ITHACA, NY -- As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into 2021, many are bracing for the long haul.
Across the country there has been a huge migration of people moving from larger cities to smaller towns due to the pandemic. As remote work becomes the new normal and people no longer need to commute to their jobs, many are looking to escape congested urban areas in favor of quieter and typically more affordable homes in smaller towns.?
The housing market has surged in popular getaway destinations like Cape Cod, Aspen and the Hudson Valley as a result of this trend, leading many to christen these places as “Zoom Towns.”
For many house hunters, it’s possible that Ithaca may fit this bill as well. With a small, yet vibrant downtown and miles of rural farmland, Ithaca offers a happy medium for those wanting a change of scenery without completely losing city vibes.
Ithaca has frequently been cited as a great place to live. In 2019, Ithaca was rated #5 on Forbes list of “Best Small Places for Business and Careers.” In 2018, it was named the 13th most innovative city in the U.S. by USA Today.
Emory McLeod, office manager for Travis Hyde Properties, said she has definitely noticed an increase in people moving from larger cities to Ithaca.
“I’ve only been here three months, but in the time that I’ve been here, we’ve gotten a lot of calls especially, from people from New York moving upstate,” she said. “I've heard a lot of people say things along the lines of they’re looking to move to a smaller town or like a slower lifestyle, or are looking to get out of the city.”
McLeod herself moved from Philadelphia to Ithaca back in October after feeling trapped by city life during the pandemic.
“It's been brutal in the city during COVID times because you can’t really go anywhere and there's not a ton of outdoor activities,” she said. “Ithaca’s just more COVID friendly … Everything's a little more spread out, there's fewer people, it's quieter and that is less anxiety producing when you do have to go out into public.”
?Peter Dugo, President of Arnot Realty, recently expanded his operations to Ithaca and said he also saw a notable increase in people moving to Ithaca from larger cities, especially compared to his properties in other areas.
?“It was so noticeable that our leasing team commented on it,” Dugo explained. “I’m not gonna say that people haven’t done the same thing elsewhere, like our properties in Horseheads, but if they are, the numbers weren’t as dramatic as what we were seeing in Ithaca.”
?Tom Knipe, Deputy Director for Economic Development for the City of Ithaca, said that while the topic of Zoom towns is something on the City’s radar, there have been no concrete efforts to promote Ithaca as this type of place.
?“I think it's pretty early in the conversation, so there haven’t been any commitments made at this point to pursue some type of formal program like a remote worker attraction initiative, but I think that it will and it should be discussed more,” Knipe said. “I think if we did anything, it would be leveraging existing efforts and resources with a subtle approach that's appropriate to our community.”
Unfortunately, for many in the real estate and development market, the benefits of being a Zoom town do not outweigh the overall toll of the pandemic.?
McLeod pointed out that a large portion of business for property management like Travis Hyde deals with comes from renting to college students. Even though Hyde Properties might be selling more homes to people from out of state, their usual revenue streams have drastically decreased in light of remote learning.
Dugo said that COVID-19 has also made doing things like house tours more difficult. He added that even though the pandemic has encouraged some people to relocate, many have chosen to stay put due to the inconvenience of moving during a pandemic.
The increasing shift to remote work also means that there might be fewer office spaces rented downtown, which could also be harmful to the economy.
“The challenging side is that a number of our local businesses who may have had offices in our commercial centers are finding that they’ve been able to successfully transition to remote work, which means that in the long term their need for office space may shift,” Knipe said.
Robyn Wardell, a second-year student in Cornell University’s City and Regional Planning Department, conducted a study in November and December 2020 about remote work trends in Ithaca and surveyed 22 businesses downtown. Through her studies she found that prior to the pandemic, 41% of the offices she surveyed did their work entirely in-office. Now, looking to the long-term, none of the respondents said they planned to work entirely in-office.?
Still, Wardell said that this is not the whole story as the need for office space will not completely disappear.?
“It's pretty clear that over time, remote work is spiking during the pandemic and gradually going down,” she said. “With the footprint of offices, it seems like the needs over time will likely look the same that they did before the pandemic.”?
Zoom towns can also play a role in driving up housing prices as people moving from larger cities may be willing to pay more for homes. This could be particularly problematic in Ithaca, a town that has struggled with a lack of affordable housing for years.
Delia Yarrow, Director of Lending for Ithaca Neighborhood Housing, an organization that works to expand housing opportunities for low and moderate-income residents in Tompkins County, said that a new flow of people from larger cities could very well exacerbate the situation.
“The basic thing to say is the market is already hard for people who are at or below the average income,” she said. “…So if there's an influx of people who are coming from places where the salaries are higher and can pay more for houses, that's going to be really difficult for low-income home buyers.”
Knipe said that the town is committed to creating more affordable housing in Ithaca regardless of Ithaca’s potential as a Zoom town.
“The housing market responds to supply and demand, so we need housing off all types to keep up with the demand and make sure that the people have access to those opportunities and the prices don't get driven up,” he said.?
Still, there is no guarantee that Ithaca will become a full-fledged Zoom town. As Dugo put it, the trend might be more short-lived than people think.
“I’m one that doesn’t look at snap decisions based on just a few months worth of data,” he said. “There are a lot of restrictions in a place like New York City … but if those restrictions are lifted and the pandemic is less of a concern, there's a good chance that a lot of these people may choose to go back.”