this let's say overzealous reporting of phenomenon that aren't actually real has something to do with schadenfreude or a pent up demand of a different kind to see urban elites take it on the chin?
JEFF ANDREWS: Over the last month or so, President Trump has been pushing this Democratic cities are burning narrative. I think a lot of people have gotten these spammy texts saying as much. Since I've written this story, my mentions and email have been lit up with people calling me a Biden loving communist even though Joe Biden's name is not mentioned in the story and it's not about politics and it's not about capitalism or communism. I think because that narrative has latched on so hard among right leaning media and right leaning voters anything that suggests to the contrary that cities are not burning and people are not fleeing to the suburbs it ends up bumping up against sort of Trump's culture war with the cities.
BOB GARFIELD: So would you care to hazard a guess or let me put it this way. Did the data that you've reviewed offer you, you know, any glimpses of what will happen if and when the pandemic finally peters out?
JEFF ANDREWS: Sure. We're seeing this excess demand from the spring that is now being released right now. At some point, that is going to be satiated. It's going very slow because the number of houses for sale is down. But as the pandemic passes, more people are going to feel comfortable listing their home and showing their home. So the inventory will come back and then that excess demand will also get satiated. So, you know, if you're looking forward maybe early 2021, you might see the markets across the country reach a new point of equilibrium. Right now, the rate of acceleration in home prices is totally unsustainable. And it's as a result of incredibly unique circumstances related to the pandemic that hopefully for us will not last well into 2021.
BOB GARFIELD: We've now fully ascertained that the narrative of urban flight is not supported by the data. If it does not tell us about how the American public is making its housing decisions in a pandemic, I'm curious what this misreporting and the propagation of this narrative does tell us about our society.
JEFF ANDREWS: I think a lot of news outlets when the pandemic hit you know New York City people did leave temporarily I think news media just latched on to that narrative very early and it found its way into the canon without ever being truly scrutinized. It's a little disappointing to see some news outlets that are equipped to really dive into data or dive into trends just mindlessly recycle this line over and over again. There are some journalists who I've actually deemed when they've repeated it and pointed out to them that it is wrong only to see a week later they're still saying it, real estate trends stories are often based on what realtors are telling them. Realtors are salespeople, and they have a financial interest in making people think that a market is really hot and they should jump into it. But that's a little bit like asking the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders if the Dallas Cowboys are going to win on Sunday. It is their job to hype up the chances that the Dallas Cowboys. So maybe that's not the best source. I think in real estate reporting in general realtors have an important role to play in giving the on ground perspective but they don't have a 10,000 foot view of what is happening across the country in aggregate.
BOB GARFIELD: I don't want to put words in your mouth, but it seems to me that the answer you gave from my question doesn't tell us anything about society overall but it does tell us that journalists should really consider the source that is providing their story idea.
JEFF ANDREWS: I think anything the real estate industry tells you should be fact checked by a data or some other source. Yes
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff, thank you so much.
JEFF ANDREWS: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Jeff Andrews is a data researcher at Curbed, a real estate and urban design blog network.
BOB GARFIELD: This has been On The Media podcast extra. Tune into the big show this weekend for a deep dive into the rise of the militia movement and the presidential embrace of vigilante violence. Meantime to keep you fully OTM till then, subscribe to our newsletter, add onthemedia.org/newsletter guaranteed to transport you to unexpected places. I'm Bob Garfield.
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