At the time of writing, there are over 2.2 million reported and confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, COVID-19, throughout the world. The death toll has exceeded 150,000 and shelter-in-place orders are in effect in most of the United States and other countries, and people are arguing over whether it’s too soon to end lockdowns or not.
No matter when we’re going to come out of this, one thing is clear: the world is going to be a very different place. It won’t be as simple as flicking a switch and saying “You can see and hug your friends again, and the economy’s back on!”
There’s much speculation about how the world will be different when the worst of the pandemic is over. This type of once-every-few-hundred-years events will irrevocably alter civilization, for better or worse. Hopefully, it means that countries and communities will be better prepared for widespread illness and other disasters in the future. But in terms of housing, how we use our homes, and how urban planning affects our lives? Coming at you from the eye of the storm in New York, I’m going to call upon my observations about the real estate world (the short version: it’s a hot mess right now!) and how urban planners who’ve lived through COVID-19 will plot communities in the future alongside home builders.
A Need for More Open Space Could Apply Pressure to Building Permits
For those of us in cities, especially New York which has seen the highest number of cases in the country, our park land is keeping us sane and able to get some exercise. Unless you’re in one of the more remote outskirts of the city where there’s very little bus and subway service, and there’s enough empty road to walk and run on, you’re likely depending on your local park to clear your head and keep you from going absolutely bonkers after feeling like your apartment is getting too similar to house arrest.
You run fewer risks going for walks in suburbia and rural areas, assuming that your area had any common elements built into it that made it safe for walking which isn’t always the case. But with far fewer cars out now, you just might be safe going for a run and not have to worry about being inadvertently swarmed by other people who aren’t paying freaking attention to social distancing measures.
When I covered building permits when buying your own plot of land, I discussed how to tracking build permits through the Census Bureau, which you can do here. How is your area holding up compared to prior years? An overwhelming majority of new permits were issued in southern states, but development could be temporarily curtailed or even called off completely if urban planners decide it’s in the best interest of public health to keep density low.
In the real estate world, people are saying it’s going to be a better time than ever to buy a home. After all, brokers and sellers alike will be in fire sale mode after the long stretch of being unable to do open houses and physically show people homes. But regardless of what happens to home prices and the inevitable housing crisis given that COVID-19 hotspots are seeing an exacerbated housing crisis as unemployment and precariousness rises, how will zoning boards react? It’s possible they’ll want to push for lower density citing public health instead of the typical NIMBYism that has held homebuilding back. Not just in terms of new units, but in terms of more accessible and universal design as a result of increasing density and putting more emphasis on shared common areas and convenience, as is common in European and Asian urban planning.
Average Home Size May Increase
The United States already has the largest average home size in the world: 2,392 square feet, up from 1,740 square feet in 1980, a 37% increase over the course of three decades. This number could rise yet again with new developments.
Zoning boards and HOAs play a large role in this because they set the minimum square footage and lot size for builders. If they’re going to want lower density from a public health standpoint, not to mention a tax base one plus the various interest groups that want people to have higher home maintenance expenses, it goes without saying that they want more big homes instead of several small ones. Which sucks for home buyers who don’t want a ton of expenses and time suck in taking care of it, younger and broker would-be buyers stuck paying sky-high rent, and most of all, the environment.
Home design can become more spacious without tacking on another few hundred square feet, such as knocking out walls and going with more split-level design if your floorplan isn’t a lateral one that’s friendlier to people with disabilities. But in addition to a halt on new permits, we’re probably also going to be seeing only bigger properties being built.
After all, if you live with family, your home probably feels like a pressure cooker right now. Under normal circumstances, smaller homes would’ve been just fine for your lifestyles because you were leaving said home more often: even if you don’t have to leave the house for work, you likely left to see friends, take your kids to activities and home from school, going out to eat, exercise, or just popping in to your local TJ Maxx to scour the kitchen gadgets and coffee beans just to get away from the chaos for a minute. (Or if you’re in the single professional class: you wound up bonding with the other hungover women looking at the LOLCATs dish towels and those snacks that sell for $4 more a box at Whole Foods.) All the things we horribly miss right now.
We’re hearing more mixed messages from epidemiologists on COVID-19’s persistence than we do from dudes we slept with but still awkwardly follow us on social media. Some say that we likely won’t see a resurgence after a vaccine is distributed, others state that it could be a seasonal death knell like the flu, only worse. If a devastating illness that completely overwhelms the healthcare system every year is going to be our reality, even if it only happens one or two more times in our lives?
Anyone who’s survived this current state will dream of bigger homes. Whether they’re upgrading 600 square foot apartments to 900 square foot ones, or going from three bedrooms to five. Having more space to wander around at home and get more headspace, and not relive the trauma of being trapped for months on end, is something that home builders are likely already beginning to take note of.
Rooms will also be larger and airier to easily accommodate people slipping in and out to avoid close contact with a sick person, and facilitate self-isolation within the same residence. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but given the response we’ve gotten from our governments on this? I won’t be surprised if we’re still battling novel coronavirus well past the vaccine’s distribution.
Mass Urban Exodus Will Make 1-Bedroom and Studio Apartments Impossible to Sell
The impossibility of selling an apartment despite high demand is nothing new if you’re a New Yorker. The co-op model makes this a Sisyphean task to begin with that makes you want to descend into a sewer wearing nothing but a necktie and a pair of Keds.
But regardless of where you live, smaller homes are probably going to be impossible to sell. Even if you dream of moving to a bigger home, this is yet another one that 2020 stole from you.
Just last year, when we were still happily planning how we’d kick off the new decade and being unafraid to dream big, suburbs and exurbs were seeing a flight while cities and their immediately outlying suburbs saw a massive boom. It’s because more Americans, particularly more Millennials and Zoomers, want to ditch their cars in favor of walkability and convenience, and many would love to see a shift in suburban living looking more like it would in China or Japan than in the United States.
But with public transportation now being a rolling petri dish with reduced service, people who are at higher risk of catching COVID-19 or are concerned about asymptomatic transmission to a loved one may want to bite the bullet on car expenses after all of this. If your only option for getting around is to walk or take an overcrowded subway, rideshare usage can only help you so much since it can get incredibly expensive. Many people who fled upstate or across the river are likely not coming back to the city.
For those of us who are staying put in our cities, despite their resilience to epidemics and disasters of the past, we’re going to emerge to incredibly different human behaviors and outlooks. The crowds and chaos that city folk thrive on will take some time to come back because we don’t feel safe. But most of all, the chief allure of living in the big city has been negated by two inescapable factors: the first being that living in an apartment building automatically opens you up to more risk when you go outside compared to the lower-density suburbs and exurbs. The second is that the ability to constantly leave your home and get experiences outside of it is something that will probably be knee-capped for an undetermined timeframe. So, the thought of locking yourself in with a deed and/or mortgage might not be appealing once the lockdowns end and whoever would’ve normally made an offer on your home is now going to spend the year seeing America in an RV, and who would blame them?
I miss going to shows, restaurants, the spa, and even just seeing a friend for coffee sounds like some kind of special experience I wish I didn’t take for granted. Some day, we’ll be able to do these things again, so don’t despair! But we don’t know when just yet. Because we also don’t know how often diseases like this could reappear, it will definitely make sheltering in a small apartment sound less palatable. Unless you’re in a super hot neighborhood that has people lining up (six feet away from each other, please) around the block to buy, don’t expect the market to be very kind to you if you have a one-bed or studio you’re now dying to get rid of.
More Solo Homeowners and Renters
Single women have already been leading the charge in becoming homeowners without waiting to get married first (or re-marry, in the case of divorcees). I predict that this number continue to increase, despite the housing crisis and millions of jobs never coming back.
Having to quarantine with housemates is making people realize they’d rather be rent-poor than have to deal with waiting for the shower, or seeing someone else’s dirty dishes ever again. While you’ll probably be hard up to sell your unit if you were thinking of making refuge to the comforting doldrums of the suburbs where you can have more space, there will be plenty of renters dying to have breathing room.
Even if single would-be homeowners won’t feel as keen on buying smaller living spaces as they would’ve in the past, I have a feeling that brokers selling single family homes below the average square footage and two and three bedroom condos are going to make a killing when all this is over. If not for people able and willing to move away, some having to move for new jobs if theirs didn’t survive, then because of angsty parents who ceded the house to their kids reaching majority age and are dying for a love nest that doesn’t have crayon on the wall while they’re to field 80 Zoom meetings a day.
We don’t know what kind of brave new world we’ll emerge to when all this ends. I’m betting on 18 months at minimum because a vaccine takes time, and reopening the economy is not worth mass death that could be avoided. But while everything from events to tech and food culture will be different when this nightmare ceases, it will be interesting to see the impact it has on urban planning and homes on local and national levels.
Rachel Presser is a crazy toad lady from the Bronx who was exiled to New Jersey, spending a significant chunk of her youth where all the hideous 1970s couch covers and avocado shag carpeting went to die. Upon escaping the sea of brown and founding Sonic Toad Media, she decided to devote her time to writing from the fantastically-preserved Googie artifacts in LA and former speakeasies in Chicago, to forging new game worlds in the tea lounges of Taipei and Tokyo. She can be found at game jams, hardcore shows, vaporwave dance parties, and petting amphibians on a sensible corner loveseat.