The walls inside James Zeleniak’s Mount Airy home had been painted a buyer-friendly gray. His four children had been given strict orders to keep their clutter under wraps. The plan was to sell their large single-family home and move into a Center City townhouse before September, so the kids could be closer to their downtown magnet school.
And then the pandemic scrambled everything.
Like millions of Americans, the Zeleniaks have responded to the demands of the coronavirus by reassessing their options, adjusting their priorities and making decisions based on their circumstances. For them, that means staying put in Mount Airy, one of Philadelphia’s less dense neighborhoods, in an old stone house with an ample backyard and plenty of nooks where the kids can concentrate on their remote schoolwork. Because they believe that they could be working and schooling in place for several years, the family just ordered some patterned William Morris wallpaper to cover the house’s newly bland walls. “We’re digging in, instead of moving on,” Zeleniak says.
From the moment that American cities were put under lockdown in March, planners, demographers, and, not surprising, newspaper columnists have been on high alert for signs that once-committed urbanites — the affluent ones, anyway — were preparing to flee their tightly packed neighborhoods for the wide-open spaces of the suburbs. I chose to start with the Zeleniaks because their story shows that the city-suburb divide is an overly simplistic way of looking at how the pandemic will influence where people choose to live in the coming years.
“As a city-dweller of 40-plus years, I’ve read too many ‘Are people leaving the city because of (blank)?’ articles,” complained Kathy Dowdell, an architect who lives in West Philadelphia and intends to stay. “No one thinks to ask, ‘Are people leaving Delaware County because there’s no health department?’ ”
It’s a good point, and yet the narrative of pandemic-induced urban flight continues to spread almost as fast as the virus itself. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have run stories suggesting that city residents are so desperate for home offices and kid-friendly yards, that they are rushing to scoop up any house they can find in the suburbs. Suburban Realtors offer gleeful accounts of bidding wars for plain tract houses with dated kitchens. When the Times conducted an analysis of smartphone data back in May, it found that 5% of New York City’s population, mainly residents from its ritziest zip codes, had already left town.
Yet a study by the Pew Research Center found that many people on the move are actually college students and people in their early 20s, who left cities and campuses to return to the comfort of their family homes.
No doubt, plenty of older, wealthier residents did flee the denser part of cities in the first, scary days of the pandemic. Many headed for vacation homes they already owned. Since the days of ancient Rome, the rich have always had the luxury to abandon the city during plagues. That doesn’t mean they won’t come back. The 1918 influenza epidemic, which killed close to 700,000 people in the United States, was followed by the greatest period of city-building in the nation’s history, one that gave us magnificent limestone skyscrapers and elegant downtown apartment buildings. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade towers, we were told that no one would again dare live or work in a tall building. Instead, we saw the most intense urban building boom since, well, the one that took place in the 1920s. Philadelphia has thrived since 9/11, gaining population for the first time since the urban flight of the ’60s and ’70s.
Will this crisis produce a different result? Certainly technology adds a new wrinkle that didn’t exist in 1918 or even in 2001. The pandemic has broken down whatever barriers existed to working at home for many professionals — not just office workers, but college professors and doctors. If you no longer need to be physically present at work, you can live anywhere there is an internet connection. In the future, other criteria will inform people’s housing choices: from proximity to family to proximity to parks, restaurants, and culture.
Philadelphia should fare well. Even during the worst days of the pandemic, when every office, restaurant, and shop was closed, the city never felt emptied out. If anything, its parks were too crowded. Now that restaurants are allowed outdoor seating, it’s remarkable to see people out dining and strolling in Center City and Old City, oblivious to the boarded-up shops.
Maybe that’s why the rumors of the city’s death seem greatly exaggerated. There is little evidence so far “to back up this hypothesis that there is a big shift in favor of the suburbs,” said Jeff Tucker, an economist for Zillow, the online real estate database. Yes, lots of interested home buyers are scouring Zillow’s site for suburban homes around the country, but not in greater numbers than usual.
Because in-person house tours were suspended in April and May, few people acted on those internet searches. June was a different story. Despite the pandemic and plunging economy, 1,665 people signed agreements to purchase houses in Philadelphia, a 25% increase over June 2019, according to BrightMLS. It must be said that the four Pennsylvania counties adjacent to Philadelphia also had impressive results last month, with pending sales up between 31% and 37%. “Everyone who was unable to buy in April and May came out of woodwork in June,” said Scott Laughlin, a Realtor at Fox & Roach’s Devon office.
I checked in with several Realtors in Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania suburbs, and South Jersey, and every one told me their phones are blowing up with inquiries. “I just sold a $2 million condo at 10 Rittenhouse, sight unseen,” marveled Pam Rosser-Thistle, a Fox & Roach Realtor in Philadelphia.
Because some of that interest is due to pent-up demand, it’s worth looking at a forward-looking indicator: new construction. Besides the usual rowhouse developments in Fishtown and Point Breeze, there are three large apartment towers rising in Center City. You could argue that their owners are merely finishing what they started before COVID-19. But last week a developer announced plans to build a fourth high-rise apartment building, at 16th and Sansom Streets. And now there’s news of a fifth, on 22nd Street, next to Trader Joe’s.
“Elevator pads can always be made touch-less,” said Brian Emmons, who is overseeing the Sansom Street project for Southern Land. “But I can’t see a world where people don’t want to live close to restaurants, theaters, the sports complex.”
Since we know so little about how people are deciding where to live now, I decided to solicit their stories on my Facebook page. Nearly 400 people responded. Many commenters were die-hard Philadelphians who could never imagine leaving the city. But a few said they were already shopping for a new home in the suburbs. It was less about their fear of contracting the virus or the need for extra space, than the city’s poor trash collection and the recent vandalism, they said. Meanwhile, several New Yorkers weighed in to say they had just moved to Philadelphia. A well-known bicycle advocate confessed to getting a car — a used Prius.
If there was a trend that emerged from the comments, it’s that empty-nesters who relocated to Philadelphia to enjoy its culture and restaurants don’t want to stick around to wait for the city to return to normal. “When you’re older, you have a shorter time horizon,” said Bruce Katsiff, a retired museum director who moved to Graduate Hospital with his wife four years ago. “You don’t want to go through a year or more of not having wonderful things.”
This month, the Katsiffs bought a house on a large site in a picturesque section of Bucks County. Since they can no longer go to the opera and local museums, they figured they might as well enjoy the country life. Still, the Kastiffs are hedging their bets: They’re keeping their Philadelphia townhouse.
One group that isn’t going anywhere are Philadelphia’s poor, who are almost 25% of the city’s population. An eviction moratorium passed by City Council allows people who can’t make their rent to remain in their homes until the end of August. Essential workers — the people who staff the restaurants, deliver packages, and drive the buses — are also unlikely to move far from their jobs.
The future of cities may hinge, once again, on millennials. Now entering their 30s, this cohort is beginning the process of what demographers call “family formation.” Once they have children, will they stick around waiting for things to get better? Even before the pandemic, Brookings’ William H. Frey found that the population growth that cities experienced in the 2010s was starting to level off, as families opted for a house and yard in the suburbs. But Richard Florida, an expert on cities, argues that they will be replaced by younger people and those looking for affordable housing.
That’s not necessarily bad news for cities. While the freedom to work from home may cause some people to head for the country — accelerating sprawl and climate change — it could also prove a boon for smaller, more affordable cities with good amenities and good housing, said Susan Housemen, director for research for the nonprofit Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. That sounds like Philadelphia.
Now that the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus are sweeping sprawling Sun Belt states, it’s clear that density isn’t the main driver of the pandemic. Who knows? After being cooped up in home offices all day, many people may want to live in urban areas where they walk out the front door and find streets filled with people. Because Philadelphia is a city of rowhouses and twins, apartments and stately free-standing homes, it offers a winning combination of density and personal space.
“The last few months have made me even more convinced that urban living is right for me,” said Shoshana Suzanne Schiller, a lawyer who moved to her Queen Village rowhouse in 1993, when the neighborhood was considered rough. “Having lived in the sprawl of Los Angeles and the idylls of rural Vermont, I can’t imagine that I would have survived five months of virtual isolation anywhere else.”