By Esther Bahne
“The city is on the mend,” the New York Times ventured to say earlier this month. “New Yorkers who left at the peak of the pandemic are starting to come back.” The real estate market, much like the rest of the city, has been in turmoil, with more than 15,000 apartments still empty in September.
Who left? The affluent and mobile, students without classes to go to, people who lost their employment. Among the groups most affected by pandemic-related job losses are young adults, according to Pew Research. 22% of U.S. adults say they either changed their residence due to the pandemic or know someone who did, and 9% of adults aged 18 to 29 moved due to the coronavirus outbreak in the first months of the pandemic. In May, more than 80,000 New Yorkers left the city, nearly four times the average of the previous year, according to a New York Times report.
Those who could afford it hedged their bets. NYC, LA, Paris, Berlin: “Previously, they’d have called me to upgrade from their 120sqm apartment to 180sqm”, a realtor in the German capital told me the other day. “Now they’re asking whether they can extend their footprint with something nice in the countryside.” In New York, it’s been upstate New York that saw a run on properties; in Berlin, much less affected by the virus, you’re still hard-strapped to find a bed in the flat landscape of surrounding Brandenburg.
Prices in the suburbs are surging by now – which puts a lid on a trend that brings its own problems: An intense spread in suburbia and even the Hinterland, ever dependent on cars while sealing up land, is an unsustainable alternative we should not be rooting for. But it’s not just prices that are the driver now. There are also more personal reasons for people to return to the city. As major companies decided to extend work from home, some follow their heart back to the people they miss the most. “I’m bicoastal these days”, my friend texted me on Saturday, joyously. A culture-maker and creative, Apple had stolen her away to the Valley a few years ago; home office gave her the chance to come back to her beloved New York.
It goes without saying that the city needs her. As it does my other friends in innovation. It is their obsession with making life in the city more enjoyable that is now called upon. And while URBAN-X, the start-up accelerator I once founded, has gone virtual in its programming, its solutions for urban living are very much born and bred in the streets of the cities it helps to transform.
“Chance favours the connected mind.” In 2010, at the height of the hype cycle on everything “innovation,” Steven Johnson went in search of “Where Good Ideas Come From” and identified the city as the inimitable breeding ground for invention and creativity. New ideas need exchange – and a big city, wrote Johnson, is the ideal platform for serendipitous collisions. The very density that becomes troubling during a pandemic also holds the key to solutions going forward. And as the months of lockdown have shown, we can’t deal with isolation. We crave connection to others.
And something about those connection just doesn’t work remotely. While Zoom has done a decent job in replacing in-person team meetings over the past months, it hasn’t done so well in other spheres of connectivity. Jumping at the opportunity of online conferences, exhibitions and summits, I found myself perennially drifting off. A roundup call with participants and friends of mine in the events space confirmed that while attendees’ numbers weren’t bad, engagement and feedback was often less than thrilling. Thinking back at TED conferences and the like I attended over the years, it was precisely what happened between the talks that made participation worthwhile. “We can move to these placid places and Zoom in, because we already know all these people”, my uber-connected friend quibbed, referencing our age. He recently relocated to Switzerland. “But what if you’re in your mid-twenties and you still have to make all these connections?”
You move to the big city – preferably with a few friends. The good news: in all this turmoil, the real estate market actually changes in favor of renters. A momentum we at Quarters are helping to build – by expanding to new even more locations. Flexible lease terms for precarious times, affordable rent, community; a home where you can work, live, play and get all kinds of services delivered… Co-living matches the needs of the post-pandemic to the dot. We built this model years ago; we could not have foreseen how, almost overnight, it would become relevant for a much broader target group.
I am German, so in comparison to my American friends, I was basically born a pessimist. I do think some things will get worse before they get better. But I also know that a fallout offers the one true chance of rebuilding from the rubble.
Last weekend, I gave Jeremiah Moss’s somewhat alarmist “Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul” another read. Publishing in 2017, he felt NYC was steering into a dead end. His roundup of articles and conversations most of us have had over the past years expresses a feeling of fatigue with gentrification, a hipster style gone stale. It mourns the loss of the art studios and quirky small businesses that only thrive in gaps, and in times and areas where the city is permeable and rents are affordable enough for fresh young blood to flow in.
I am kind of proud to say: I remember New York City in the 1990s. The city was tackling the AIDS pandemic, struggling to establish better transit and housing practices, battling crime. And through all of this, it was the most vibrant place on earth. It was full of promise. Everything was becoming, nothing was perfect. So a lot seemed possible.
There is an energy about living in a place where things are happening that you can’t capture on Zoom. Which is why people want to be here – and it is our common responsibility to make it safe for them to do so. As we prepare to open a new Quarters location in Brooklyn this winter, with all the precautions in place, we will be giving a home to young people, transplants, immigrants, and visionaries that will take what’s left of the city, make it theirs and leave it better than they found it.
“I came to New York because I needed the city, and New York is for people who need cities, for those who cannot function outside of one,” writes Moss. “Open and permissive, insulating you with the sort of anonymity you can’t find in a small town or suburb, the city allows us to expand, experiment, and become our truest selves.” The stuff that has always kept fresh energy and innovation brewing in cities from the big Apple to the quarters of Berlin.
Esther Bahne is Co-CEO and CMO at Quarters Co-Living; and is founder of A/D/O, co-living brand MINI LIVING, and startup accelerator URBAN-X.