Escape to the Country: Why City Living Is Losing Its Appeal During the Pandemic

By Ruth Bender | The Wall Street Journal

From New York to Paris, city dwellers are looking to move to rural areas, but researchers wonder how lasting the shift will be.

Confined to her Paris apartment with three young children, her husband and a dog during the city’s strict eight-week lockdown, Kate Gambey began fantasizing about something she never thought she would: a country house.

“I’m such a city girl,” said Ms. Gambey, an American married to a Frenchman. She made Paris her home nearly a decade ago but is now searching for a new home some 30 to 150 miles southwest of Paris.

“Right now it’s a question of how and where do we survive this best.”

In recent months, thousands of city dwellers have fled metropolises such as New York, Paris and London, moving in with family or into rentals to avoid crowds, be closer to nature or spend coronavirus lockdowns in more spacious quarters. While many have begun to return as restrictions have eased, others, like Ms. Gambey and her husband, Charles, are considering a permanent move.

Fears of a second wave of infections and the ease of remote working are prompting families with children, pensioners and some young people to question the long-term benefits of city life.

In the U.S., 39% of urban dwellers said the Covid-19 crisis prompted them to consider leaving for less densely populated areas, according to a Harris poll of 2,050 adults conducted in late April.

In France, 38% of potential home buyers widened their searches further from big cities as they sought gardens and an extra room for remote working during the pandemic, according to a survey mid-May by French real-estate portal SeLoger.

In Germany, where economic activity is more spread out across the country, demand for houses in rural areas has risen steadily since lockdowns began in mid-March, according to online real-estate portal ImmoScout24.

“Evidently the corona pandemic sparked a renewed desire for the countryside,” said Thomas Schroeter, managing director of ImmoScout24.

Researchers, though, are skeptical of a broader exodus from cities, even if the working-from-home trend extends beyond the crisis.

Realtors say that while demand for rural and suburban properties is growing, there is no evidence that it is turning into a mass movement. Examples from past crises—from the Spanish flu of 1918 to wars in Europe and 9/11 in New York City—show that urban exiles tend to return, researchers say.

While suburban areas may grow as a result of the pandemic, people are unlikely to venture much further for long, said Werner Bätzing, an emeritus professor of cultural geography at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Germany.

“Those are short-lived ideas in which the countryside appears a safe place and the city becomes the center of all uncertainties,” said Mr. Bätzing. “But as soon as the crisis is over, the city becomes the center again.”

Yossi Joe Levi, chief executive of used-car-buying platform Gettacar thinks this time is different. Not only did the startup founder recently scrap the company’s plan to move its headquarters from a Philadelphia suburb into the city center next year, the 27-year-old is also looking to swap his own city apartment for a place in the suburbs.

“The plan was to move to the city to attract more talent,” said Mr. Levi. “Now I feel it actually opens up our talent pool to not be in the city.” For him, the cost-benefit analysis of living in the city turned in favor of the suburbs as  “most city perks are gone.”

In New York, the question of whether to leave is a growing cause for anxiety among many urbanites. Rebekah Rosler, a 40-year-old doula and fertility counselor, launched a Facebook group called “Into the Unknown” in late April for people who, like her, have decided to leave the city or are thinking about doing so. It had more than 5,300 members within a few weeks.

“It’s the hardest decision leaving a city you love,” said Stefunny Price, 48, who has been considering the decision for weeks. “It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend you love but you know is not good for you.”

Her husband, drummer Thommy Price, 63, is considered at high risk from the coronavirus, she said. Both also suffered a drop in income due to the crisis, which made them take a hard look at the cost of living in the city. They are considering moving to her hometown in Texas, at least until the pandemic is over.

As New Yorkers hunt for places outside the city, house prices in some coveted suburbs are rising.

After finding out they were expecting a child, newlywed couple Eliot and Carly Bickoff sped up their plan to move from New York City while the virus was spiking there to the suburbs, and made five offers for houses in Bergen County, N.J. Ms. Bickoff has been staying with her parents in Connecticut since the lockdown began. She plans to return only to pack up her things.

Not everyone is looking to move permanently. The pandemic has also sparked a renewed interest in secondary residences. In highest demand are rural areas within a short drive of large cities—such as the Atlantic coast in France, the sparsely populated state of Brandenburg that surrounds Berlin, or Connecticut, realtors say.

Alexandre and Caron Grand-Dewyse left their French countryside idyll with a heavy heart on June 14 after his work started to require him to go into the office for four days every other week. The couple, who are expecting their first child, have spent the past three months in their family’s 17th-century stone cottage in a hamlet of 10 houses a two-hour drive northeast of Paris.

They had to set up an internet connection, buy a washing machine and endure cold winter days without central heating, but Mr. Grand-Dewyse said he loved bird-watching during his lunch break and gardening at the end of a day’s work for a large consumer-goods company.

Beginning next year, he will be allowed to work two days a week from home so the couple plan to divide their weeks between Paris and the countryside, before figuring out a longer-term move.

The Gambeys, meanwhile, want to rent a new home for a year to get a feel for long-term country living, see how remote working evolves and determine if they can find the right school for their three girls.

Ms. Gambey said she had already seen some warning signs. On a recent short post-lockdown holiday in a village on the Atlantic coast last week, she said she was surprised by how long it took for an electrician to fix a power outage and how slow the internet connection was.

“There are drawbacks to country life,” said Ms. Gambey. “We might have to make a compromise and go for suburban life after all.”

Read the full story at The Wall Street Journal.