Wendy Silverstein never thought she’d leave New York City for good. The 58-year-old design publicist has called her beloved East Village apartment home for 30 years.
But then COVID-19 threatened her husband, John Crellin, a 71-year-old retired architect with a chronic health condition. So on March 18, as the specter of the coronavirus loomed, she scoured their East Fourth Street apartment for enough clothes and supplies to last roughly a year. A few days later, they drove 2½ hours north to Canaan, NY, a tiny town in Columbia County where her stepdaughter works as a veterinarian.
For now, Silverstein and Crellin have been able to stay rent-free in a red-sided house owned by a friend’s friend. But they plan to stay longer — because one thing that’s become clear as they settle into life outside the city is that they’re probably not coming back. Even if it’s deemed safe to return, they’ve become disillusioned.
“I don’t love New York now more than ever. That’s the first time I ever felt that way,” Silverstein says. “Do I in the future rent out my apartment in the city? A lot of work I could do remotely. Where do I want to live?”
Many Gothamites have fled the five boroughs for safer havens — from vacation homes in the Hamptons to parents’ basements in the Midwest — until the coronavirus risks pass. But now diehard New Yorkers, some of whom had never even considered leaving the city before, are thinking about staying away for the long haul.
Take stay-at-home-mom Stephanie Ellis, who left her Greenwich Village apartment with her husband Paul, a 36-year-old ad sales exec, and their 16-month-old son Nolan, on March 12, with just one day’s notice. The couple had received an initial offer for their Manhattan pad just days prior, but didn’t have a set idea as to what came after. They were going to rent a larger apartment in the city for a year or two before deciding where to move, but the threat of COVID-19 convinced them to beat a hasty retreat.
The Ellises took up temporary residence in Stephanie’s mother’s house in Marlboro, NJ. “Now we have no idea if or when we’ll go back to the city,” says Stephanie, a 33-year-old former teacher. “If we decide not to go back to the city, we also have no idea where we would go.” They are working with an advisor to figure out their next stop; top choices include staying nearby in Jersey or possibly decamping to the West Coast.
New York City’s largest moving company, Dumbo Moving + Storage, reported that moves were up 11 percent this March compared with last, “which is unusual because people don’t typically move this time of year,” says CEO and founder Lior Rachmany. “The peak moving season begins in May, which is why this increase in moves is strictly due to COVID-19,” adds Rachmany, who is seeing many folks leaving the Upper West Side and West Harlem for less dense outposts both near (Staten Island, Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut) and far (Massachusetts, and Washington DC).
Real estate investor Ed Teig, 40, didn’t hesitate to leave his Midtown East apartment on April 1 to rent a house in Larchmont, NY, on five days’ notice. “It was nearly impossible to avoid contact with people [in the city] during the pandemic,” says Teig. “We have two young kids, and we found it very difficult to take them outside and not be near other families.” They’re paying $8,000 a month in Westchester, which Teig estimates is about 25 percent more than usual rates.
Like Silverstein and Crellin, and the Ellises, the Teigs don’t intend to return to the city. They bought a plot of land in nearby Rye Brook, NY, and are currently building a house; it could be ready as soon as this summer.
Other worried urbanites are attempting to secure rentals north, west and east of the city, but inventory is proving insufficient to meet pandemic-fueled demand.
“People are dying to rent something, trying to convince sellers to rent short-term, but they don’t want to infect their houses,” says Stan Kay, an agent with Keller Williams in Short Hills, NJ. Rentals usually make up about 5 to 10 percent of his business, he adds, but lately, roughly 40 percent of inbound inquiries are for rentals.
Concerned about the coronavirus’ rapid spread in a dense metropolis, Nick Farina, a 32-year-old quantum computing CEO, took action. He, his wife Hannah Parnes, 31, their Havanese pup Rocco, and their friend with preexisting conditions, Dave Ferguson, 58, left Crown Heights on March 13 for a rental house in Litchfield County, Conn. They were able to secure a large home for close to the same monthly rate they were paying for their 700-square-foot apartment and signed a 45-day lease in less than one day. (They’ve since signed on for six additional months.)
This is usually the time of year that people get moving on their [suburban] town search. … But in the last month, we have seen an unprecedented surge. We are close to a 40 percent increase from last year. People are very nervous. They feel stuck.
– Alison Bernstein, founder of real estate advisory Suburban Jungle
The crew takes walks in a nearby forest preserve, while Rocco loves basking in the warmth of the fireplace. Farina, who compares the space they have in Connecticut to “Versailles,” even built a squash court in the basement. He adds, “We like it so much out here that we are planning to rent a house in this area full-time now, regardless of when New York City calms down.” (They would rent out their Brooklyn apartment.)
Real estate brokers — and in some cases even local officials — are urging homeowners to accommodate the surge in interest.
Lack of supply is why coronavirus escapees are willing to look beyond the standard commuter distance for longer-term rentals, particularly as remote work is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. The Catskills town of Woodstock, NY, for example, has 400 short-term rentals. Town supervisor Bill McKenna is encouraging residents to offer months-long opportunities to accommodate desperate city folks. Agents around the region are also converting vacant homes listed for sale into rentals.
Those who can’t rent, though, buy: Some ex-New Yorkers have taken the plunge and bought properties in tristate-area suburbs — including Greenwich, Conn. — when rentals weren’t available. (Low interest rates, around 3½ percent, help.)
“This is usually the time of year that people get moving on their [suburban] town search,” says Alison Bernstein, founder of Suburban Jungle, a real estate advisory and tech platform that helps families transition out of urban hubs. “But in the last month, we have seen an unprecedented surge. We are close to a 40 percent increase from last year. People are very nervous. They feel stuck.”
On March 13, Katherine King bid farewell to her tight-knit community on the Upper East Side to relocate with her husband and their three sons to a long-term rental house on the north shore of Long Island. They were able to secure a perch in Lloyd Harbor, where she grew up, because they started looking a few days ahead of the bigger exodus at the end of the March and into April. While King misses the city, she’s also contemplating what life out East could look like more permanently.
“I don’t know that I’ll return full-time to the city again,” says King, 49, a cultural coach. “I want to stay in the moment and take everything step by step.”