Of the urban residents fleeing for suburbs, how many of them are living in dreaded McMansions?

McMansions have attracted the criticism of many (examples here and here). However, what if some of the wealthy urban dwellers fleeing COVID-19 hotspots end up in a suburban McMansion?

Wealthy New Yorkers, who once looked down on anyone quitting the vibrant city for a McMansion and manicured lawn, are doing exactly that.

Egads! The horror! Even worse, what if those urbanites in suburban McMansions decide to stay for a while and come to enjoy parts of their new suburban lives?

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood

Photo by David McBee on Pexels.com

It is easy here to connect the critiques of McMansions to the broader concerns about suburbs expressed by numerous critics since the early twentieth century. McMansions have multiple issues of their own but suburbs are connected to conformity, ticky-tacky houses, provincialness, middle-class lifestyles, unnecessary consumption, and more. For some urbanites, the suburbs represent the opposite of dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities or urban neighborhoods.

Another way to think about this is to consider how much of city life city-dwellers pre-COVID-19 might bring to suburbs. Are the suburbs such a totalizing place that any vestiges of life in New York City disappear? And vice versa: if these residents end up back in New York City, will they bring suburban expectations and values to the city? How many McMansions are there in s the numerous single-family home neighborhoods in many American cities?

The same writer thinks the move to the suburbs is relatively short-lived as the city has many advantages:

The old trade-offs involved in moving to the exurbs or suburbs aren’t going to disappear overnight. France’s Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris precisely to protest the decaying quality of life outside cities. The typical U.S. city resident lives near almost three times as many jobs as a typical suburbanite, according to the Brookings Institution. Those jobs pay better, too, with average wages per worker in urban areas some 46% higher than lower-density suburbs. So it’s likely that making the move will mean trading subway rides for car commutes. And when journeys get longer, there’s generally less inclination to travel to enjoy the fun stuff — the so-called “friction of distance.”

And make no mistake, the fun stuff will be around as long as cities can keep attracting people, money and ideas. In the 1980s and 1990s, metropolises like London and New York reversed decades of decline by focusing on services such as finance and leisure rather than factories. While it’s true that excessive property speculation turned them into playgrounds for the rich, threatening their draw as diverse and creative melting pots, things could change for the better. The next reinvention, according to urbanism expert Laurent Chalard, will be about making cities less dense and more livable: More cycling, fewer cars, bigger homes. Outside the city, life may end up less green and less convenient.

Given the long-term preferences many Americans have for suburban life, this may continue to be a hard sell.

Argument: COVID-19 cases not necessarily because of density but denser housing and work arrangements

Cities may not be the issue when it comes to COVID-19; rather, the larger issue might be density of homes, work, and travel experienced by some.

The inequalities of cities intersect in the rooms where people live and work. “The densest blocks in New York are in Manhattan, and that is not where cases of coronavirus are most frequent. They’re most frequent in Brooklyn and Queens, and in poorer neighborhoods,” says McDonald, lead scientist at the Nature Conservancy and author of the Nature of Cities analysis. “In Manhattan you might have only two people in a studio apartment, and in parts of Brooklyn or Queens you might have a family of five or six people in a room that size.”

An analysis from the housing-focused Furman Center at New York University lays out this answer more starkly: Mortality rates were higher in neighborhoods with lower incomes and less density across the geographic space but more density in a given home. That is, more people sharing a room or an apartment. Parts of the city with more renters living in overcrowded conditions had higher levels of infection, even though they had lower population density. And where more people had college degrees, fewer people got sick—possibly because people without college degrees are less likely to be able to work from home, and more likely to be riding public transit and working with other people, all potential points of exposure to the disease.

Class and race differences manifest in differing risk. “For some people who have been exposed, or are experiencing symptoms, staying home is not always the obvious course of action,” says Molly Franke, an epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School. People who don’t have sick leave, who might lose their wages or jobs if they don’t show up, don’t have the option of sheltering in place. They’re out in the world, with more chances to encounter the disease and bring it home to the people they live with. And then, Franke says, things get even worse: “For a patient with Covid-19 to successfully isolate, there must be a separate bedroom and at least two weeks worth of supplies.” Who can afford all that?

On May 18, statistics finally confirmed what the Furman Center analysis had implied. The New York City Department of Health released numbers on deaths from Covid-19 by zip code, and the accompanying map is clarifying: The death rate has been higher in poorer neighborhoods where more people of color live. When Covid-19 came to New York City, rich people threw their Rimowa rolling bags into their Audi Q8s and decamped. But people who are less likely to have access to health care, less likely to have jobs they can do from home, more likely to share housing—as usual, they’re the ones who bear the brunt of the disease. Population density hasn’t been the issue, except on the spatial scale where it’s a proxy for inequality.

The logical next question to me is whether these patterns hold across other cities and communities. Are the unequal outcomes among blacks in Chicago and Latinos in the Chicago suburbs due to the same factors? Do the same patterns hold in Los Angeles where car travel is more common? Would the spread of cases in food processing plants also fit within this explanation (denser working conditions, lower-wage workers living in different conditions)? And if people have resources, they have more space and ability to avoid other people. It would be worth seeing if this applies across the board as well or if working in certain jobs or settings would limit the advantages.

Thinking long-term, I am sure there is more to come on the differential effects of COVID-19.

Data from Washington, D.C. does not suggest people are fleeing for the suburbs

A new analysis from Brookings Institution suggests real estate sales are down in both Washington, D.C. and its suburbs during COVID-19:

In the Washington, D.C. metro area, there’s no sign so far that residents in the urban core are more anxious to sell their condos and rowhouses than suburbanites are to ditch their McMansions. Home sales for the entire metro area dropped in March 2020, very similar to the pattern in the District. (Washington, D.C. accounts for less than 15% of the metro area’s population and home sales.)

Breaking out the year-over-year change in home sales for each local jurisdiction in the metro area shows similar patterns in the urban core (darkest gray), inner suburbs (medium gray), and exurban jurisdictions (light gray).

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Other items of note:

  1. Prices have not dropped (similar to elsewhere).
  2. As I noted a few posts ago:

In the U.S., large cities have been hit earliest—and hardest—by the coronavirus pandemic, spawning a cottage industry of speculation over whether city-dwellers will flee to low-density suburbs.

Without seeing the data from a lot of major metropolitan areas in the United States, it is hard at this point to conclude much of anything. Perhaps New York City is an outlier where people want to go to the suburbs to escape all of its density. Are transportation patterns in Washington D.C. where a majority of residents drive daily more like Los Angeles than New York City?

Analysis from Moody Analytics suggested Washington D.C. is one of the metro areas more likely to rebound from COVID-19. Would such a recovery help the city and region move toward being the true second city in the United States?

Maybe Washington D.C. is another outlier in all of the possible data. That leads to another question that often comes up when talking about urban theory: what is the modal American city, particularly in the time of COVID-19?

Another claim that COVID-19 will push people to the suburbs

I have seen a version of this argument several times already and here is the most recent one: according to the New York Times, more New Yorkers are moving to the suburbs.

Cooped up and concerned about the post-Covid future, renters and owners are making moves to leave the city, not for short-term stays in weekend houses, as was common when the pandemic first arrived, but more permanently in the suburbs.

While some of the fresh transplants are accelerating plans that had been simmering on the back burner, others are doing what once seemed unthinkable, opting for a split-level on a cul-de-sac after decades of apartment living. Others seem to have acquired a taste for country life after sheltering with parents in places with big lawns or in log cabins.

But there’s also a sense that in today’s era of social distancing, one-person-at-a-time elevator rides to get home and looping routes to avoid passers-by on city streets has fundamentally changed New York City…

For starters, people seem to be packing their bags. Between March 15 and April 28, moves from New York to Connecticut increased 74 percent over the period a year ago, according to FlatRate Moving. Moves to New Jersey saw a 38 percent jump, while Long Island was up 48 percent.

Also, suburban towns not really known for their rental stock have had huge spikes in activity, which is being driven in part by escaping New Yorkers, according to brokers in those areas.

There is both a short-term and long-term view of this possible trend:

1. COVID-19 might lead to a sudden change in New York City and possibly other locations that are very dense (which does not necessarily apply to Los Angeles). For example, one report suggests denser cities and places with lower levels of educational attainment will struggle to recover.

2. The population of the big three cities – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – had already plateaued or started decreasing. COVID-19 may just be accelerating what was already happening.

Only time will tell which is more correct. In moments like these, it is easy to suggest cities will decline or people will have long-term fears – and I have seen these pieces as well – but Americans have preferred suburbs for decades. In the meantime, it is probably safe to say that life in cities has changed. What is often attractive in cities is the street life, the culture, the opportunities all within a short distance. COVID-19 is a unique problem in that it limits social interaction, the lifeblood of numerous city neighborhoods and gathering places. In contrast, the suburbs prize private spaces like homes and privilege driving. When people need to isolate, they are already used to it to some degree in suburbs.

A third option might end up being closer to reality: New York City, with all of its COVID-19 cases and its unique features, might suffer more from the pandemic than anywhere else in the United States. At the same time, this leading city will still have a lot going for it after COVID-19 fades and it will continue to be attractive to many.

Fitting COVID-19 into the cycles of American cities

Derek Thompson writes about how COVID-19’s effect on retail and restaurants will affect American cities:

The song of American urbanization plays on an accordion. Americans compressed themselves into urban areas in the early 20th century. By mid-century, many white families were fanning out into the suburbs. Then, in the early 21st century, young people rushed back into downtown areas. But in the past few years, American cities have begun to exhale many residents, who have moved to smaller metros and southern suburbs. As with so many other trends, the pandemic will accelerate that exodus. Empty storefronts will beget empty apartments on the floors above them.

The American cities waiting on the other side of this crisis will not be the same. They will be “safer” in almost every respect—healthier, blander, and more boring, with fewer tourists, less exciting food, and a desiccated nightlife. The urban obsession with well-being will extend from cycling and salads to mask design and social distancing. Many thousands of young people who might have giddily flocked to the most expensive downtown areas may assess the collapse in living standards and amenities and decide it’s not worth it. Census figures will show that the urban exodus went into hyperdrive in the COVID years. There will be headlines exclaiming the decline of the American city or, more punchy, “Americans to New York: ‘Drop Dead.’”

Then something interesting will happen. The accordion will constrict again and American cities will have a renaissance of affordability…

But the near death of the American city will also be its rebirth. When rents fall, mom-and-pop stores will rise again—America will need them. Immigrants will return in full force when a sensible administration recognizes that America needs them, too. Cheaper empty spaces will be incubators for stores that serve up ancient pleasures, like coffee and books, and novel combinations of health tech, fitness, and apparel. Eccentric chefs will return, and Americans will remember, if they ever forgot, the sacred joys of a private plate in a place that buzzes with strangers. From the ashes, something new will grow, and something better, too, if we build it right.

Several thoughts in response:

1. Thompson hints at one of the vital pieces that makes cities work: the density of people and activity. Restaurants and retailers are not just functional entities that provide jobs and revenue; they bring in extra people who want to visit, eat, browse, be around other people who are doing similar things. The kinds of everyday activity that make urban neighborhoods unique and attractive are difficult to maintain during COVID-19 when restrictions limit contact and social interaction.

2. After just reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities with one of my classes, I wonder: what would Jane Jacobs do in times of global pandemics?

3. Thompson describes populations moving in and out of American cities as conditions change. From a broader perspective, I am not sure I would agree with the accordion example: the longer-term trend in the United States since the early 1900s has been toward suburban growth and development. The percent of Americans living in cities has stayed relatively stable since the beginning of the postwar era while government policy, cultural ideology, and population shifts have swelled suburban populations. If American cities can gain and lose residents, it is a relatively small accordion compared to the tremendous suburban growth over the last century.

4. A problem with predicting future urban trends is that the patterns of the past may not happen again in the future. COVID-19 is the sort of event that is difficult to know the effects of, particularly years down the road. Will life return to normal or will the effects of a significant economic shutdown and shelter-in-place for many people change future behaviors? We do not know. At the same time, I do not think Thompson’s predictions are unreasonable. How exactly the affordability of land plays out could be an arduous process; land that was relatively overvalued before COVID-19 may not quickly become affordable and it may take time to clear significant debts or mortgages for numerous urban properties.

Wealthier Americans looking for homes away from urban COVID-19 cases

With the spread of COVID-19 within major metropolitan areas, particularly New York City, some residents might be looking for new homes outside the big city:

At the same time, well-off suburbs in areas like Greenwich, Connecticut, and Westchester County in New York, which had been relatively sluggish in recent years, quietly recorded strong performances in the first quarter, with few signs of slowing down…

For prospective buyers reacting specifically to the threat of coronavirus in New York City, suburban infrastructure may also hold a stronger appeal than what’s available in a typical vacation town.

“The general consensus is once this is over, you’re going to see a big surge in sales,” Mr. Pruner said. “But a lot of the traditional vacation spots may not necessarily see that. One of the issues is that they don’t necessarily have good medical facilities—even if you own a big house there, they don’t have the hospital or the resources”to go with it.

Though tastes have been trending toward smaller homes in recent years, buyers coming off the experience of their home suddenly becoming their entire family’s office, gym, school and recreation area are unsurprisingly now coming to their searches with a heightened appreciation for space, a fact that could bode well for suburban markets.

A few thoughts in response:

  1. This likely applies to a small segment of the real estate market: people with the resources and jobs to move during the COVID-19 crisis. Plus, the analysis here seems mostly geared toward higher-end homes. Could be worth keeping an eye on for the near future: how many well-off Americans make real estate decisions within the next few months?
  2. Conventional wisdom suggests potential homebuyers care about high quality school districts (for their kids’ education and the effect on property values). How many buyers going forward will also consider medical facilities? And what is the correlation between high-performing suburban school districts and nearby high-quality medical facilities?
  3. Given the moves in vacation spots – like the Hamptons or in the state of Michigan – to try to limit travel to second homes, might there be any long-lasting consequences? The influx of vacationers can already cause tensions but they can also be a very important source of business and income.
  4. The flip side of this analysis is the development of urban residences that emphasize health in different ways. It is not about providing a gym or a pool (which are not helpful during social distancing guidelines); it is about having buildings and residences with lower likelihoods of contracting illnesses. Imagine all antimicrobial resistant surfaces, units on their own air systems, separate entrances and hallways that limit contact with others, particular cleaning protocols, and other possibilities.

Publication in Soc of Religion: “Religious Freedom and Local Conflict: Religious Buildings and Zoning Issues in the New York City Region,1992-2017”

Sociology of Religion today published online my article referenced in the title to the post:

ReligiousFreedomandLocalConflictWeb

I came to this article through wanting to analyze the connection between religion and place. Having seen at least a few stories of religious zoning conflict in the Chicago area (see an earlier study here), I wondered whether these patterns held across different metropolitan regions (and all the variations that could exist there), a longer time period, and within different communities within metropolitan regions. As the abstract suggests, there are some similarities – for example, locations near residences or requests from Muslim groups receive more attention – and differences – including what religious groups are in each region (with a larger population of Orthodox Jewish residents in the New York City region).

More broadly, zoning is a powerful tool communities have. As they set their land use guidelines, they are making decisions about what they envision their community looking like. This applies both to the physical structure or spaces as well as who might reside or work in the community. Americans tend to like local government, in part because it exercises control over what might locate near their homes or residences. But, this impulse to protect homes and property values can come up against other interests a community might have, such as affordable housing or medical facilities.