Bruised by the pandemic, New Yorkers head for the suburbs

New York (AFP) –


The trauma of the coronavirus pandemic is pushing New Yorkers to move out of the city in ever greater numbers, sending real estate prices through the roof in surrounding areas while leaving behind vacant apartments and fire-sale prices for real estate.

"I wasn't ready to go yet," said Nick Barnhorst, recalling how he felt in February.

At 41, he had been a New York resident for 11 years, and loved the city. He had thought about moving to the suburbs to accommodate his growing family, but not for another year at least.

In just weeks, though, his wife became pregnant with their third child, and the coronavirus was ravaging New York.

That's when it hit Nick: "We got to get the hell out of here as soon as possible."

Next week, Nick expects to close on a house in Mamaroneck, a posh suburban town north of the city.

"I always imagined that I would leave kicking and screaming and I'd really been resistant to the idea of moving out, and now I couldn't be more excited," he said.

A friend of Nick's took even more decisive action. He left the city in early March with his wife, who was eight months pregnant, to spend a weekend with his in-laws in Massachusetts. They never returned.

Nick's friend sold his apartment in New York and bought in Bronxville, just north of the city in Westchester County.

"Being captive in a small apartment with two kids for four months while the city has been shut down, and none of the things that made the city the city has been going, it feels kind of easy to walk away at this point," said Nick.

"But I keep having this thought in the back of my head that a year or two from now I'm going to say: what were we doing? Why did we ever leave?"

With the suburban real estate market bubbling, finding a new home was not easy and there was no room for negotiation.

"We felt that we had to come in at the asking price or else we were going to lose it because there was so much interest," Nick said.

In the sought-after town of Montclair, New Jersey, it is not unusual these days to see houses going for 20 percent over the asking price, according to data tracked by Richard Stanton, a real estate agent there.

"Once things opened and people got their houses on the market we saw a real flood of people looking to come out," he said, adding: "I didn't expect such a big demand."

Stanton said he did not expect the supply to meet demand for six months to a year.

- A rebound? -

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio often compare the situation to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the World Trade Center, a catastrophic blow that the city absorbed and rebounded from.

But to Dillon Kondor, a guitarist who has worked on Broadway musicals, "this feels very different to me."

He said "New York pride" post-9/11 made him want to move to the city.

But the things that made New York a beacon -- its restaurants, and theaters and shops -- are now missing, and its crowds, once a source of energy and excitement, have become a source of apprehension.

For Dillon, it came to a head when he saw too many people wearing too few masks during a walk through Central Park with his wife on a beautiful spring day.

Walking home, "one of us said: we have to get out of the city."

Dillon and his wife made the leap in June, leaving New York for an apartment in Tarrytown, in the Hudson Valley.

- Vacancies and moving trucks -

In New York, moving trucks are everywhere now.

In lower Manhattan, more than five percent of rental apartments are vacant, something not seen in the 10 years that the Miller Samuel real estate firm has been publishing that statistic.

The impact on real estate of 9/11 was a "blip" compared to what is happening now, said Stanton.

He says it is more like the 2003-2005 period when high rents pushed a wave of New Yorkers out of the city.

It also evokes the 1970s, when public services were in shambles and crime was on the rise, another period when those who had the means moved out of the city.

But this time, besides the coronavirus effect, there is also the broader trend that many more people can now work remotely from home, notes Stanton.

The current exodus may cool New York's pricey real estate market but that could lure a younger generation that had been priced out of the city, he says.

"If prices get depressed in New York City it will be a nice opportunity for young people to live in there," Stanton said.

For now, Dillon has chosen to rent in Tarrytown, keeping his options open until Broadway reopens.

But he is skeptical about returning to New York.

"Imagining what it's going to be like when this is not as much of an issue," he said, "that feel likes too many hypotheticals to even picture."