Americans Ditched Big Cities During the Pandemic. Now Many Are Regretting It. Do you stay in a small, expensive apartment that is close to friends? Or do you give that up for the often-lonely dream of a single-family home?

By Kelli María Korducki

entrepreneur daily
Chelsea Jia Feng/BI
The dream of owning a home with a yard in the suburbs is turning out to be disappointing.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

Susan, a 30-something artist, lived in New York City when the pandemic struck. Eager to flee the claustrophobia of a too-small apartment, she and her husband decamped upstate to stay with friends in an up-and-coming town in the Catskills (population: 1,000) where they could hike local trails and fish for trout.

Susan, who asked that her real name not be used to avoid social repercussions, had lived in New York City for over a decade, but her husband had grown tired of the hustle and bustle of the city. The pair had talked about moving to a smaller town someday — the pandemic just shortened their timeline. Thanks to the influx of city folk desperate for personal space, rents in trendy upstate communities had become exorbitant overnight, so it made more financial sense to simply buy.

The couple put in an offer on a home near their friends in April 2020 and moved in by summer's end. But once they had settled in, the reality of the situation hit Susan. Cut off from her social and creative communities, she felt unmoored and alienated. Maybe she wasn't the sort of person who enjoyed trout fishing. Maybe the house in the country wasn't right for her, after all — or at least, not yet.

"I liked the idea in theory, but I wasn't ready for it," Susan told me.

Susan's story might sound familiar. Since the start of last year, a steady stream of news headlines, Reddit threads, and market research polls has shown that a significant share of people who made big moves during the pandemic now regret them. As rent prices in big cities shot up and jobs went remote, cash-strapped people were quick to take advantage of an unprecedented situation and try someplace new. Maybe, like Susan, they had been planning a move for a while. Or maybe they just wanted to live somewhere more affordable. Regardless of the initial reasons, reality has clearly smacked many of these people in the face. For many millennial homebuyers in particular, they relocated from cities to the suburbs and semi-rural areas where homes were cheaper but further away from the social and professional networks they'd cultivated throughout their young adulthoods. Some have struggled to assimilate into their new communities. Many feel cut off from their identities, hobbies, and the friends they left behind.

The thread running through many of these stories is the pursuit of a dream that turned out to be nothing like what was expected — the dream of a three-bedroom house with a covered front porch and enough yard for a few kids and a dog to play safely, close to nature and far from city noise. But what many Americans are coming to realize is that there are no good options. As everything gets more expensive and it gets harder to make new friends, deciding where to live is a multilayered compromise.

Millennials are bucking old trends

The story usually went like this: Young people would move to the city in their early 20s to start their careers and meet people. Then, as they hit their mid-20s to early 30s, they would get married, settle down in the suburbs, and start having kids.

Around a decade ago, the oldest millennials disrupted that trend. Riordan Frost, a senior research analyst at Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies, said fewer people in their 30s (specifically, those born between 1977 and 1986) moved to the suburbs between 2011 and 2021 than people of a similar age did in previous decades. Millennials are consistently more likely than their predecessors to reside in cities, a trend that some demographers attribute to millennials' "delay" in achieving major milestones like getting married, having kids, and buying their first home. Coming of age in the aftermath of the 2008 recession was a challenge, but when millennials "catch up," the theory goes, they'll follow suit and pack up to the land of McMansions and cul-de-sacs.

As big-city rents go up, that seems to be a significant motivation behind many pandemic moves: People hunting for more space at a price they can afford.

That's exactly what some millennials did when the pandemic hit. And when they fled cities for the suburbs, they went all out. Far out.

"We kind of thought that they would be going to more urbanized suburban areas, places that are technically suburban but more urban in character," Frost, who published a research brief on the subject in March, said. "But we found that they were primarily going out to these farther-flung, more peripheral suburban areas."

Leading the charge were older millennial homebuyers. Data from the National Association of Realtors found that between 2020 and 2021, 54% of homebuyers between the ages of 31 and 40 bought homes in a suburb or subdivision, while 31% opted to buy in a small town or rural area. The overwhelming majority of the properties they purchased — 88% — were single-family, detached homes.

The people who left cities with fewer large apartments and houses tended to move to the outer limits of their metro areas, Frost and his colleagues found. Though their analysis did not explicitly look at the reasons behind the trend, Frost hypothesizes that cost is a significant factor. "When people are buying houses, they're more likely to be going farther out because they're trying to get something they can afford," he said.

As big-city rents go up, that seems to be a significant motivation behind many pandemic moves: People hunting for more space at a price they can afford. But as the moving frenzy has subsided and returned to pre-pandemic levels, many pandemic movers — millennials and other generations alike — are getting a more clear-eyed view of what they signed up for.

No good options

Alex Gatien, a 38-year-old city planner, left Toronto in May 2021 for a much smaller Canadian city 270 miles east, perched on the St. Lawrence River and within minutes of the US border. Though he moved for a job, the cost of living in Toronto had become untenable. Over the years, he's watched as more and more of his friends have been priced out of the city, a trend that became especially pronounced early in the pandemic. For less than the cost of a studio condo in Toronto, Gatien and his partner purchased a four-bedroom Victorian with a large yard in their new city's historic downtown.

On paper, they're living the homeownership dream. In reality, the suburbanized small-city lifestyle feels a lot more like a trade-off. "People live in a much more private realm," Gatien told me. "Everyone drives everywhere, which means you don't really run into people. They don't really use public spaces like parks unless they don't have their own outdoor space, which everyone does unless they're poor." Though he knew what he was signing up for and he appreciates the low cost of living, Gatien laments what he gave up for it.

In a perverse twist of fate, the American ideal of having a single-family house of your own — complete with a large, private lot — has made it harder for people to purchase any kind of home.

Canada is struggling with a similar housing crisis to the US, and the dilemma Gatien faced is the same that more Americans are reckoning with. Remote work opened up a Pandora's box of places to call home. And all sorts of factors, from weather to proximity to family (some of them contradictory), influence people's decisions about where to settle down. But even when you carefully weigh your options, do your research, and make a thoughtful decision, the reality of a barren housing market can be disappointing. For many, the only real options are rife with compromise.

And it's partly a problem of our own making. In a perverse twist of fate, the American ideal of having a single-family house of your own — complete with a large, private lot — has made it harder for people to purchase any kind of home, which in turn, has led more people to leave big cities for more affordable locales.

Take Susan, the New York artist. Her move upstate was motivated both by circumstance and economic pragmatism, and predicated on giving up big city life for the slower pace of the country. It was also a favor to her husband, who never felt at peace in the bustle of the big city. But once the deal was done and she got over the initial shock, she warmed up to what she describes as "the fantasy" of having a house with a backyard that is close to nature, especially if and when she and her husband decide to start a family. "It wasn't one that either of us were pursuing wholeheartedly, but once we made the move, we liked the potential," she said about being able to start a family.

That ideal is more deeply entrenched in American culture — and its housing policies — than you might think. "In American history, the desire for an independently owned house with at least an excuse for a yard goes way back, at least to the late 1700s," said Alexander von Hoffman, an urban planner and historian also with Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

As cities grew and their economies expanded, densely packed row housing and multiunit developments sprung up to accommodate the people who worked in the ports, railways, and industrial facilities that those cities were built around. "As early as the early 1800s, the housing market fragmented by the ability to pay," von Hoffman continued. "Even at the low end of the market, where possible, there has always been a propensity to own a house, preferably detached, with a yard."

It's perfectly reasonable for people to want to have a stable, comfortable, safe living environment, but so does everybody else.

Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health

This stubborn adherence to an ideal of single-family property ownership in place of denser housing gave rise to the restrictive residential-zoning laws and caps on new affordable housing builds that are driving our current housing crisis. Some would call it NIMBYism. Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, uses the phrase "suburban impulses."

"It's perfectly reasonable for people to want to have a stable, comfortable, safe living environment, but so does everybody else, and what we want for ourselves should not come at the expense of what we should want collectively," Galea told me.

Another byproduct of both rigid zoning policies and suburban norms is the decades-long decline of "third spaces," such as coffee shops and public libraries, where people can hang out and meet others. Without spaces like these to gather, it can be especially difficult for recent transplants to make friends in their communities.

Both those who stay in the cities and watch their rent skyrocket and those who choose to go someplace more affordable are feeling the weight of the same dilemma. Do you stay in a small, expensive apartment that is close to friends? Or do you give that up for the often-lonely dream of a single-family home?

For Susan, the benefits of country life never quite made up for the costs. A few months ago, she and her husband found a renter for their house and returned to the city. She said that subletting an apartment in the city that she could imagine herself living in a decade ago sometimes feels like a step backward. And she's not sure how long they'll stay before going back upstate. On the other hand, she feels like herself for the first time in years.

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