If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

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Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Zillow sought pricing predictability in the supposedly predictable market of Phoenix

With Zillow stopping its iBuyer initiative, here are more details about how the Phoenix housing market was key to the plan:

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Tech firms chose the Phoenix area because of its preponderance of cookie-cutter homes. Unlike Boston or New York, the identikit streets make pricing properties easier. iBuyers’ market share in Phoenix grew from around 1 percent in 2015—when tech companies first entered the market—to 6 percent in 2018, says Tomasz Piskorski of Columbia Business School, who is also a member of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Piskorski believes iBuyers—Zillow included—have grown their share since, but are still involved in less than 10 percent of all transactions in the city…

Barton told analysts that the premise of Zillow’s iBuying business was being able to forecast the price of homes accurately three to six months in advance. That reflected the time to fix and sell homes Zillow had bought…

In Phoenix, the problem was particularly acute. Nine in 10 homes Zillow bought were put up for sale at a lower price than the company originally bought them, according to an October 2021 analysis by Insider. If each of those homes sold for Zillow’s asking price, the company would lose $6.3 million. “Put simply, our observed error rate has been far more volatile than we ever expected possible,” Barton admitted. “And makes us look far more like a leveraged housing trader than the market maker we set out to be.”…

To make the iBuying program profitable, however, Zillow believed its estimates had to be more precise, within just a few thousand dollars. Throw in the changes brought in by the pandemic, and the iBuying program was losing money. One such factor: In Phoenix and elsewhere, a shortage of contractors made it hard for Zillow to flip its homes as quickly as it hoped.

It sounds like the rapid sprawling growth of Phoenix in recent decades made it attractive for trying to estimate and predict prices. The story above highlights cookie-cutter subdivisions and homes – they are newer and similar to each other – and I imagine this is helpful for models compared to older cities where there is more variation within and across neighborhoods. Take that critics of suburban ticky-tacky houses and conformity!

But, when conditions change – COVID-19 hits which then changes the behavior of buyers and sellers, contractors and the building trades, and other actors in the housing industry – that uniformity in housing was not enough to easily profit.

As the end of the article suggests, the algorithms could be changed or improved and other institutional buyers are also interested. Is this just a matter of having more data and/or better modeling? Could it all work for these companies outside of really unusual times? Or, perhaps there really are US or housing markets around the globe that are more predictable than others?

If suburban areas and communities are the places where this really takes off, the historical patterns of people making money off what are often regarded as havens for families and the American Dream may continue. Sure, homeowners may profit as their housing values increase over time but the bigger actors including developers, lenders, and real estate tech companies may be the ones who really benefit.

Global supply chain problems lead to 25 mile train backup at Chicago area railyard?

As concerns mount about global supply chains, I found one Chicago connection involving the region’s important role in the nation’s infrastructure:

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In Chicago, one of the country’s largest railyards – the size of 500 football fields – was at one point backed up for 25 miles…Cities like Chicago and San Antonio – the busiest international land gateway in the country – have been particularly affected by the bottlenecks.

Chicago is an important railroad center for the United States. With multiple intermodal facilities, helpful nearby highways and airports, numerous warehouses, and port options, many freight trains carrying a lot of important material pass through the region.

With that said, where exactly do the train delays in the Chicago region fit within the larger supply chain problems? Most of the news I have seen on the topic emphasizes the problems at major coastal ports where ships are waiting to be unloaded. If the ports could move through the goods already waiting, would they simply then get stuck in Chicago and similar locations?

If the problems in the Chicago region are confined to railyards and intermodal facilities, I would guess most people in the region have little reason to know about the issue. They may notice empty shelves in stores but not know that some of the goods might just be a few miles away on a railroad track. Unless you happen to drive by such locations and see something – and some of them and their activity are visible from major highways – or hear something specific in the news, the supply chain issues could be anywhere.

The difficulties of defining religion, COVID-19 religious exemptions edition

With people seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the question of how to define religion arises.

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Exemption requests are testing the boundaries of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for employees who object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.”

To the benefit of objectors like Holmes, the provision defines “religion” broadly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has specified that religious objections do not have to be recognized by an organized religion and can be beliefs that are new, uncommon or “seem illogical or unreasonable to others.”

They cannot, however, be based only on social or political beliefs. That means employers must try to distinguish between primarily political objections from people who may happen to be religious and objections that are actually religious at their core.

For many skeptics, resistance tends to be based not on formal teachings from an established faith leader but an ad hoc blend of online conspiracies and misinformation, conservative media and conversations with like-minded friends and family members.

This would not be a surprise to sociologists of religion and others who analyze religion in the United States. On the one hand, American religiosity has formal patterns. There are established religious traditions, denominations, and congregations. Christianity has been a dominant religious form and so its beliefs and practices are widespread. The First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and no state religion have provided room for religious groups to develop and grow.

On the other hand, for at least a few decades, American religion has been marked by a willingness by many to decide what their own religion will be comprised of. This ranges from people who attend a congregation but do not necessarily agree with important doctrines or practices to those who create a highly individualized faith that draws on multiple traditions. From the “Sheilaism” of the 1980s discussed in Habits of the Heart to those today who would say they are spiritual but not religious,

This then means that a definition of religion is difficult. Is it as simply as saying that someone “would know religion when they see it?” If the law needs precision in order to make decisions, this definition and its interpretation will be very important to deciding who has a viable religious exemption and who does not.

The capacity of a big box store with COVID distancing guidelines

Big box stores are ubiquitous in the United States today. From Walmart to Costco to Home Depot and more, they line major roadways and attract many shoppers. Outside of briefly considering how many people could fit into one of the buildings during Black Friday shopping or when seeing an empty building serve as a COVID-19 vaccine site, I do not regularly contemplate the capacity of the structures.

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Yet, in a recent trip to a nearby Target, I saw a sign stating how many people could be in the store given COVID-19 distancing guidelines. The number: 672 people. If that is the crowd allowed during COVID-19, the capacity during regular times must be quite a bit higher. Here are some numbers for Walmart stores in April 2020 when they imposed restrictions:

Starting Saturday, Walmart stores will allow no more than five customers for each 1,000 square feet of space. The restrictions will keep the stores at roughly 20% of their capacity, the company said. The average Walmart store is about 180,000 square feet. About 900 shoppers would be permitted in a store that size under the new restrictions.

From these numbers, the regular capacity for a 180,000 square foot store would be about 4,500 customers. The name big box store does not then solely refer to square footage; at full capacity a single store could hold more people than a small town or more than many full high school buildings.

Even during COVID-19, a large number of people are allowed in the building. I have been to big box stores during COVID but I do not think the stores were ever close to the reduced capacity. This does not mean I was not close to other customers; big box stores are set up like suburban subdivisions where foot traffic is funneled to main arteries (primary roads) and different sections have their own aisles (side streets). Still, there was a lot of room to operate in buildings that sometimes can seem to stretch out to the horizon.

Quarantining at home away from other residents, considering the size of the home and the layout

For roughly a year and a half, numerous Americans have quarantined themselves not just from work or school but from the other members of their households. Having more room in the residence and having particular floor plans would seem to help.

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First, having more square feet would allow the residents to keep more distance and could provide the quarantined person more space to operate. Quarantining for a week or two could feel more burdensome if someone is restricted to a small room or portion of a residence. Space provides options for rearrangement.

Second, square footage might not be everything as the floor plan can matter. Large common spaces, a regular feature of many newer homes, would be off-limits. A more closed-off floor plan with separated rooms might work better. Even better could be a separate wing – imagine a bedroom and bathroom on one side of the house or on another level than the other bedrooms. For example, a split-level could be split between the quarantined and everyone else. Or, an in-law suite or numerous bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. In contrast, a ranch home with all the bedrooms near each other and a large living space might limit options.

Few people likely purchased their homes or rented particular places with a pandemic in mind. But, considering medical issues is not out of the question for many when looking for a place to live. Think of mobility concerns or aging in place. Or, if someone has a serious illness, where might a hospital bed fit or how would an alternative sleeping arrangement work out?

All I have is anecdotal evidence on this through observing the setups of people on social media. It appears most just block off a bedroom or office type of space in the home for the quarantined person. This works well if you have extra space or a room that is used occasionally. I suspect this is not so easy with less space or a layout that makes it difficult to isolate a single person.

Housing for tenants, housing for landlords?

Who is housing for? The expiration of the national rent moratorium highlights competing interests in American housing:

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The eviction wave is expected to hit population centers across the country. Housing advocates point to renters in Ohio, Texas and parts of the Southeast — where tenant protections are generally low, housing costs are high and economic problems from the pandemic linger — as particularly at risk. Even though it has its own ban in place through August, New York is also a concern, because it has been especially slow at distributing rental assistance funds to the hundreds of thousands of tenants in the state who are behind on their rent.

The last-minute gridlock between President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress that resulted in the demise of the eviction ban this week threatens to impose new economic burdens on state and local governments. The officials will have to respond to mass evictions triggered by landlords — including many struggling financially themselves because of lost revenue — who are poised to kick out tenants who fell behind on their bills during the pandemic. The renter safety net is severely weakened, with fewer than a dozen state eviction bans in place and state and local governments having disbursed only a fraction of the $46.5 billion in rental assistance that Congress authorized over the past year.

About 7.4 million adult tenants reported they were behind on rent in the latest U.S. Census Bureau survey, which was taken during the last week of June and the first week of July. About 3.6 million tenant households said they were “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to face eviction over the next two months.

The lapse of the eviction ban, which was first imposed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September as a Covid-19 safety measure, comes after landlords warned that it cost them billions of dollars each month. Industry groups including the National Association of Realtors lobbied against extending the moratorium this week and made the case to lawmakers that it “unfairly shifts economic hardships to the backs of housing providers who have jeopardized their own financial futures to provide essential housing to renters across the country.”

In addition to tenants and landlords, there are more actors involved including builders, developers, real estate agents, mortgage providers, local officials, and more. But, ultimately, whose interests should win out in times of trouble?

The era of COVID-19 is a very unusual time. But, the US has faced severe housing issues before. The housing bubble of the late 2000s. The Great Depression. A housing shortage after World War Two. In the United States, the logic regarding housing tends to default to free markets – people can access what they have resources for and there is much money to be made in housing – plus homeownership. With both, interventions from actors, like the federal government, may be necessary in times of crisis or for people with very limited means. In non-crisis times, interventions can favor developers and homeowners.

In contrast, there is less support for public housing or seeing housing as a right. Housing is needed for a variety of reasons – health, stability, accessing jobs and services, personal space, etc. – but not guaranteed.

If any city or local government truly wanted to distinguish itself as a people-oriented location rather than a market-oriented community, guaranteed housing would be one way to stand out.

Building the ability to disperse billions in rental aid assistance in the US

Congress has allocated billions for rental aid assistance amid COVID-19 but it takes time and infrastructure to distribute it to American renters:

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With millions of Americans out of work due to the pandemic, the eviction moratorium helped keep people in their homes — but it also put a squeeze on landlords. To help, between the December and March COVID relief packages, Congress approved more than $46 billion in rental assistance. Exact amounts renters and landlords can receive depend on their income and where they live, but renters could get enough to cover rent from as far back as March 13, 2020, unpaid utilities and even, in some cases, future rent.

But by the end of May, only $1.5 billion had gone out. And officials are racing against the clock: The federal eviction moratorium ends July 31…

“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling said recently during an eviction prevention summit.

While there had been some state and local rental assistance programs, the scale of this program was beyond what they’d handled, a Treasury official said. State and local entities had to build IT systems and hire staff. Some programs did not even open until May or June — but since opening, a Treasury spokesperson said, there has been an exponential increase in renters getting money. Landlords and renters can apply directly for funds through their states, counties and in some cases tribal authorities depending on where they live.

Unprecedented times lead to unprecedented processes? Putting the money into the right hands in a timely manner is no easy task. The steps include:

-approving the monies and making it available

-letting people know that the money is available

-encouraging applications

-processing applications

-disbursing funds

-applying the funds to rent

-overseeing the program during the process and afterward

If it comes together, millions of Americans will be able to stay in their housing and landlords will rent they were waiting for.

Now, to tackle the broader issues of affordable housing in helpful locations…

Brick and mortar success in selling chickens and other farming supplies to new “ruralpolitans”

The shift of Americans from cities to suburbs and rural areas helped boost the fortunes of retailer Tractor Supply:

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Such gangbusters growth is unlikely to continue, with the pandemic easing. But the rush to the country that underpins it is less an anomaly than a speeding up of a long-tern trend, as more people – notably millennials yearning to become homeowners – look to adopt quasi-rural lifestyles. Being priced out of urban living is one driving factor; interest in healthier and more sustainable diets, including homegrown vegetables and home-harvested eggs, is another. Whatever is motivating them, Tractor Supply sees an opportunity in these “ruralpolitans” – and the COVID-driven shift toward remote work will help sustain their numbers.

Lawton, who became CEO in early 2020 after two years as the No. 2 at Macy’s, says millennials’ willingness to move farther from city centers is a “game changer”: “We seeing a new kind of shopper in our stores,” he tells Fortune. Now Tractor Supply is adapting to cater to both its established customer base and these younger space-seekers, following a strategic road map with the folksy title “Life Out Here.”…

The fast-growing cohort that Tractor Supply is cultivating, she says, are “beginning to learn how to garden. They have this passion for poultry.” Call them the “country suburban” customers.

The company is strategic about where it meets these customers. Its stores are almost all located in mid-size or small towns – communities that are often too small to support a Home Depot, Petco, or Walmart.

The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit some businesses very hard while others, like Tractor Supply, have found opportunities. From the sound of this article, they had locations in numerous places that received new residents during COVID-19 and had the right mix of products and service that appealed to them.

I wonder about the class dynamics of all of this. How do the new “ruralpolitans” who want to raise chickens or have a small farm and have moved from the city compare to the other shoppers at Tractor Supply or to long-term residents in the community?

Another question to ask is whether these newer residents with these interests in food and farming are in it for the long haul or not. On one hand, if remote work is more viable than ever, perhaps people will stay in smaller communities outside cities and pursue this. On the other hand, if companies ask more workers to return or if small-scale agriculture and animal husbandry is not appealing in the long run, this may be more of a flash in the pan. Industry-wide shifts in agriculture could have an impact as well.

Finally, the move to a more rural life has implications for private lives and community life. Many Americans say they like the idea of living in a small town but this is different than actually living in one. What is the tipping point where an influx of new residents changes the character of the community (or is change somewhat inevitable)? How involved will these new residents be in local organizations, religious congregations, local government, and in local social affairs?

The fate of religious buildings after COVID-19: building maintenance

As religious groups and congregations ponder attendance post-COVID-19, the condition of their buildings is also important to consider:

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In San Francisco, the historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral survived when members rebuilt after a fire following the 1906 earthquake but it has struggled mightily during the pandemic to stay open.

The 160-year-old Roman Catholic church, which is heavily dependent on older worshippers and tourists, lost most of its revenue after parishes closed during the pandemic. During those “dark hours,” the Rev. John Ardis had to dismiss most of the lay staff, cut the salary of a priest and close the parish preschool.

The plaster is crumbling, the paint is peeling off the walls and dozens of its stained-glass windows need to be replaced.

Any building requires regular maintenance in order for it to best meet the needs of its users. Churches and religious buildings are no exception. Roofs, heaters and air conditioners, floors, walls, paint, exteriors, and more need checking, repairs, and replacing on a cycle.

The example above hints at two problems COVID-19 brings for the maintenance of religious buildings. First, many congregations depend on tithes or gifts from people in order to keep their building in order. If attendance is down or people are not in the building, they may not give as much in order to take care of the structure. With less money, there are needs to prioritize and basics of the building might fall outside of this as the congregation tries to get by. Second, building maintenance might be tied to the regular presence of people within the building. If a congregation does not meet in the structure for months at a time and/or the group meets online, the building is out of sight and out of mind. It does not need to be maintained in the same way as a structure that regularly has people in and out throughout the week.

Those who do return to services and gatherings post-COVID-19 might find the building needs some work. As my colleague Robert Brenneman and I argue in Building Faith: A Sociology of Religious Structures, religious buildings play an important role in shaping worship and community. Depending on the age of the structure, the funding during COVID-19, and maintenance over the year-plus, the building may need attention or at least to return to its regular maintenance cycle.