May 7, 2020

Will Big Cities Survive the Pandemic?

Many things will change in the days ahead, including perhaps an exodus from urban areas.

“Larger, denser cities are cleaner and more energy efficient than smaller cities, suburbs, and even small towns. Ecologists have found that by concentrating their populations in smaller areas, cities and metros decrease human encroachment on natural habitats. Denser settlement patterns yield energy savings; apartment buildings, for example, are more efficient to heat and cool than detached suburban houses.” —“Why Bigger Cities Are Greener” by Richard Florida, 2012

“The kind of city that we in the West like, the sort of jostling city where everybody is packed together and we carouse late at night … like London, Paris, Sydney and San Francisco, are all far more vulnerable. The cities are going to have to reinvent themselves, and places like New York in particular. These pandemics are going to keep happening.” —Joel Kotkin, Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in California, April 6, 2020

What a difference a pandemic makes.

For quite some, the environmentalist-driven mindset espoused by Florida was that densely packed cities, replete with cultural attractions, innumerable dining choices, and shorter traveling distances to work, dominated by energy-efficient mass transit, would seemingly be inevitable. In fact, a subsequent article by Florida written in 2019 gave credence to that assertion, noting that a peer-reviewed study of the top 20 urbanized areas in America over the three decades between 1980 and 2010 revealed younger Americans preferred city life substantially more than previous generations did.

Now? “The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t exactly been easy on anyone,” columnist Maurie Backman wrote on April 22. “Being stuck at home — potentially with kids — for weeks on end is by no means a normal way of life, and with social distancing likely to continue well into May, a large number of Americans are in the process of going stir-crazy. But while being limited to a house with two separate floors and a yard is challenging in its own right, city dwellers may be struggling even more right now — namely, those crammed into studios or one-bedroom apartments with no outdoor space of their own and very little room to spread out.”

No doubt for most Americans, April 22 seems like a lifetime ago in a nation where far too many of us remain de facto prisoners to one degree or another. Whether that imprisonment comes courtesy of bureaucratic diktats, media-driven fear-mongering, or the realization that one has a number of comorbidities that make venturing out impractical or even dangerous, is largely irrelevant. Everyone has been affected by this crisis.

Yet as New York City amply demonstrates, there is little doubt that a high-density living environment and a highly contagious virus are a combustible mix. New York’s fatality rate, driven largely by the city itself, is a worst-in-the-nation 1,282.2 per million people.

And while density is a factor, it’s not the only factor. Most of America’s big cities are leftist strongholds, and in New York, two progressive policies proved deadly. One decision, made March 25, requiring nursing homes to accept those infected with the virus, despite the fact that it was already known the elderly were at substantially more risk than others, contributed to the reality that 25% of all deaths in New York occurred in nursing homes or adult-care facilities.

The other decision was allowing the city’s homeless population to take over the subway system. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio finally responded to this outrage and the city began shutting down the entire system from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. beginning yesterday. Nonetheless, the “progressive” mindset that drives much of the agenda in New York remained evident when activists criticized the removal. “It’s just an outright disaster,” groused Joshua Goldfein, a staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society. Giselle Routhier, the policy director at the NYC-based nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless, insisted that clearing the homeless off the trains by is “going to be pushing them further into the shadows.”

New York is hardly alone. The cities with the largest homeless populations in the nation are similarly controlled by Democrats and their ways of dealing with the issue were problematic at best — before the virus hit. Many of them are also sanctuary cities, meaning they countenance a percentage of people whose health conditions are largely unknown. Thus, it’s not unreasonable to assume some viral contagion is precipitated by bad politics.

And then there is cost. In January, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the top 10 urban markets ranged from a low of $1,740 per month in Miami to $3,500 per month in San Francisco. The national median? $1,217 per month. With nearly 30 million Americans currently out of work, a rent-driven exodus remains a possibility.

Sales? In November 2019, the price of a two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan had declined 8.2% to $1.65 million. Median price per square foot? $1,372, meaning $1.65 million gets you approximately 1,200 square feet of space. Space surrounded on all sides by other apartments, and in the case of high rises that are common in big cities, all sharing an elevator or two.

Those are overpriced and under-spaced apartments are out of reach for millions of New Yorkers. Moreover, such discrepancies are hardly limited to New York. High prices for limited spaces are the hallmark of most large American cities, and while the aforementioned tradeoffs of amenities in exchange were tolerable before the pandemic, what now?

Moreover, those aren’t the only costs. “On the nation’s current trajectory, one of the most probable post-Covid future scenarios in our cities is stark austerity, with empty coffers for the very services and qualities that make for an appealing urban life,” warns columnist Steven LeVine.

“Many Gothamites have fled the five boroughs for safer havens — from vacation homes in the Hamptons to parents’ basements in the Midwest — until the coronavirus risks pass,” columnist Allison Hope writes. “But now diehard New Yorkers, some of whom had never even considered leaving the city before, are thinking about staying away for the long haul.”

Real-estate investor Ed Teig stated what many New Yorkers were undoubtedly thinking. “It was nearly impossible to avoid contact with people during the pandemic,” he said. “We have two young kids, and we found it very difficult to take them outside and not be near other families.”

Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, is more optimistic. “It’s scary right now — but, look, it was also scary after 9/11,” he said. “I’m not convinced we’re going to see people wanting to live in the suburbs to be safe from the next pandemic.”

Perhaps not. But 9/11 directly affected only one city. Coronavirus has affected all of them, many of which were already grappling with serious problems and sky-high prices. Moreover, social distancing and high-density urbanism are almost mutually exclusive concepts, and toughing it out in a 3,000 sq. ft. house on a quarter acre for the same price — or less — as that two-bedroom apartment may prove irresistible.

In short, it may come down to culture and convenience — or peace of mind.

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