OPINION: If we can live anywhere in COVID, fewer may choose Atlanta

Chris New (right), owner of Barnes Van Lines, supervises workers Joe Nowak (left) and Anson Strickland while moving a family in Villa Rica on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Chris New (right), owner of Barnes Van Lines, supervises workers Joe Nowak (left) and Anson Strickland while moving a family in Villa Rica on Thursday, April 15, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Gil Robertson had flirted with the idea of returning home to Los Angeles for years, but for a variety of reasons, it didn’t happen. The Marietta resident has lived in metro Atlanta since 2003, when he was drawn to the city that he felt was rich in academia and arts, particularly for its Black residents.

But after 18 years, Robertson had begun to feel disillusioned. “You have all of these fascinating, intelligent people here in this one place, but Oz isn’t happening,” he said. “I don’t feel like it ever happened.”

Then along came a global pandemic to urge him into action.

“COVID was a lot of things but the best thing it was for me was that it allowed me a moment to breathe and reassess and slow down and prioritize differently,” said Robertson, a journalist and co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association. “You gain a lot of clarity about the things that are important in your life and you start putting together a plan about how do you get from point A to point B.”

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The chaos of the pandemic has given way to a certain type of self-awareness for many Atlanta residents, leading them to ask: Am I living my best life?

For some of them, the answer to that question resulted in the search for a new place to call home.

From April 2020 through February, 10% to 20% of moves were influenced by COVID-19, according to a new study from researchers Peter Haslag and Daniel Weagley. Surprisingly, the moves had less to do with the virus and more to do with the lifestyle changes that came as a result of the pandemic.

Overall, people relocated to smaller cities, cities with a lower cost of living or locations with fewer pandemic-related restrictions. With those trends expected to continue, it could have a far-reaching impact on larger metro areas, as high-income earners move to other areas and take their buying power with them, researchers said.

Job-related reasons were the most cited for moving, but being near family became especially important as remote work options increased and as family members may have offered options for child care or a natural social bubble during social distancing, said Weagley, assistant professor for the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Movement patterns differed depending on income levels. Higher-income households moved for health or lifestyle reasons and are more likely than lower-income households to be able to work remotely and have the financial freedom to relocate anywhere. Lower-income households continued to move primarily for work-related reasons such as another job. All movers tended to go to areas with lower COVID-19 case rates, fewer pandemic-related restrictions, more space and a lower cost of living.

For Robertson, the pandemic brought a respite from regular trips to L.A., lunches and dinners with film industry players, and other business costs. He spent 15 months stacking cash and last month closed in 29 days on a home in Leimert Park, a part of Los Angeles he describes as “the bosom of the progressive Black community.”

It is pricier than Atlanta but a place that offers a lifestyle that Atlanta can’t match.

“L.A. is one of the few cities on this planet where literally I can start my day at the beach, have lunch in the afternoon in the mountains and end it in the desert in Palm Springs,” Robertson said.

Middle-aged households (between ages 35-54) with kids also seemed especially motivated to move during the pandemic, Weagley said. “It could be that being near family is especially important to their demographic. Younger households can amortize the cost of moving relative to the immediate benefits they receive as well,” he said.

Though Weagley’s research was limited to moves between states, the same patterns — a shift from densely populated areas to less populated areas — are also echoed in moves within states.

Like Robertson, Debra Shigley and her husband had been thinking about moving before the pandemic. With five children, they had already started outgrowing their home in East Lake, but during COVID-19, with everyone at home including an au pair and nanny at the time, it was clear they needed more space.

“During the pandemic, everyone was reassessing,” said Shigley. “Once you get out of the city, there are a lot of options in terms of your lifestyle choices. I started having this idea about acreage. If we are moving out of the city, I am looking for 5 acres, a barn and a pool.”

She didn’t want a soulless suburban experience, but she did want something that felt like an escape from the chaos and rush of daily life in the city. In September 2020, they found a place in Milton complete with pool, barn and a school district that had in-person classes and a bus system.

Shigley found herself writing poetry in the gardens, feeling more optimistic and finding a restoration of faith that things are happening for a reason. When she posted an image of their new home on social media, she was surprised how many people told her they fantasized about doing the same thing.

“The pandemic kicked everyone over the hump,” Shigley said. “It has sparked whatever is your personal dream for your life. A lot of people have meditated on that.”

But understanding the importance of place and having the means to locate yourself in the place you desire is not always a possibility. Lower-income households already displaced by financial impacts of the pandemic might also find themselves impacted in the future by the movement of high-income individuals, Weagley said.

“Theoretical models on cities suggest that consumption of high-income earners helps support local economic activity, so as they move, this can potentially cascade down,” he said.

If more high-income earners feel compelled to live their dreams in areas outside of urban centers, it could mean a decline in urban populations and urban real estate values. Lower home values could help retain city residents, but that will depend on the future of work, Weagley said. “If working remotely full time becomes a viable option for many, then I expect major cities to suffer.”

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