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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

As Cities Lose Luster, Residents Flee to Suburbs

From their two-bedroom condo in a high-rise residential tower in downtown San Francisco, Kristina and Grayson Dove enjoyed all the Golden Gate City had to offer. Great restaurants, nightlife, theater, music and art events lay just outside their door. Kristina’s office was an easy one BART stop away.

Then came March of 2020. The pandemic sent employees home to work remotely. The city rolled up its sidewalks and pulled the shades.

Kristina, an event and food director for Twitter, began working out of her bedroom. “I didn’t leave the room all day.” In June, she had twins, which took over the second bedroom. Her husband, a biotech auctioneer, began taking calls in the living room. Without a yard or even a balcony, they rarely went outside. The dazzle of city life faded.

“Once COVID hit, the luster of the city was really gone,” Kristina said.

Kristina and Grayson Dove are in their 30s, and have been married four years. They both grew up in big cities. She’s from New York, and he’s from the Bay Area. The city felt like home to them. Until it didn’t.

“We saw an influx of petty crime, and a loss of the culture that made the city so great,” she said. “Homeless encampments were growing because of the downturn in business. I no longer felt safe or welcome. All the things that kept us here ― the restaurants, nightlife, art scene, music ― were gone. The city became a ghost town.”

That change, the need for space, and the fact that she no longer had to commute to work led the Doves to do what many families across America ― those upended by the pandemic, and re-evaluating their lives ― have done: They left the city for suburbia.

In December, the Doves moved 18 miles north to a five-bedroom, 4800-square foot two-story house on a near-acre in Kentfield, Calif., which is in Marin County.

Their real estate agent Tracy McLaughlin helped them find what McLaughlin says more and more clients want today: “They were looking to get out of the city. They wanted walkability, a family home that was nice but not showy. They wanted a pool, a nice neighborhood and good schools.”

Now, besides the couple’s bedroom, the boys have a bedroom, Kristina and Grayson each have an office, and they have a guest room. And that’s just inside. “Before we had no outdoor space at all. Now we have a pool. We’re barbecuing, and love just being in the yard,” Kristina Dove said, adding. “My heart has really changed. I no longer have the stress of walking outside and worrying about who is around the corner.”

McLaughlin, a top Bay Area realtor and author of Real Estate Rescue: How America Leaves Billions Behind in Residential Real Estate and How to Maximize Your Home's Value (Mango Media, April 2020), says the Doves have plenty of company.

“Because of COVID, many adults had an opportunity to live somewhere else and work,” McLaughlin said. Many formerly office-based workers who temporarily moved out of cities during the pandemic found they liked where they went better than where they were, so they made the decision to pivot.

Many companies are accommodating the change long term. Once the pandemic lifts, for instance, Twitter is letting workers choose whether they want to work in the office, from home, or a combination. Kristina says she’ll likely opt for the hybrid plan.

“Because we can take our laptops anywhere,” McLaughlin said, “that lets us work and live in places we never dreamed of. If people can still earn what they did in the city, and enjoy some breathing room, they are not going back.”

Before they do, she said, “cities will have to be clean and safe and beautiful for people to want to return or they will remain blighted.”

If the pandemic has a silver lining, McLaughlin added, it’s that it made people try something different, and many, like the Doves, found another way of life that worked better.

Nationwide, the housing market is hot as the pandemic has driven homebuyers to make permanent changes. Here’s what McLaughlin said buyers in this market want.

· Indoor-outdoor living. “If they are going to move out of the city, they want to touch the ground,” McLaughlin said. “They want yards, not elevated living, not decks or balconies. They want a place where they can entertain outside, and enjoy outdoor recreation and feel safe. Swimming pools are huge.”

· Room for exercise. Having a yoga studio or peloton room is a big selling feature. When gyms closed, then reopened with only limited capacity, people began creating places in their homes to help them feel healthy.

· Walking trails. Homeowners want to walk outside with their dogs and be on a walking trail. They don’t want to have to drive to a dog park.

· Safer neighborhoods. “People can deal with a year of not going to restaurants or bars, but not with also having homes or cars broken into or homeless people living on their street,” she said.

· Workspace. Even if it doesn’t have a dedicated home office, every home must have a place to work, preferably one with a view.

· Outbuildings. Since the pandemic, guest houses are more desirable. Accessible dwelling units (ADUs) have been on the rise. Whether for boomerang kids or in-laws, they allow families to be close without living together.

· Simple technology. Homebuyers want easy technology. They don’t want a remote to turn on their fireplaces. They don’t want crazy lighting systems. They want great internet, solid cell service, and performance right away.

· No fixers. Buyers don’t want houses that need a lot of work. “Buyers want turnkey. They don’t have the bandwidth to remodel,” she said. “They want to buy a house where they can move in and feel good right away.”

Join me next week when we look into more affordable housing options for those displaced by the pandemic.

Photo caption: Breathing roomKristina and Grayson Dove, with their nine-month-old twins, Bodhi and Phoenix, and dog, Monte, outside their new home in the San Francisco suburbs. Photo courtesy of Kristina Dove.

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