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One year ago, the outlook for American cities was bleak. The nation’s first major COVID-19 outbreak was coursing through New York City, raising valid concerns about the relationship between disease and density. Anecdotes emerged of New Yorkers taking advantage of newfound remote work flexibility to relocate to other parts of the country to hopefully wait out the worst of the pandemic. Understandably, many predicted a broader “urban exodus” would unfold and drastically alter the future viability of American cities.
In the months that followed, there has been some disagreement over the extent to which this urban exodus materialized. Certainly many households did move this year,1 and dramatic changes in vacancies and rent prices signal that some suburban areas got more popular while some urban ones became less desirable. But there’s an important byproduct to consider for each family that relocated from San Francisco to Lake Tahoe last summer. Those families created vacancies in San Francisco, something that otherwise takes a lot of time (and money) if done by building new construction.
Those vacancies presented opportunities to new renters, and they are the reason the pandemic will not mark the end of this chapter of urbanization. When urban vacancies pile up the markets respond accordingly with lower prices, which in turn generate interest among newcomers who previously may have been priced out. 2020 was less a story about urban exodus and more a story of urban churn, whereby the people who left cities will be quickly replaced by the next generation of newcomers. Search data from the Apartment List platform show this happening: as cities lost residents they gained the attention of new prospective renters that will sustain them going forward.
- The remote work experiment of the past year has constituted a step change in a long-term trend of remote work becoming increasingly common. Many Americans who worked in offices before the pandemic are likely to continue working remotely even after it subsides. By severing the link between job choice and housing choice, remote work could have a profound impact on where Americans choose to live.
- We estimate that nearly one-in-three jobs in the U.S. are in occupations that can be performed remotely, and in some places, the share is much higher. In the San Jose metro encompassing Silicon Valley, 46 percent of jobs are remote-friendly.
- Since jobs are not the only factor that keep people rooted, we propose a new concept -- the "untethered class," composed of workers who are employed in remote-friendly occupations, but also are not tied down by homeownership or family obligations. As we’ve defined it, the untethered class consists of 8.7 million workers accounting for 5.6 percent of the total American workforce, but with significant regional variation.
- The San Francisco metro has the highest share of untethered workers at 13.5 percent, followed closely by neighboring San Jose. The remainder of the top 10 consists primarily of "superstar cities" that are characterized by their high housing costs, including Los Angeles, Seattle, New York City, and Boston.
- The untethered class are highly-educated and high-earning, and with a median age of 32, many are likely on the precipice of settling down. The untethered class are also more likely than the general population to be living in a different state than where they were born, indicating a propensity to relocate.
- Given that so many untethered workers are living in the nation’s most expensive housing markets, many may choose to relocate to markets where they can afford to purchase homes and raise families more comfortably. While such a trend would be unlikely to lead to the demise of superstar cities, it has significant potential to reshape the markets that the untethered class moves to.
Millennials are officially the nation’s largest generation,1 and spanning the ages of 24 to 39, they are now in their prime home-buying years.2 But for as long as they have been old enough to buy homes, millennials have lagged previous generations in fulfilling that goal. In this study, we combine data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and our annual Apartment List Renter Survey to assess whether millennials are catching up, or if they are truly less likely to attain homeownership than prior generations. Though the millennial homeownership rate is rising, we find that a generational homeownership gap persists and the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are likely to reinforce the trend in years to come.
- Pew Research Center: Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation↩
- Generation definitions are adopted from the Pew Research Center. For details, see the chart titled "The Generations Defined" in this report.↩
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