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Will COVID-19 Spur a Mass Exodus From Cities?

Apr 22, 2020 by Maurie Backman

The COVID-19 crisis hasn't exactly been easy on anyone. 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.

And let's not forget that those who live in cities face certain risks right now that suburban residents don't. For one thing, supermarkets are larger outside of cities, and there's more room to move about them freely without physically running into people. Those who live in cities may be forced into more confined spaces with strangers, thereby increasing their exposure to germs in the course of feeding themselves and their families. In fact, this is a major reason why New York City became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak -- the sheer number of people packed into several square miles made the virus easier to spread.

All of this begs the question: Will city dwellers be itching to leave their confined spaces once the crisis subsides, or will they stay right where they are?

The battle for space

Right now, a lack of physical space is making life difficult on city dwellers. But let's remember that the COVID-19 crisis is a temporary one, and one that will hopefully not be mimicked for quite some time once it wraps up. Sure, folks who live in apartments may be itching for breathing room now, but once it becomes safe to roam the streets, the desire for extra square footage may give way to an overwhelming appreciation of the amenities that cities tend to offer -- great restaurants, fabulous nightlife, and the convenience of public transportation.

And also, city dwellers are used to being packed like sardines in subway cars and elbow to elbow at grocery stores. When there's not an easily transmittable contagion going around, that's not problematic. Remember, the flu comes around every year, and those who live in cities don't make plans to pack up and leave even during harsher seasons of it.

Another thing to keep in mind is that many people who live in cities do so because they can't afford the suburbs. It's often said that city life is more expensive than suburban life, but that's not necessarily true. Often there's a greater inventory of affordable housing in cities, and renting is far more feasible. Lower-income families often can't afford to bear the expenses that come with owning a home, and because rentals are harder to find in the suburbs, they stick to cities, where they can get by without bearing the expense of owning a car.

Of course, this isn't to say that some city dwellers won't flock to the burbs once the threat of COVID-19 dissipates. But chances are, those will largely be the folks who were thinking of spreading out anyway. Chances are, hardcore city enthusiasts will opt to stay put, ignoring the risks that come with living in a densely packed space for the freedom that comes with having so many of life's conveniences at their fingertips.

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