Lindsey Marvel, 38, moved to New York City three years ago because, she said, "I'm literally going big or going home."
Now she's going home to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to escape the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic that has hit New York harder than any place in the nation. The outbreak's impact on her personal life, and on the city she loves, was simply too much.
"My neighbor died. Friends were seeing body bags from their windows, and you're just in this survival mode. I just was terrified," said Marvel, who lived alone in a rental apartment in Brooklyn. "Things in New York are not easy -- and that's some of the charm, you know — it's not so easy — and it just became way too difficult."
Marvel, an optometrist who left Tulsa 20 years ago, actually applied for a program last year called Tulsa Remote. In an effort to attract new employee talent, it offers a $10,000 grant and additional benefits to eligible remote workers who move to and work from Tulsa.
She was accepted, but declined because she just couldn't bear to leave Brooklyn. She called back last week and asked if they'd still take her. They did.
So Marvel packed the contents of her apartment into a PODS storage container that would be picked up, bought a used car from Carvana that was delivered to her door, and left on Monday. She drove for 11 straight hours, stopping finally in Tennessee.
New York City has seen more than 165,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and more than 12,000 have died.
"As I was driving away from the city I just felt this overwhelming relief," Marvel said.
Marvel is not alone. While there is no hard data yet, both real estate agents and homebuilders are reporting anecdotally that they are seeing new interest from buyers hoping to move out of urban centers to the suburbs or exurbs. Tulsa Remote is definitely seeing a change.
"Since Covid, the applications have more than doubled. We've received over 1,000 applications in the last month, and in the month before that it was right around 500," said Aaron Bolzle, executive director of Tulsa Remote. "Visits to the website have increased as well. We had nearly 25,000 visitors on the site in the last month, which is more than double the increase over the month before."
The program, which is largely funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, had planned to take 250 people for all of 2020. Bolzle said they are now considering expanding it.
The trend, even if temporary, could benefit homebuilders, which tend to build farther out from cities. Builders are also pivoting to more walkable, urban-style communities that mimic cities, but with larger single-family homes and without the density of big downtown areas. The relative affordability of those communities right now is key.
"How do you pay New York City rent with unemployment, or just how do you justify paying that rent when everything's closed or you're afraid to even go to the grocery store?" asked Marvel, noting that rents continue to rise.
"I think at first people were kind of waiting to see OK, what's going to happen? And it's very apparent that it's going to be a while," she said. "I do believe it will get back to what it was eventually, but is this going to be a year? Is this going to be longer?"
Over the last decade, millennials especially have flocked to urban centers, prompting huge development of both rental apartments and condominiums. Home values are already starting to drop in Manhattan, and the rental stock is dangerously overbuilt. Other cities, like Washington, D.C., which has many nearby suburbs in both Virginia and Maryland, could also see values in the downtown weaken.
As the economic lockdown continues, and consumers wonder how long they will have to stay at home, those in smaller spaces and larger cities may consider changing their lifestyles for good.
"I believe that in times where there are economic downturns, there is opportunity for a city like Tulsa to provide a lifestyle that potentially was only thought of as existing in extraordinarily expensive major cities on the coast," said Bolzle.
Marvel, who specializes in telemedicine and can work remotely, said she plans to go back to Brooklyn often -- but not to live there. She hopes to buy a home in Tulsa and is already calling mortgage brokers.
"New York will always be New York, but it's going to take some time," she said wistfully. "It's a really hard place to leave, which is why I was having such a hard time, and I think, you know, what would this look like in a few years?"
-- CNBC producer Lisa Rizzolo contributed to this report