Katey Frederking, 28, used to live in Ravenswood. But she listed her condo two weeks ago, and is looking to move to the suburbs for her health and a yard for her dogs. She said COVID-19 was a catalyst for the move.
“If you asked me 10 years ago, I would have told you the suburbs were the worst place ever. But we’re doing this for me and for my dogs,” said Frederking, who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder about two years ago.
A recent Pew Research Center study reported that around one in five Americans relocated this year due to COVID-19 or know someone who has, and the most popular reason for relocating was to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.
The demographic moving the most were those in the 18 to 29 age group, which includes younger millennials and their junior Gen Z cohorts. Next highest was the 30 to 45 group, comprised of older millennials and the tail end of Gen X.
However, it’s still unclear if the national trend bears out for Chicago, and experts say it’s too soon to tell what the long-term impact will be for city real estate.
Over the past 50 years, Chicago has seen constant growth of its population of 25- to 34-year-olds, which is also the age group with the greatest net increase since 1970, according to U.S. Census data. By 2018, one in five Chicagoans were 25-34 — the largest percentage across age groups.
And the city continues to attract millennials and other young adults, said Matt Wilson, a senior research specialist at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which researches ways to improve the city’s urban development.
“They don’t have children yet typically, (and) they are fresh out of college, looking for jobs. And cities have always been the major job centers,” Wilson said. “It just seems that while Chicago’s population has declined, a lot of neighborhoods have become more dense. That density lends itself for younger people without children to live.”
Michele Lee, 38, grew up in Glenview, but moved to the West Loop for the restaurants, bars and other amenities Chicago had to offer. As a wheelchair user, Lee found the commute was easier. But COVID-19 made her nervous about using public spaces. She said living in her high-rise made her feel like she lived in a “glass box.”
“I’m not comfortable in like a gym, using all these things where I have to run into people who are being not as careful as I am,” Lee said. “Is it even worth paying the exorbitant amount that I’m paying to live in the city? No.”
Apartment List, a company that lists available rentals across the country, analyzed user search behavior on its site from Jan. 1 to June 30. Overall, the company found the number of people across the country who searched for housing in a higher-density city increased in the first six months of 2020. Yet in Chicago, searches for housing within the city decreased by 15%.
Chris Salviati, a housing economist at Apartment List, said he has seen little evidence that people are leaving cities in what some call an “urban exodus.”
“I think we see a lot of anecdotal stories like this — and there are certainly people who have made those moves — but we’re really not seeing that big enough, hard data to move the needle,” Salviati said. “I think cities are pretty resilient.
“There are lots of reasons folks love cities, and some of those things have been disrupted by the pandemic,” he added, “but I think long-term, those things are still going to be attracting people to cities.”
Nationally, the urge to move because of COVID-19 is also dissipating as the virus recedes, according to the Harris Poll. During the pandemic’s peak in May, almost 40% of survey respondents said they were likely to move from their city because of the coronavirus; by the start of August, that number dropped to 26%.
Younger respondents were also more likely to cite a desire to move, with 44% of those aged 18-34 saying they were somewhat likely or very likely to move. In comparison, only 9% of people aged 55-64 said the same.
Wilson also isn’t sure if the pandemic will prompt millennials to move out of cities like Chicago. Going forward, real estate prices could take a hit, but the lower price tags could draw back those who previously couldn’t afford to live in the city, he said.
Rent is declining in most costly cities such as San Francisco and New York, Salviati noted. Rent is also dropping in cities that rely heavily on tourism and the service industry, such as Las Vegas or Orlando, Florida.
For Chicago, Salviati said although the city has had fewer people searching for rentals within the city, it’s not clear if the reason behind it is the pandemic. The Apartment List study recognized that Chicago, unlike other cities, has experienced overall population decline over a number of years.
“What’s most interesting is how little these numbers have changed. Right now, where it seems like everything is getting flipped on its head on a daily basis, we’re really seeing some stability in where it is that folks want to live,” Salviati said. “If these migration patterns were some big trend that were happening at a large scale, I still expect we’d be seeing some of that in our data.”
Although the need to move may not be widespread in Chicago, some immunocompromised people like Frederking don’t see a safer option.
To her, living in a city makes it more likely she’ll come into contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19. As a young disabled person, she said it’s difficult to trust others to wear masks and adhere to social distancing.
Lee said that for what her apartment costs, she knows she can get a nice, spacious house in the suburbs. She would consider moving back to the city when the pandemic is over, but until then, the suburbs appear to be a more attractive option.
“People move to the city to be closer to people, you know, to see friends and socialize,” Lee said. “But since all that’s down the drain, might as well have a better way of life where you don’t have to be in a small two-bedroom apartment.”
Moving to the suburbs means a yard for Frederking’s dogs, driving to places instead of walking, and interacting with fewer people. She said she’s sad to leave the city, but excited to live closer to family. Currently, she is living with her fiance and his parents in Gurnee.
“If I got COVID, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I could die,” Frederking said. “Living in a fancy condo isn’t worth that.”