CityBeat: NPR’s suburban flight story

City Observatory

Yet another entry in the trumped-up pandemic-fueled suburban flight narrative

Anecdotes aside, there’s no data that people are fleeing cities to avoid the Coronavirus

The data show young, well-educated adults moving to urban centers everywhere, and no decline in interest in urban markets during the pandemic

As we’ve chronicled at City Observatory, there’s a welter of press accounts claiming that people are fleeing cities to escape the Coronavirus.

The latest installment in this genre is Uri Berliner’s piece for National Public Radio.  Titled “New Yorkers Look To Suburbs And Beyond. Other City Dwellers May Be Next” it has the typical lede:  The pandemic is driving people from cities in droves:

Trends often start in New York. The latest: quitting the city and moving to the suburbs. If not quite an exodus, the pandemic has sent enough New Yorkers to the exits to shake up the area’s housing market.

Like the other stories of its ilk, this one is organized around the vignette of a wealthy professional couple living in a city apartment who has decided to chuck it all and move to a leafy bucolic suburb. In this case, its Miriam Kanter and Steven Kanaplue, who lived in Manhattan’s  Upper West Side, but were exhausted and appalled by the toll of Coronavirus. They recently moved to a single family home in Montclair, New Jersey.  We’re also treated to some self-promotional market hype from a local real estate agent in New Jersey, the “hypercompetitive bidding” for Montclair homes, we’re told is a “blood sport.”

Smiling, but their move to this suburb increased their risk of contracting Covid-19 by about one-third (NPR).

But there are a number of key facts that spoil this just-so story.

First, we learn, several paragraphs down into the story that Kanter and Kanplue were already already looking to move out of the city before the virus struck. There’s no question that as people age, they tend to suburbanize; there’s no news here.

Second, there’s a deep flaw in the “flight to the suburbs theory”—the virus is hitting New York suburbs even harder than it hit the city. The couple will be no doubt disappointed to learn that their choice of residence, suburban Essex County New Jersey has an even higher rate of Covid-19 cases per capita than the county they left (New York County, which corresponds to Manhattan).  According to the USA Facts tabulation, Essex County has about 2,368 cases per 100,000 population compared to 1,776 cases per 100,000 in Manhattan. Overall, based on the population data, the odds of getting Covid-19 are about one-third greater in their new suburban location than in the urban location they left. But the couple—and NPR—never bother to verify that the fundamental premise behind the story (that Covid-19 is somehow worse in cities) is actually true—because its not.

Third, there’s a very good question about whether any anecdote about one couple moving signals a shift in the market. While it may make for less charming radio, some actual data would be useful.  The NPR story is leavened with quotes from Redfin’s CEO Glen Kelman about the increased volume of searches for single family homes.  But as we’ve documented at City Observatory, the overwhelming trend, especially among well-educated young adults is a movement toward cities.  The phenomenon is both widespread (every single large metro area chalked up gains in its number of 25-34 year-old college-educated adults since 2010; and is accelerating nearly everywhere.  Moreover, real estate search data monitored at the height of the pandemic by Zillow and Apartment List, report no decline in interest in urban locations like New York; in fact, Zillow’s data show searches for urban properties outpacing those of suburban properties, compared to the pre-Pandemic era.

The media, even usually reliable sources like National Public Radio, seem eager to embrace the pandemic-powered urban exodus myth.  If they’d bother to look closely at the data, they’d be reporting that moving to the suburbs does nothing to insulate one from the virus (especially in New York), and that if anything, the trend toward city living seems resilient in the face of the virus.

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