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Arts & Life

'The Midwest Is Surprisingly Hot': The Pandemic Is Luring People To Kansas City, But Experts Aren't Sure They'll Stay

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Hannah Wise
Hannah Wise and her dad recently masked up for the cross-country drive from New York City back to Kansas with the contents of Hannah's small city apartment in tow, including her cat, Brünnhilde.

With the coronavirus changing how we live and work, professionals who once fled the Midwest are giving Kansas City and surrounding communities a second look.

After months of strict quarantine in a small New York City apartment, Hannah Wise decided she'd had enough.

It had been a year since the 28-year-old journalist and Wichita native took a job working for the New York Times. The move was a no-brainer; it was the career opportunity of a lifetime. But when the pandemic hit, her perspective changed fast.

Wise has Crohn's disease, and when it flares up, she needs to be hospitalized. She'd only been hospitalized once in New York, but the experience was suddenly all she could think about.

"They don't have enough beds in the hospital to serve the community, even in normal times," she says. "I spent four of my eight days in a hallway."

While overcome with anxiety about crowded hospitals, Wise couldn't leave her small apartment. Prospect Park was nearby, but the short walk to get there would have forced her into contact with large crowds.

Weirdly, the thing that broke her was a funny smell in the laundry room of her building. "For some reason, I was like, 'that's it.'"

Wise, who works on digital projects for the Times, told her editors that New York wasn't for her. "They just immediately mobilized and said, 'OK, you gotta move,'" Wise says. So now she's working for the New York Times from her apartment in Kansas City. The South Plaza neighborhood, to be specific. And she's thrilled.

Kansas City was the obvious choice. It put Wise's parents at a 3-hour drive — a perfect distance, she says, when you're nearing 30. Being in Kansas City during the pandemic means she can leave her apartment. But in what she calls "future times," she'll also have museums, restaurants and an airport.

"One of the first things I did when I came back was drive to Lawrence, just to look at the prairie and the sky and the open space," she says. "After a hundred days inside, being able to just look and stand and like, feel the breeze was like the most amazing thing."

The pandemic has quickly changed a lot about how we see ourselves and our place in the world. And one thing that's shifted is how we measure quality of life. If you'd told Hannah Wise a year ago that hospital capacity and the ability to just stand outside to breathe fresh air would have her packing her bags for Kansas City, she wouldn't have believed you.

But she's not alone. Real estate trends back up her story with data. At least, to a point.

"The Midwest is surprisingly hot right now," says Jeff Tucker, an economist for the real estate website Zillow.

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Hannah Wise.
Hannah Wise stops for a selfie while enjoying all the wide open space on her first trip to the prairie after her move to Kansas City.

Tucker measures the relative hotness of a real estate market based on two things: how much homes are selling for, and the median pending sale. That is, how much time passes — on average — between when a home is listed on the site to when a sale is pending.

"Median pending sale is down to five days in Kansas City, which is incredibly fast," he says.

Tucker isn't seeing evidence yet, in home sales, that urban markets are losing out to suburban or rural markets, but he is seeing that in the rental market. "Which makes sense," he explains, "because people tend to pick a rental with a shorter break-even horizon on that decision."

He doesn't think those trends reflect a profound or permanent change in how we think about what makes a place appealing.

"The relative costs and benefits of proximity to the central city right now have pretty much all been tipped in favor of further out," Tucker admits. But he takes exception when people say we might as well move to a cabin in the woods.

"I think we've all been getting a little preview of what life would like if we up and moved to a cabin in the woods. We don't get to see our friends and family in person. We don't get to see our colleagues in person. We don't get to go to bars and restaurants and live music and sporting events. And everybody's going crazy."

That's why Tucker thinks all those renters, people like Hannah Wise, will go back to where they'd been living post-pandemic.

Zachary Mannheimer sees it differently. He works for a consulting firm, Alchemy Community Transformations, which helps small towns and mid-sized cities that have been losing population, reverse the trend and stay relevant. He sees what's happening right now as a dramatic acceleration of something that was already underway.

Mannheimer estimates that 10% of the American workforce will be displaced because of COVID. He calls this a conservative estimate. And he paints a very specific picture of where all these people will go.

"The ones in San Francisco and New York, they're going to go to second cities. That's places like Kansas City, Minneapolis, Nashville, Austin, Denver. The people in the second cities are going to go to the third cities. And the people in third cities will go micropolitan or rural."

Strikingly, this is the reverse of the pattern that's been playing out for years and killing small towns. It's what's been insultingly dubbed "the brain drain."

That flow had already started to reverse before the pandemic because cities, including Kansas City, were pricing people out, Mannheimer says.

"Most of our work is rural, towns of 5,000 people or less. What we used to say three months ago was, 'You should be preparing for 10 to 20 years from now when things really shift from a migration standpoint,'" he says. "Now we're saying, 'You've got three to five years.' It's going to change the landscape. The ability to live and work from anywhere is happening much faster than anyone anticipated."

"COVID has accelerated this entire thing," he says. "There are millions of people tethered to cities that they can't afford, that they don't want to live in, or both, for a job or a benefit from that job. If there's any silver lining to COVID, it's this piece."

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Gina Kaufmann
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is one of the many places where wide open space is abundant in the Midwest. That's becoming a major draw now that job opportunities can accompany workers to these landscapes.

Erin Gore moved from Lawrence, Kansas, to Washington D.C. sixteen years ago. She has a family and a fulfilling job raising money for World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit run by a celebrity chef to fight food insecurity.

Gore loves D.C. But quarantining there with two high-energy pre-teen boys was making her lose her mind.

"We'd been trapped in our D.C. row house for months and months," she reports. "And we were surrounded by construction. There's a school being renovated right in front of us, and a house being renovated right behind us."

The parks were closed. The pool was closed.

"There's just not the opportunity to get out and run like you have in Kansas," she says.

Gore traded in her beat-up old compact car for a roomy SUV and drove her family halfway across the country to stay with her parents in Lawrence.

Like Hannah Wise, she's teleworking. Unlike Hannah Wise, she's just staying a few weeks. At the other side of this, Gore still wants the life she had in D.C. before the pandemic.

"When we return to normalcy, life in DC will be very different," she says. "I will not be surrounded by construction. I will be not be stuck inside."

Coming to Kansas has provided much-needed relief. But even so, Gore doesn't envision making any drastic changes.

"D.C. is so different than Lawrence. It's a very international city, there's so much diversity. The culture and the vibes of D.C. are ones that really resonate with me."

So in the end, the question may not just come down to whether we have what it takes to grab people who have been displaced. The real question may end up being whether the life they left behind is still viable.

And that's a much sadder question to contemplate.

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