Over the past few months, it's likely that you've seen at least one headline along the lines of, "People Are Fleeing Cities During COVID-19 Pandemic." But, is this really true? Is the pandemic causing people to leave cities in favor of the suburbs?
"There is a grain of truth to this idea, but I believe most media narratives about it have been pretty overblown," Jeff Tucker, a senior economist at Zillow, tells Hunker. "I will agree that there's a lot of demand for suburban homes right now, but that doesn't have to mean that demand has dried up for urban homes."
In August 2020, Zillow actually released an entire report debunking the idea that people are moving away from cities. "The housing market is definitely hot this year and I think it's easy to misconstrue that as suburban markets alone are really hot, being partially because America is predominantly a suburban country," Tucker explains. "Most of our homes are in places that most people would consider suburban. But it's not a zero sum game."
Tucker states that if cities were experiencing a mass exodus, they would see an increase in active listings (aka "inventory") in urban areas and a consequent decrease in suburban areas. However, that's not the case. Zillow is instead seeing a significant decrease in inventory for both locations. "It is down more in the suburbs, but it's also really down in the urban areas," adds Tucker, concluding, "What that says to me is that a lot of people are taking this chance to buy their first home." While most people are attempting to do so in the suburbs, there are still many doing so in urban areas.
Kerry Melcher — an in-house real estate expert and head of brokerage and sales at Opendoor — tells Hunker that an August 2020 survey conducted by Opendoor came to the same conclusion: only 5.5% of participants reported that they intend to move to a small town or rural area. Even though 28% of participants made the decision to leave their city and 25% decided to speed up their plans to move because of the pandemic, that isn't enough to say that people are avoiding cities completely.
With this data in mind, Melcher predicts that most people will stay in their cities come 2021. However, she adds, "Once we approach Q2 2021, that's when I anticipate we'll really start to see movement in and out of cities. It will be approximately one year from the initial COVID-19 lockdown and we'll be on the other side of the 2020 election." By this time, Melcher predicts that people will have a better idea of where they want to live and work remotely.
While people may not be tipping the scales as they move out of cities and into suburbs, that doesn't mean no one is considering the idea. According to Realtor.com's September 2020 Urban vs Suburban Growth Report, shoppers have been viewing suburban homes at a greater rate. Specifically, shoppers viewing suburban homes grew by 53.9% year-over-year in August when compared with the 50.7% growth for urban homes.
When asked why this might be, Danielle Hale, chief economist at Realtor.com, tells Hunker, "The biggest thing that we think is driving people's interest in the suburbs is affordability. We know that homes are generally less expensive, but certainly less expensive per square foot, in the suburbs." In other words, as millennials consider settling down, it would be easier for them to find more square footage at an affordable price in the suburbs.
When all is said and done, though people may be considering the suburbs more than ever before, people are not exponentially moving out of cities. You can call that rumor false.
Anna is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor who covers lifestyle and design content for Hunker. She's written for Apartment Therapy, the L.A. Times, Forge, and more. She previously worked as the lifestyle editor at HelloGiggles and deputy editor at So Yummy. Her email: email@example.com