The density shift: Will more people go rural because of COVID-19?

May 12, 2020 by Ted Bauer

What is the inherent trade-off of housing?

Well, there’s an urban vs. rural divide that some might call a debate. Most people can see the pros and cons of each side, but to lay it out quickly;

  • Rural living: More space, less immediate access to jobs and amenities.

  • Urban living: Less space, more immediate access to jobs and amenities.

Take my life situation as one example. I grew up in New York City. I spent ages 0-18.5 in a six-room apartment. I was an only child; I have kids I played sports with growing up who are now raising three children in similar-sized apartments. But, again, this is New York City, conceptualized by many as the greatest city in the world. So you trade off the space (cramped) for access to Broadway and The Met and thriving culture and people-watching and millions of jobs. My dad was in commercial real estate. You can do that in hundreds of places, but NYC is a good, well-compensated place to do it.

Now I’ve been in Texas for six years. I actually talked to one of my friends from high school -- and recorded the audio, no less! -- about the first time I went to someone’s “ranch.” I had known of “ranches” from movies and TV shows. The only concept I had for measuring property was square footage. Now my friend in Texas was talking to me about acreage? What is that? How does that compute?

If you are a life-long Texan, or a life-long city person, or a life-long rural person, you may not realize how sharp these divides are in the human brain. But they can be pretty sharp.

“The New Normal”

So let’s say some percentage and combination of the following things happen:

  • Companies are working remotely more and more.
  • People are generally nervous about the notion of a pandemic and don’t want to experience this as drastically again. (And the sad reality is this: there will be another pandemic within 8-12 years. It might not be on this scale, no. But theoretically it could also be worse.)
  • While this varies, rural property can be cheaper long-term. 

In such an America, and especially such a North Texas, couldn’t you see more people moving to rural areas? Away from the downtown Dallas set and maybe out to Honey Grove, Fannin County, wherever? Those places are just past McKinney in some respects (“just past” meaning “45 minutes or more”). If you needed to be in Dallas in 1.5 hours or so, it’s theoretically possible. And you have space. You’re not on top of people. You’re not living, as some will claim, “in a petri dish.”

Now, it should be noted that at about two-three months of COVID-19, there is a shift away from urban areas to rural ones. But, most of those infection rate data points are based on the Northeast. A rural county in the Northeast is still more populated than a rural county here, and oftentimes closer to major cities, with consistent access between urban and rural. So the study doesn’t apply as much to Texas, but it’s something to consider. 

Will more people move to rural areas, then?

This has been speculated on broadly, from the United Kingdom to Iowa, which believes it may get a flood of people from coastal areas. (News flash, Iowa: a lot of the people coming from the west coast actually move here.) Minnesota just put up $20M in grants for rural broadband. There is a “surge of inquiries” about rural properties. 4 in 10 buyers apparently want less density.

The short answer is: it will vary by every individual, but it’s certainly possible that we will see a “rural renaissance.”

The good news about that …

… is that we have a wide digital gap between rural and urban areas in America, and especially throughout Texas. If more people are moving to less-dense, rural areas, policy-making will eventually have to adjust to that reality -- see what Minnesota did, above. That might even out some of the divide.

Now, might it take longer for an Amazon package to reach you in an east Texas outpost as opposed to needing that 2011 Mavs championship shirt delivered to your complex in Uptown? Absolutely, it will take longer. But if you have kids, now they have more space -- kids like space, they like playing -- and if there’s another COVID in six years, you’re automatically socially distant. It’s not for everyone by any means, and people will continue to live in Uptown and Bishop Arts for generations hence, but it’s an interesting shift to keep an eye on.

Heck, even Axios is now talking about a demise in cities. And yes, again -- it will be different for every individual situation. But it’s definitely a potential three-to-five year theme to look at numbers for.

About the Author

Ted Bauer

Ted Bauer is a writer/editor for White Rock Locators focused on as much cool content about the DFW Metroplex rental scene as he can possibly find week-to-week.