hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2020


In pandemic’s wake, some see changes for region

Will urban dwellers who escaped to countryside opt to stay long-term?


Contributing writer


The Berkshires were awfully quiet this summer, with Tanglewood and many other cultural sites shuttered or gone virtual because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but Eric Steuernagle has been a very busy man.

Steuernagle, the owner of Fairground Real Estate and president of the Berkshire County Board of Realtors, says that despite this year’s economic upheaval, the local housing market has been “fast and furious.” There’s extremely high demand in the Berkshires – and a historically low inventory of properties for sale, he said.

“We are seeing multiple-offer situations,” Steuernagle said, adding that many properties are selling for more than the asking price.

“We are also seeing properties being purchased sight unseen or with just virtual FaceTime walk-throughs,” he said.

Many of the buyers have been people from metropolitan New York City and Boston seeking to escape the lack of physical distance in these dense urban areas during the pandemic.
But Steuernagle said the buyers aren’t just from the Northeast; he’s been receiving inquiries from residents of big cities across the nation. And those inquiries are for more than just seasonal housing, he said.

“We still have buyers wanting to summer here, but there has been an increase in people looking for permanent, year-round living situations,” Steuernagle said.

Ever since the pandemic took hold in March, gripping New York City hardest in the first wave of illness and death, there have been reports of cars with out-of-state plates pouring into resort towns across New England as people from the big cities of the Northeast sought refuge at their seasonal homes. In April, usually one of the slowest months for tourism in the region, there were lots of anecdotal reports of tourist-town grocers and liquor stores facing peak-season levels of business.

In Vermont and eastern New York, some local officials at first pleaded with these urban refugees to stay home, fearing they might bring Covid-19 with them and overwhelm local hospitals. Vermont went so far as to station state highway workers at all of the major entrances to the state to track the number of out-of-state license plates crossing the state line.

But as the pandemic has stretched on and many people continue to work remotely, the attitude of some local officials is changing toward people who’ve come to the region to escape the coronavirus.


Moving out of the city
Much information is anecdotal at this point, but there is some data to suggest that people from the big cities of the Northeast may be reimagining their living situations for the longer term.
Statistics provided by the moving company FlatRate Moving, for example, showed a large increase this year in the number of New York City residents who hired trucks to move their belongings to locations in upstate New York or New England. From mid-March through early July, for example, the number of the city residents who hired trucks to move to destinations in Massachusetts was up about 20 percent from the same period in 2019. And the number of moves from the city to counties in the Hudson Valley doubled or, in the case of Dutchess County, tripled.

Some Boston residents are also looking for more rural living space, according to data collected by Zillow, the online real estate database. Zillow economist Jeff Tucker said the percentage of Boston residents searching for housing outside the metro area jumped by 10 percent in June from the same month last year.

“That’s a really significant jump,” Tucker said.
As the pandemic has continued throughout the summer, and become a health emergency in all 50 states, community planners are beginning to wonder whether some of the people who’ve temporarily relocated to upstate New York and New England might opt to stay and live in the region permanently even after the disruption of the pandemic has faded away.

But even if they do, it’s not clear whether that will lead to overall growth in the region’s population – or if the urban transplants will simply wind up buying the homes of people who are leaving the region.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, for example, there were reports of an exodus of New York City residents who headed to places like the Berkshires and Columbia County, N.Y. But U.S. Census Bureau figures showed that from 2000 to 2010, the year-round population of Columbia County increased by a net of only two people, while Berkshire County actually lost about 10,000 residents. Across the region, only Saratoga County, which already was one of the fastest growing counties in New York, saw significant population growth, adding 28,000 new residents over the decade.


Shifting to remote employment
Oliver Olsen, a former state representative from Londonderry, Vt., said he believes Covid-19 could wind up having a more lasting impact on American life than the 9/11 attacks.
“I think there is a longer tail to this then there was with 9/11,” Olsen said. “This clearly has some staying power and has people rethinking their living arrangements.”

Olsen, who was appointed by Vermont Gov. Phil Scott this year to a state advisory panel on post-pandemic economic recovery, suggested the likelihood of more people migrating to the region from major urban areas has increased since 9/11 – in part because the pandemic arrived at a time when technological advances have made it possible for a lot more people to work remotely.
Olsen, who is employed by a large software development company, has been doing so for years. And as high-speed Internet connections spread to more rural areas, working at home has become an option in more parts of Vermont, he said.

Another important change is that the pandemic has quickly changed attitudes among many corporate and business leaders who until now had been reluctant to rely on a remote work force. The Business Insider news site reported this summer, for example, that in a survey of 575 decision makers at corporate information technology departments, 67 percent of respondents expected their companies’ temporary work-from-home arrangements to become permanent.
“They’re finding that working remotely works quite well on a large scale,” Olsen said.
Many rural towns in Vermont, though, are still struggling to get high-speed Internet service, particularly in areas outside town centers.


Workers divided by class?
David Rosner, a professor of public health and history at Columbia University, has been riding out the pandemic in the Columbia County town of Claverack. He said the course of pandemics is often shaped by societal conditions – and that pandemics in turn help accelerate societal changes that have already been set in motion.

At the turn of the 18th century, for example, outbreaks of infectious disease were often localized to individual communities, because there was only limited movement of people between various towns and cities. In addition, cities were smaller and often had neighborhoods that were more economically diverse than those in today’s cities. Bankers and factory owners had to walk to their places of business just like those they employed.

But as the decades progressed, Rosner explained, technological advances led to more regional and international trade, and that trade also transported contagious diseases between ports and cities. The technological and economic advances also helped to create a richer upper class than in the past.

As yellow fever and cholera outbreaks became regular occurrences in U.S. cities, those with means could opt to live further away from densely settled urban centers, and land developers began to market suburban and rural areas near cities as healthier places to live, Rosner explained. Those who could afford to move did, while those who couldn’t were more likely to live and perhaps die amidst the pandemics.

“At that point, you start seeing class distinctions you never saw before,” he said. “Suddenly, class becomes a much bigger issue.”

Rosner said a similar dynamic is playing out in cities and workplaces as the nation struggles with Covid-19. People with means and who can work remotely are opting to relocate at least for the duration of the pandemic.

But there are many who simply don’t have that option, he said. In particular, many people in lower-wage jobs are required to continue to work in person, despite the risk.

“We call them essential workers, but we all know who we’re talking about,” he said. “We have a whole system that allows whole segments of our society not to take the risk.”

Rosner said he’s fully aware that, as he works from Columbia County, he’s benefiting from this system of inequality.

“I’m looking at the Catskills, and at the other side of my house, I’m looking at the Berkshires,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m an example of the privileges that race and class and social distance allow.”

Still, Rosner isn’t entirely convinced that Covid-19 ultimately will result in large numbers of city dwellers abandoning urban centers for the countryside of upstate New York and New England.
Neither is Tucker, the economist at Zillow. He pointed out that, although there hasn’t been an event like the Covid-19 pandemic in the last 50 years, there have been other natural disasters – wildfires, hurricanes and floods -- that disrupted people’s lives. In the aftermath of these events, he said, most people wanted to return to the type of environment in which they previously had lived.

“Even in a place with an idiosyncratic location risk, ... people are pretty sticky in their location preferences,” Tucker said.


Owners vs. renters
It’s also possible that the effects of the pandemic will play out over several years. Tucker pointed out that many homeowners can’t uproot quickly, so for now they are treating the pandemic like a short-term disruption.

But we may soon see an uptick in migration among renters, he added. Tucker described a friend of his in the Seattle area who recently broke his lease to move back in with his parents in Westchester County, N.Y.

“We’ve seen a tremendous jump in adults living with their parents this spring,” Tucker said. “It rose from about 29 million to about 32 million people just in a couple of months.”

That trend might result in some young people from New England and upstate New York returning to families in the region at least temporarily. But for these returning young people to stay for the longer term, the region might need a serious investment in rental housing, he added.

The shortage of affordable rental housing is acute in places like the Berkshires, said Elton Ogden, president of the local nonprofit Berkshire Housing. Ogden said roughly one-quarter of the people in Berkshire County live in rental units, even though the county’s only substantial stock of rental housing is in the cities of Pittsfield and North Adams.

Statewide, he estimated Massachusetts needs more than 160,000 affordable rental units to meet the needs of low-income households. Berkshire Housing has 600 units, roughly half of which have deeply subsidized rent, Ogden said.

“Typically, the waiting lists for those properties are in excess of three years,” he said.
Ogden said he fears a tight rental market and economic turbulence from the pandemic likely will combine to worsen the local housing crisis for people of limited means. With the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefits having expired in late July, Ogden warns, the situation is becoming dire for some renters in the Berkshires.

“We have an extraordinary number of people who are completely dependent on summer, tourism-arts-culture types of employment,” Ogden said. “Those jobs aren’t coming back this year, by and large. It’s going to be ugly, it just really is.”