Housing & COVID-19: Are big city residents relocating to Fort Wayne during the pandemic?

This story is made possible by a grant Input Fort Wayne received from Google to explore how communities across the U.S. are evolving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the COVID-10 pandemic sent the U.S. into lockdown this spring, residents started fleeing the nation's largest cities, seeking respite in places with lower rents and fewer case numbers where they could socially distance more comfortably.

As states began lifting restrictions in May, speculation started to arise as to whether some of these temporary transplants would consider staying in their new locales more permanently.

By June, The Washington Post reported that "the pandemic is making people reconsider city living, trading traffic for chickens." Wood

So is Fort Wayne feeling the effects of a renewed interest in small or midsize city life?

If you ask Matt Wood and nine of his friends who grew up in Fort Wayne and moved to Los Angeles in their 20s, the answer is yes.

Now 28, Wood was working a number of food and film industry gigs around the City of Angels when the pandemic began. At the time, he was sharing a rental house with three other guys his age about five miles north of downtown.

"I moved to LA in 2010 because my brother and a lot of my friends were there," Wood says. "I had a great support system. The temperature and the culture were huge selling points, too."

But after the pandemic began and the city shut down, Wood and his friends found themselves getting stir crazy in their living space, paying the same expensive rent without the same perks of their LA lifestyle.

"It just got to be too much for everyone," Wood says. "It's not saying any of us wouldn't move back to LA someday, but for now, the smarter decision is to leave."

Wood's friends at a pre-COVID-19 gathering in Los Angeles before they dispersed across the U.S.

In the past few weeks, Wood's friends have dispersed across the U.S., some landing in Austin, Tex., others in Barren Springs, Mich., and four, like himself, are back in their hometown Fort Wayne. For the time being, Wood is living with his parents in their spacious home on the Southwest side, which is a nice change of pace, he says, but he's not sure where he'll end up.

He might reconnect with friends in Texas or Michigan. He's also been looking at spaces to rent in the downtown Fort Wayne area.

"I've always enjoyed Fort Wayne, and I really like what the city is doing with areas like the Landing and the Riverfront," he says. "It also helps that I have friends here, and I love being close to them, too."

Riverfront Fort Wayne's Promenade Park opened in August 2019.

Regardless of where he lands, Wood says he's spent more time in Fort Wayne the past few months than he's spent in the last eight or nine years of his 20s, and more time in his hometown has been perspective-changing. While he was earning his real estate license in LA, he's now taking classes online at Ivy Tech in Fort Wayne so he can teach elementary school.

In considering where he wants to live in the future, he says it's not so much about the city's amenities as it is about the opportunity to make a difference.

"Honestly, I'm just playing it by ear," he says. "It boils down to: I want to be somewhere I feel like I will have the greatest purpose."

***

While the idea of residents like Wood relocating to cities like Fort Wayne might be alluring to local leaders, Sam Hartman, a Real Estate Broker at Coldwell Banker Real Estate Group in Fort Wayne, is reluctant to believe the hype.

He says it's too early to tell the long term effects of COVID-19 on the housing market. But he doesn't think urban residents will be moving en masse to smaller towns anytime soon. Hartman

"I don’t think it's going to be this broad, sweeping shift where cities are now all of a sudden looking like post-apocalyptic zombie movies," Hartman says. "Things tend to even out. But I do think there’s definitely a segment of people who will look at this as an opportunity, and if their work does go permanently remote, that could change things. Smaller, more affordable markets like Fort Wayne could be the benefactor of this."

Since Fort Wayne is at the crossroads of larger cities, like Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati, it could see more remote workers from those cities relocating here—particularly if they are originally from the Fort Wayne area, Hartman says. For a long time, he's seen a trend in the local housing market where people who grew up in the Summit City and moved away decide to move back when they're ready to start families of their own.

"COVID-19 may accelerate that trend," he says.

A downtown resident himself who is expecting his first child, Hartman admits that the pandemic has made urban living more of a challenge for him and his wife—even in a city the size of Fort Wayne. When the shutdown began, they had recently moved into a condo at Cityscape Flats across from Parkview Field, and they were already missing the amenities that drew them downtown in the first place. Many of their favorite bars and restaurants were closed. Tincaps games were canceled, and festival season never stood a chance.

Was it time to reconsider buying a house?

"There were a couple of times when we went and looked at houses because we thought: How long is this shutdown going to last?" Hartman says.

Hanging lanterns decorate the alley next to 816 Pint & Slice in downtown Fort Wayne.

For now, he and his wife are staying put. But he has been busy helping other people—both in and out of towners—purchase homes in Fort Wayne during the pandemic.

In October, Fort Wayne was named the fifth-best city in the U.S. for first-time homebuyers by SmartAsset.com. As such, it's been catching the eye of transplants, like one of Hartman's clients: A disabled war veteran from California, seeking housing for himself and his caregiving mother.

"They never could have imagined being able to afford a house in California, and they were sick of it," Hartman says. "COVID-19 was the catalyst that got them to look at Fort Wayne, and even on his veteran's disability payment, he was able to buy a house here."

Even so, Hartman warns hopeful buyers that while houses in Fort Wayne are affordable compared to other markets and interest rates are hitting record lows, the market also has a critical shortage of housing stock, which is making it extremely competitive.

"There are way more buyers than there are houses where we can even get signs in the yard," he says.

Fort Wayne's housing market has remained hot in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In July and August of 2019, Fort Wayne made headlines as the nation's hottest housing market, according to realtor.com, which ranks markets based on the number of listings on its website and how quickly they are selling. Hartman says the competition is even more fierce in 2020.

"Although prices continue to rise in our market and bidders are driving the prices up, the record low-interest rates actually make homes here even more affordable than in years past because more of each month's payment is going toward your equity and not your interest," he says.

Mark Swift, a REALTOR/Broker with The Lynn Reecer Team at Encore Sotheby's International Realty, has been in real estate for 31 years and has worked as a Certified Residential Appraiser for 28 years. He says that while Fort Wayne had ample housing stock about 10 years ago, the market has been hot for the last few years, and it seems to be only getting hotter.

"I have not seen anything close to this type of a market for the 31 years I've been in real estate," Swift says. "And it's national, not just in Fort Wayne." Swift

What's fueling the fire of this hot market is those record-low interest rates Hartman mentioned. Swift says his wife works for a title company where she's seen rates as low as 2.1 percent on a 15-year loan or 2.7-2.8 percent on a 30-year.

"That’s almost like borrowing free money, and that has a lot to do with it," he says. "Prior to the pandemic, unemployment had been very low, too."

Now, he says many Fort Wayne residents are reluctant to put their houses on the market simply because they know they'll have to buy something, and chances are, they'll have to get into a bidding war to do it.

To put things into perspective, Swift says neighborhoods in Fort Wayne that once had 30 homes for sale, now have only two on the market. Even higher-priced homes, which typically sit on the market for three or four months, are gone within hours of being listed.

It's a similar challenge that Jonathan Darin is facing, as a Licensed Real Estate Broker and Hartman's colleague at Coldwell Banker Real Estate Group in Chicago. Darin

Darin oversees a team of five agents, including himself, in the city and suburbs of Chicago. For the past several weeks, his team has been trying to free up housing stock, particularly in the suburbs, by convincing empty nesters to downsize so they can make room for families fleeing the downtown area. He also sees a lot of residents who are currently in the suburbs looking to size-up from their starter home to a family home, adding to the competition.

"We’re doing a lot of marketing and having conversations we normally wouldn't have because if people are thinking about selling, now is a great time," Darin says. "We're telling our suburban clients: You may never see this value for your home again."

***

While a hot housing market creates opportunities for those who have the means to buy and sell, it also exacerbates problems for renters on the brink of eviction.

Before COVID-19 began, Fort Wayne had the 13th highest eviction rate in the U.S. at 7.39 percent. Now, as the housing market heats up, hundreds of renters find themselves at risk of getting priced out of their neighborhoods (read a full story on evictions here).

Within wealthier urban areas of cities, COVID-19 is shifting demographics, too, Darin says. While he's seen a migration out of the central city in Chicago to the suburbs, it's not necessarily a permanent migration, and it's not happening across the spectrum. Many people are unloading second homes downtown, for instance, now that they aren't using them during the pandemic. And while families and older adults are vacating the inner city, young professionals with historically fewer resources and higher tolerance for COVID-19 are scrambling to fill their luxury apartments.

It's a trend that Olivia Lehman noticed this summer, as a remote worker in limbo between her hometown Fort Wayne and her new city Chicago. Having moved to Chicago just before the pandemic began, Lehman considered moving back home initially. Lehman

"I noticed a lot of my friends in Chicago were moving back to their hometowns, and it made me think maybe I should, too, especially since there are not as many COVID-19 cases in Fort Wayne, and I could save money," she says. 

At the same time, she found out she had the unprecedented opportunity to score an upgraded apartment in Chicago at a lower monthly rent. With people leaving the city's wealthier downtown buildings, realtors began telling Lehman she could get in on a once-in-a-lifetime deal because landlords were desperate for tenants.

"There are new highrises in Logan Square and Lincoln Park that are telling prospective tenants, 'We're going to lower your rent and give you two months free just by signing up today,'" Lehman says.

Every realtor she's talked with in downtown Chicago has told her to negotiate what she wants in a prospective space.

"No pet fees. No application fees. No deposits," Lehman says. "Everything is on the table."

What's complicating the decision is that she was laid off from her job in corporate fundraising this spring due to the pandemic. Since then, she's been applying for remote work, and she's launched her own business called Per Diem, which offers nonprofit consulting services.

But while working remotely and for herself is convenient, it makes the decision about where to live all the more confusing.

"The advantage is I can work wherever, but the disadvantage is there are so many options," she says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been making many big city residents rethink their high rents and close quarters.

As a result of the national shutdown this spring, 34 percent of people who maintained their jobs said they were working from home in May, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. On top of that, LinkedIn data shows that "people in cities hit hard by the pandemic—New York, San Francisco and Seattle—are searching for remote work opportunities significantly more than the rest of the country," the Washington Post reports.

If these trends continue in the post-COVID-19 world, it could mean new opportunities for cities like Fort Wayne to attract remote workers.

The question is: If more people can live where they want, will they choose Fort Wayne?

***

For years, the Summit City has topped national charts as one of the most affordable places to live in the U.S. Yet, lagging wages in the local market may have kept would-be transplants at bay. Now, if workers can maintain their high-wage positions remotely, they might choose to live in Fort Wayne and reap the benefits of a significantly lower cost of living here, Lehman reasons.

"There is a huge difference between what a fundraiser would make in Chicago versus in Fort Wayne," she says. "So if my employer is based in Chicago, and I chose to live in Fort Wayne, I could save a lot of money."

Olivia Lehman spent most of the summer of 2020 in limbo between Fort Wayne and Chicago.

However, some employers are also reducing paychecks for remote workers compared to their in-office counterparts, particularly in the tech industry. This may limit the perceived benefits of a lower cost of living once again.

Beyond affordability, there's also a perception of safety and an abundance of spacious, suburban properties available in cities like Fort Wayne, which could attract big-city residents seeking respite during the pandemic and racial unrest.

In Chicago's wealthy neighborhoods downtown, Lehman sees residents subleasing their apartments on Craigslist and Facebook with the desire to move to "safer places" for the time being. There are also many residents who have tolerated tiny apartments before the pandemic, realizing that the ongoing threat of shutdowns and social distancing no longer makes their property feasible or worth the price tag.

Historic houses in West Central Neighborhood of Fort Wayne might attract out of town renters and buyers.

Even within the Northeast Indiana market, Lynn Reecer, a REALTOR/Broker with The Lynn Reecer Team at Encore Sotheby's International Realty, says people who are stuck at home longer are realizing they want to upgrade or change locations.

"This is especially affecting the lake market," Reecer says. "Now that more people can work remotely, many are deciding they want to live full-time at the lake to work or do schooling online there. So if you have a lakehouse you're not using, now is the time to sell it." Lynn Reecer

While the pandemic hasn't had many positive effects, Reecer says one benefit may be the newfound value of remote work. During the pandemic, her own staff and agents have been working remotely, and she says they've all been more productive than usual, not less.

"When our team is at home more often, they've been happier with their work-life balance," she says.

Looking to the future, she sees remote work playing a larger role in her office, and if more employers make that shift, it's going to impact both the housing and commercial markets, too, she notes.

Like Hartman, she's also seen a trend of former residents moving back to Fort Wayne now that they're starting families and working remotely.

It's too early to tell the ultimate effects of COVID-19 on the housing market, but it's safe to say the pandemic is shaking things up.

"In the past month, I've worked with two families coming in from California, and I've got another client in downtown Chicago who wants to leave and come back to Fort Wayne," Reecer says. "That’s a lot in one month, and I'm just one of 1,400 agents here."

Learn more

This is one of two stories in a “Housing & COVID-19” series by Input Fort Wayne. Read the other story about how the pandemic is impacting Fort Wayne's eviction rates.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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