Americans, especially millennials, regret moving to new cities

Americans, especially millennials, regret moving to new cities

Susan, an artist in her 30s, was living in New York City when the pandemic hit. Eager to escape the claustrophobia of a tiny apartment, she and her husband moved upstate to stay with friends in an up-and-coming town in the Catskills (population: 1,000) where they could hike local trails and fish for trout.

Susan, who asked that her real name not be used to avoid social repercussions, had lived in New York City for more than a decade, but her husband grew tired of the city’s hustle and bustle. The couple had talked about moving to a smaller town someday, and the pandemic has shortened their timeline. Thanks to an influx of city dwellers desperate for personal space, rents in trendy upstate communities became prohibitive overnight, so buying simply made more financial sense.

The couple put in an offer on a house near their friends in April 2020 and moved in by the end of the summer. But once they settled down, the reality of the situation hit Susan. Isolated from her social and creative communities, she felt alienated and alienated. Maybe you’re not the type of person who enjoys trout fishing. Maybe a house in the country wasn’t for her, after all, or at least not yet.

“I liked the idea in theory, but I wasn’t ready for it,” Susan told me.

Susan’s story may sound familiar. Since the beginning of last year, a steady stream of news headlines, Reddit threads, and market research surveys have shown that a significant percentage of people who made big moves during the pandemic now regret them. As rent prices rose in major cities and jobs disappeared, cash-strapped people were quick to take advantage of the unprecedented situation and try somewhere new. Maybe, like Susan, they’ve been planning the move for a while. Or maybe they just wanted to live somewhere less expensive. Regardless of the initial reasons, it is clear that reality has slapped many of these people in the face. For many millennial homebuyers in particular, they moved from cities to suburbs and semi-rural areas where homes were cheaper but far from the social and professional networks they had cultivated throughout their youth. Some struggled to integrate into their new communities. Many feel isolated from the identities, hobbies, and friends they left behind.

The thread running through many of these stories is the pursuit of a dream that turned out to be nothing like what was expected—the dream of a three-bedroom house with a covered front porch and enough yard for a few kids and a dog to play safely, close to nature and far from the noise of the city. But what many Americans are beginning to realize is that there are no good options. As everything becomes more expensive and it becomes harder to make new friends, deciding where to live is a multi-layered compromise.

Millennials are bucking old trends

The story was usually like this: Young people move to the city in their early twenties to start their careers and meet people. Then, when they reach their mid-twenties and early thirties, they get married, settle in the suburbs, and start having children.

About a decade ago, older millennials bucked the trend. Fewer people in their 30s (specifically, those born between 1977 and 1986) moved to the suburbs between 2011 and 2021 than people of the same age in the decades, said Riordan Frost, a senior research analyst at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. Previous. Millennials are consistently more likely than their predecessors to reside in cities, a trend that some demographers attribute to Millennials being “late” in achieving key milestones like getting married, having children, and buying their first home. Coming of age in the wake of the 2008 recession was a challenge, but when millennials “catch up,” so the theory goes, they will follow suit and pack up for the land of McMansions and cul-de-sacs.

With rents rising in major cities, this appears to be a big driver behind many pandemic moves: people looking for more space at a price they can afford.

And that’s exactly what some millennials did when the pandemic hit. When they fled from the cities to the suburbs, they all came out. far.

“We kind of thought they would go to more urbanized suburban areas, places that are technically suburbs but are more urban in character,” said Frost, who published a research brief on the topic in March. “But we found that they were primarily going out into the more remote and marginal suburban areas.”

Leading the charge are older millennial homebuyers. Data from the National Association of Realtors found that between 2020 and 2021, 54% of homebuyers ages 31 to 40 bought homes in a suburb or subdivision, while 31% chose to buy in a small town or rural area. The vast majority of the properties they purchased — 88% — were single-family detached homes.

Frost and his colleagues found that people who left cities with fewer apartments and larger houses tended to move to the outer limits of their urban areas. Although their analysis did not explicitly look at the reasons behind this trend, Frost posits that cost is an important factor. “When people buy homes, they’re more likely to go the extra mile because they’re trying to get something they can afford,” he said.

With rents rising in major cities, this appears to be a big driver behind many pandemic moves: people looking for more space at a price they can afford. But as the moving craze subsides and returns to pre-pandemic levels, many of the pandemic’s movers — Millennials and other generations alike — are getting a clearer view of what they signed up for.

There are no good options

Alex Gatien, a 38-year-old city planner, left Toronto in May 2021 for a much smaller Canadian city 270 miles east, located on the St. Lawrence River and minutes from the U.S. border. Although he moved to get a job, the cost of living in Toronto became untenable. Over the years, he’s watched more and more of his friends move out of town, a trend that became especially evident early in the pandemic. For less than the cost of a studio apartment in Toronto, Gatien and his partner bought a four-bedroom Victorian condo with a large yard in the historic downtown of their new city.

And in a twist of fate, the American ideal of having your own single-family home — complete with a large private lot — has made it difficult for people to buy any kind of home.

On paper, they’re living the homeownership dream. In fact, the small-town suburban lifestyle seems more like a trade-off. “People live in a more private world,” Gatien told me. “Everyone drives everywhere, which means you don’t really meet people. They don’t use public spaces like parks unless they don’t have their own outdoor space, which everyone does unless they’re poor.” Although he knew what he was signing up for and appreciated the low cost of living, Gatien laments what he gave up for it.

Canada is facing a housing crisis similar to that of the United States, and the dilemma facing Gatien is the same dilemma that more Americans are facing. Remote work has opened a Pandora’s box of places you can call home. All sorts of factors, from weather to proximity to family (some contradictory), influence people’s decisions about where to settle. But even when you carefully weigh your options, do your research, and make an informed decision, the reality of a barren housing market can be disappointing. For many, the only real options are full of compromises.

It is a problem partly of our own making. In a twist of fate, the American ideal of owning your own single-family home — complete with a large private lot — has made it difficult for people to buy any A kind of home, which in turn prompted more people to leave big cities in search of more affordable places.

Take, for example, Susan, a New York artist. Her move upstate was driven by circumstance and economic pragmatism, and was based on abandoning big-city life for the slower pace of the country. This was also a favor to her husband, who had never felt at peace in the hustle and bustle of the big city. But once the deal was closed and she got over the initial shock, she warmed up to what she called the “fantasy” of owning a home with a backyard close to nature, especially if she and her husband decided to start it. family. “It wasn’t something either of us was wholeheartedly pursuing, but once we took that step, we loved the possibilities,” she said of being able to start a family.

This ideal is more entrenched in American culture — and its housing policies — than you might think. “In American history, the desire to have an independently owned home with at least an excuse for one lot goes back to at least the late 18th century,” said Alexander von Hoffmann, an urban planner and historian who also works at the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies. .

As cities grew and their economies expanded, densely populated housing and multi-unit developments emerged to accommodate the people who worked in the ports, railroads, and industrial facilities around which those cities were built. “In the early 19th century, the housing market was fragmented due to ability to pay,” von Hoffmann continued. “Even at the lower end of the market, where possible, there has always been a tendency to own a house, preferably detached, with a yard.”

It’s perfectly reasonable for people to want a stable, comfortable, and safe living environment, but so is everyone else.
Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health

This stubborn commitment to single-family ownership rather than denser housing has given rise to restrictive residential zoning laws and restrictions on the construction of new affordable housing that are driving the current housing crisis. Some might call it NIMBYism. Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health, uses the phrase “suburban pulse.”

“It is perfectly reasonable for people to want a stable, comfortable and safe living environment, but so is everyone else, and what we want for ourselves should not come at the expense of what we should collectively want,” Galea told me.

Another byproduct of both strict zoning policies and suburban norms is the decline of “third spaces,” such as coffee shops and public libraries, where people could spend time and meet others for decades. Without places like this to gather, it may be especially difficult for people with recent transplants to make friends in their communities.

Both those who stay in cities and see rents skyrocket and those who choose to go somewhere more affordable are feeling the weight of the same dilemma. Are you staying in a small, expensive apartment close to friends? Or would you give it up for the often lonely dream of having a single-family home?

For Susan, the benefits of country life did not quite offset the costs. A few months ago, she and her husband found a renter for their home and moved back to town. Renting an apartment in the city she envisioned herself living in a decade ago sometimes feels like a step backwards, she said. She’s not sure how long they will stay before returning upstate. On the other hand, she feels like herself for the first time in years.


Kelly Maria Cordoki A journalist whose work focuses on business, technology and culture. It’s based in New York City.

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