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Are Big Cities a COVID Casualty?

September 16, 2020

Looking into the rising sun up a deserted Brooklyn, DUMBO, backstreet at dawn.

Or has the pandemic merely spurred the need for a new beginning?

Consider it the essay that was heard ‘round the world. James Altucher, a former hedge-fund manager, author, and comedy club owner, penned his opinion that New York City was dead because of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the piece, he laments the loss of business opportunities, cultural venues, and restaurants. 

Naturally, that propelled a series of opposing opinions—most notably, from Jerry Seinfeld. Many of the rebuttals predicted a rosier future for NYC with a nod toward residents’ grit and determination. But these pieces seem to overlook some real-world economic problems. And many of these have been bubbling under the surface for decades.

Before we engrave the tombstone or send out re-birth announcements for New York, it may be wise to answer a basic question: If it can happen there, can it happen anywhere?

What COVID did to NYC

In many ways, COVID-19 decimated NYC. With one of the densest and largest urban populations in the world, the virus spread quickly and efficiently—and it was deadly. There were 19,000+ confirmed deaths, 4,400+ probable deaths, and thousands more in the boroughs and counties surrounding Manhattan. 

Shutdown measures were swift and severe, and many—such as a darkened Broadway—have lingered despite lower case counts. Simultaneously, residents, reminiscent of those battling plagues of the past, fled the city to their Hamptons homes or their parent’s suburban tract houses. The rest of the nation followed NYC’s lead—and the longer the shutdown continued, the louder the non-virus-related questions became.

A look at some of the issues

Some of what NYC is experiencing may have been inevitable; COVID just exacerbated some long-simmering crises and accelerated their impacts:

  • As residents fled NY to work remotely from their childhood bedrooms, or simply lost their jobs due to the shutdown, millions realized how cost-burdened they were when it came to rent. And if people can now work anywhere, why should businesses and workers continue to pay it?
  • Similarly, many NYC commercial spaces were also struggling long before COVID. According to a pre-pandemic January 2020 article, the combination of overhead costs—labor, benefits, rising taxes, rent increases, and city fees—meant hundreds of NYC restaurants and bars were already perched on the ledge of financial collapse, while other commercial properties just joined a growing list of vacancies.
  • In the years leading up to the pandemic, there was also a shift in population. For example, downstate New York led the state’s population loss for two consecutive years. Similar stats can be found in Los Angeles and Chicago, while smaller cities, such as Denver, Washington, DC, and Miami, all experienced slower growth. At the same time, millennials—the generation that pioneered remote work—have spent years flocking to smaller cities and suburbs in search of affordability, opportunity, and space for their young families. 

Living in an experiment

The problem with the current state of city affairs is there’s no rulebook. Because of the pandemic, people are behaving differently—and much of their new behavior does not reflect how they wish to live their lives. As a result, it’s difficult to predict how NYC and other cities can respond. 

Until there’s a vaccine, it’s impossible to estimate a timeline of when business will get back to normal—or if it ever will. For example, the virus and remote working have forced office tenants to re-examine just how much space they actually need.

The closest example we have to an experiment in progress is Detroit. Perhaps no other city in the country exemplifies urban failure better than the Motor City. Once the crown jewel of American industry, Detroit has for years suffered under the weight of rampant unemployment, poverty, and enormous debt. In the five years after filing for bankruptcy, millennials moved in, investors took notice, and the downtown area boomed, earning the city a new nickname: “Comeback Capital of Urban America.”

Things, though, didn’t go according to plan. With development came higher rents for residential and office spaces, higher construction costs, and gentrification—all of which steered millennials away from the city while driving impoverished residents into greater despair. Then, COVID arrived. Just as in NYC, the virus capitalized on Detroit’s weaknesses. 

The view from South Florida

Perhaps it has to do with the sunshine and palm trees, but South Florida cities and COVID are an anomaly. Despite being a COVID hotspot for the state since March, new construction and leases in South Florida have continued to move forward. In addition, the region has also seen its share of New Yorkers and other northern urban snow birders relocating to Florida’s warmer climate for the duration of their home states’ lockdowns, as well as millennials flocking to the suburbs. 

This doesn’t mean, though, the region is not without its share of problems. Like other large metropolitan areas, South Florida has its own affordable housing crisis. Additionally, in 2017, Miami had the second-lowest median household income in the United States, as well as the second-highest percentage of people living in poverty.  

Although these numbers improved slightly in 2018, COVID-related unemployment has undoubtedly made the numbers skyrocket. Complicating this is the Florida economy’s heavy reliance on tourism, which has caused some experts to predict the job market may suffer into late 2021 and beyond.  

South Florida businesses and real estate may have been less impacted by the pandemic than NYC, but they share many fundamental challenges. A new way of working and evolving COVID measures and restrictions are changing priorities. Commercial properties such as office high-rises with a large footprint, for example, will have to adapt to the new normal—and some investments may not make it. 

Are cities dead? 

While COVID has clearly placed extreme burdens on large metropolitan areas, is it time to ring their death knell? Probably not. 

There is a good reason to believe that cities will recover, although it remains unclear just how that recovery will actually look. Most certainly, things will be different. Technology will undoubtedly play a role, as will smaller office footprints.

A recovery for New York (and other major metropolises) will take leadership, vision, and work. At the same time, there is a need to address the underlying economic issues that made so many of our cities and people vulnerable, including wages, population density during a pandemic, and affordability. 

For assistance determining how to proceed with an investment or to find the right investment property for your needs, please call Morris Southeast Group at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.

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