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The Great Office Refusal

The pandemic has cut a swath through our sense of normalcy, but as has been the case throughout history, a disastrous plague also brings opportunities to reshape and even improve society. COVID-19 provides the threat of greater economic concentration, but also a unique chance to recast our geography, expand the realm of the middle class, boost social equity, and develop better ways to create sustainable communities.

Driven partly by fear of infection, and by the liberating rise of remote work, Americans have been increasingly freed from locational constraints. Work continues apace in suburbs and particularly in sprawling exurbs that surround core cities, while the largest downtowns (central business districts, or CBDs) increasingly resemble ghost towns.

This shift has made it more practical for individuals and particularly families to migrate to locations where they can find more affordable rents, and perhaps even buy a house. But such a pattern may be countered by investors on Wall Street, who seem determined to turn the disruption to their own advantage by gearing up efforts to buy out increasingly expensive single-family homes, transforming potential homeowners into permanent rental serfs and much of the country into a latifundium dominated by large landlords.

We are in the midst of what the CEO of Zillow has called “the great reshuffling,” essentially an acceleration of an already entrenched trend of internal American migration toward suburbs, the sunbelt, and smaller cities. Between 2019 and 2021 alone, a preference for larger homes in less dense areas grew from 53% to 60%, according to Pew. As many as 14 million to 23 million workers may relocate as a consequence of the pandemic, according to a recent Upwork survey, half of whom say they are seeking more affordable places to live.

This suggests that the downtown cores of U.S. cities will continue to struggle. Since the pandemic began, tenants have given back around 200 million square feet of commercial real estate, according to Marcus & Millichap data, and the current office vacancy rate stands at 16.2%, matching the peak of the 2008 financial crisis. Between September 2019 and September 2020, the biggest job losses, according to the firm American Communities and based on federal data, have been in big cities (nearly a 10% drop in employment), followed by their close-in suburbs, while rural areas suffered only a 6% drop, and exurbs less than 5%. Today our biggest cities—Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago—account for three of the five highest unemployment rates among the 51 largest metropolitan areas.

The rise of remote work drives these trends. Today, perhaps 42% of the 165 million-strong U.S. labor force is working from home full time, up from 5.7% in 2019. When the pandemic ends, that number will probably drop, but one study, based on surveys of more than 30,000 employees, projects that 20% of the U.S. workforce will still work from home post-COVID. 

Others predict a still more durable shift: A University of Chicago study suggests that a full one-third of the workforce could remain remote, and in Silicon Valley, the number could stabilize near 50%. Both executives and employees have been impressed by the surprising gains of remote work, and now many companies, banks, and leading tech firms—including Facebook, Salesforce, and Twitter—expect a large proportion of their workforces to continue to work remotely. Nine out of 10 organizations, according to a new McKinsey survey of 100 executives across industries and geographies, plan to keep at least a hybrid of remote and on-site work indefinitely.

The shift of work from the office to the home, or at least to less congested spaces, threatens the strict geographic hierarchy of many elite corporations. Some corporate executives, like Morgan Stanley’s Jamie Dimon, are determined to force employees back into Manhattan offices, like it or not. It’s now a common mantra among like-minded executives, especially those connected to downtown office development, that workers are “pining” to return to the office. Some have even threatened employees who do not come back in person with lower wages and decreased opportunities for promotion, while offering to reward those willing to take the personal hit of coming back on-site every day.

Read the rest of this piece at Tablet.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo credit: Steven Zwerink via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.

Could COVID Exodus Speed the Heartland Revival?

Over the past two decades America’s largest urban areas enjoyed a heady renaissance, driven in large part by the in-migration of immigrants, minorities and young people. But even as a big-city dominated press corps continued to report on gentrification and displacement, those trends began to reverse themselves in recent years as all three of those populations started heading in ever larger numbers to suburbs, sprawling sunbelt boomtowns and smaller cities and out of the biggest ones.

That shift preceded the COVID pandemic, but has rapidly accelerated with the expansion of remote work, which has undermined the economic basis for high-end urban and post-industrial economies. Meanwhile, the severe lockdowns Democratic governors and mayors favored devastated the service and small business economies that had provided sustenance to immigrant and minority entrepreneurs and workers.

The same “canaries in the coal mine” that spurred America’s urban renaissance have been leaving its big cities in growing numbers since 2014, notes demographer Wendell Cox. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have all begun to lose population while people have flocked to new employment hubs like Austin, Dallas, Phoenix, Columbus and Nashville that have led the way in terms of both overall new jobs and high-end business and professional service jobs.

Nowhere is this shift more evident than with immigrants. The share of the foreign born settling in big coastal “gateways” has plunged from 44 percent in 2010 to barely 35 percent in 2019. Foreign-born populations, notes Cox in research for the think tank Heartland Forward, stagnated or even declined in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago as they surged in Houston (over 25 percent growth), Dallas-Ft Worth (30 percent) Charlotte (nearly 40 percent) and Nashville (a remarkable 44 percent).

Houston, in fact, is now the most diverse major metropolitan area in the country. In 1960, Harris County, which includes Houston and many of its suburbs, was 70 percent white, non-Hispanic and 20 percent African American. Today, the county’s total population is 31 percent white and non-Hispanic, 42 percent Hispanic, 19 percent Black and 8 percent Asian. The share of foreign-born Houstonians now approaches one-fourth of the population—almost twice the average for the nation’s 50 most populous metros.

More surprising still has been the equally rapid move of immigrants to smaller cities such as Fayetteville, Ark., Knoxville, Tenn,; Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Springfield, Mo., and Fargo, N.D. The fastest growth in foreign-born populations has been in areas with traditionally low immigrant concentrations. Where the foreign-born population grew by 10 percent nationally in the last decades, in states like Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and the Dakotas it has expanded by 30 percent.

Racial minorities, too, are heading increasingly to the sunbelt boom towns, the south and to smaller cities. The surges in Latino, Asian and African American growth are not in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or the Bay Area, according to an analysis by Wendell Cox for the Urban Reform Institute, but in Atlanta, Boise, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Again, economics is a key factor. Middle-class job creation has been generally stronger in these communities and, due to less regulation and lower taxes, costs are lower. African-American real incomes in Atlanta are more than $60,000, compared to $36,000 in San Francisco and $37,000 in Los Angeles. The median income for Latinos in Virginia Beach-Norfolk is $69,000, compared to $43,000 in Los Angeles, $47,000 in San Francisco and $40,000 in New York City. The highest Asian median household incomes are in Raleigh, Jackson, Fayetteville (AR-MO) and Austin.

Read the rest of this piece at Daily Beast.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Photo: Brian Stansberry via Wikimedia under CC 3.0 License.

Remote Work is Here to Stay — and It’s Changing Our Lives

By: Michael S. Hopkins
In: The Christian Science Monitor

It’s a typical January morning somewhere in the desert outside Wickenburg, Arizona, and corporate strategy consultant Kenny D’Evelyn is heading for work. He kisses his wife goodbye, steps out of his 26-foot RV with the truck cab in front, squints into the still-rising sun, and walks 14 paces to a shiny aluminum horse trailer. He opens the door, pulls a chair across some straw, and sits at a makeshift desk. He fires up a computer. And he prepares – for the first but by no means last time this day – to Zoom.

It was not always thus. Until a year ago Mr. D’Evelyn went to work like most of us did – more than most of us did, actually, given his consultant’s life of spending four days of every week at a client’s site on the road. But then last March he was sent home. At which point he became an involuntary part of what might be the largest natural experiment in the history of work.

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America After COVID: What Demographics Tell Us

“When there is a general change in conditions, it is as if the entire creation had changed, and the whole world altered.”  —Ibn Khaldun, 14th century Arab historian

The Covid-19 pandemic, it’s clear, will help reshape America’s economic and demographic future. Yet, many of the trends that we may associate with this reshaping—the rise of online work, a growing interest in suburbia and smaller cities—were already in place before the pandemic. The pandemic did not originate these trends, but it will likely accelerate them.

For years, the conventional wisdom from economic observers like Neil Irwin of The New York Times and echoed by public relations aces and property speculators has been that “superstar cities” like New York, San Francisco and Seattle have “the best chance of recruiting superstar employees. In contrast, rural and interior regions would become home to “behind.” And experts like urbanist Christopher Leinberger predict suburban tracts would become “the next slums.”

Yet, in reality, jobs and young people have been increasingly heading toward both the suburban periphery and smaller cities. In fact, a snapshot of America before the appearance of Covid-19 was of a country migrating more to suburbs, exurbs and smaller cities, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting the fastest growth in domestic migration between 2010 and 2019 taking place in cities with less than a million people—a dramatic change from just a decade earlier.

In contrast, our largest metropolitan areas—New York, Chicago and Los Angeles—lost nearly as many net domestic migrants as the population of Arkansas from 2010 to 2019 (2.8 million compared to 3.0 million). New York’s population growth peaked at 130,000 in 2011 but fell to a 60,000 loss by 2019, according to Census Bureau estimates.

The Geography of Pandemics

The pandemic has been toughest on areas suffering from what we call “exposure density.” Nationwide, the highest fatality rates are in the two highest urban density categories, which are comprised of three New York City counties. Manhattan’s fatality rate, with 2.4 percent of the nation’s deaths, is 4.8 times its proportional share of deaths; Brooklyn and Bronx counties, which have the higher poverty rates associated with higher death rates, do even worse, with a fatality rate 7.5 times the national average.

In contrast, less dense counties—those with urban densities between 2,500 and 5,000—have less than their proportional share of deaths (0.8 percent), with 22.4 percent of deaths and 28.1 percent of the population. Lower density areas have even lower fatality rates, despite the occasional spikes in food-processing plants, Native American reservations and extremely poor areas like those close to the Mexican border. Even with the recent surge, fatality rates in states like Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and the Dakotas remain between one-third to one-eighth of those in New York and New Jersey.

Pandemics, like changes in climate, often alter how and where people live. In the 14th century, plagues wiped out as much as one-third of Europe’s population, but the wreckage also brought opportunities for those left standing. Large tracts of land, left abandoned, could be consolidated by rich nobles or, in some cases, enterprising peasants, who looked to lower rents and higher pay. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” suggested historian Barbara Tuchman, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”

Read the rest of this piece at Chief Executive.


Joel Kotkin is the author of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. He is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute. Learn more at joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Photo credit: Mike Dunn via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.