‘Looking for a different way of life’: Pandemic spurs moves from big cities to Nashville area

Sandy Mazza

| Nashville Tennessean

Kristin Goebel and her husband had imagined a life in Tennessee with a big yard and friendly neighbors. But they were tied to Chicago for work until the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

Virus-related closures left little normalcy for the family. A series of riots that came in the summer weighed heavily among their growing concerns.

But the final straw was when they learned all the schools in their area would be subject to the mask mandate.

Their 2-year-old daughter was scared of people wearing masks and their 6-year-old daughter has sensory impairment issues that are exacerbated by masks.

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“I was scared of the damage to them emotionally and developmentally,” Goebel said. “My daughter can’t wear a mask and she can feel the scrutiny from people when she’s walking around without a mask. That just wasn’t going to work for my family.”

Meanwhile, the parks were off limits, pools were closed, and masks were required at the beach.

“It’s really hard for kids,” Goebel said. “COVID-19 did make us think: ‘What are we doing in Chicago?’”

The family rented a farm near Nashville for a vacation and felt warmly welcomed by the more relaxed, spacious environment and friendly people. When they found private schools that don’t require masks in the area, the started home shopping.

But the housing market was already crowded with others who had similar ideas.

After losing a few bids, their offer on a two-story Franklin home with an ample yard was accepted. What’s more, their suburban Chicago house was in high demand as city dwellers sought to move farther out of town.

The family is one of a growing exodus of people heading to Nashville from New York, California, Atlanta, Chicago and other cities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneousviolent political uprisings in major cities.

The increased acceptance of remote work also made many moves possible.

The Nashville area has been a popular destination for New Yorkers, Chicagoans, Californians and others seeking lower taxes, less expensive housing and a friendlier culture for years. The demand has only increased since March, boosted by the lower taxes and cost of living in Tennessee compared to those areas.

“A lot more people want to live in Nashville,” said Zillow spokesperson Amanda Pendleton. “Half of all Nashville search traffic on Zillow is now coming from outside the metro area, a nearly 7% year-over-year increase.”

People in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York are the most interested in living in Nashville since the pandemic began, according to searches on Zillow.com.

Bellhop Moving saw large surges from several cities in requests for moving assistance to Nashville from March to September compared to the same period last year. Some of the top relocation cities are Atlanta, New York, Chicago and Saint Louis.

Nashville-area home values rose 5.3% in the second quarter of 2020 as mortgage rates remained at historic lows. But sellers have been reluctant to put their homes on the market since March and inventory is very low so buyers are contending with a tight, competitive market.

The national economy is being reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic, setting off new trends that impact relocation decisions, said Amy Glasmeier, professor of economic geography and regional planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“COVID-19 is strangling the economy. I would suspect you would see people coming back to Tennessee or who see Nashville as a good place to go because of Tennessee’s geography, a mild climate, ease of living, affordable housing, decent schools and healthcare,” Glasmeier said. “Nashville also has a specific attractive force because it’s a center for music and art. It’s a place where people can go and reinvent themselves.”

Nashville Realtor Erin Krueger said she’s been scouring the region for large lots that are in demand from Californians looking to buy land since July.

“They’re just looking for a different way of life,” Krueger said. “I refer to it on my team as ‘the land rush.’ It’s been pretty amazing. I think that COVID-19 made everybody look at everything in their life, from finances to quality time with families. People are figuring out what’s most important to them.”

Larry Rubin, founder of Thnks online business-to-business platform that sends gifts of gratitude to clients and associates, recently moved his business from New York City to Franklin.

“We came to Tennessee because this is the group of people that fits so well with what Thnks is trying to be,” Rubin said. “It’s about just doing good and trying to understand the person you’re talking to, not just treating them as a quota.”

The Nashville area’s business environment, low taxes, relatively affordable office space and culture drew Rubin. And New York City’s growing challenges, particularly since the coronavirus pandemic broke out, bolstered his decision.

“I think what business owners learned from COVID-19 is they don’t necessarily need to pay $85 to $200 per square foot for high-density New York real estate,” Rubin said. “Working remotely also means (workers) don’t have to live in a 500 square foot apartment with four people. (They) can move to a house with a backyard. Many people are leaving New York.

“I’m delighted with Nashville right now. I couldn’t be any happier.”

Kristin Goebel is still busy unpacking and setting up her new home.

The family moved too late for her daughter to start school, so she is home-schooling with the help of other nearby parents. The home’s master bedroom has been turned into a classroom decorated with stuffed animals and stocked with workbooks, flash cards and other learning tools.

“We really feel like the people in Tennessee are much more accepting and faithful,” Goebel said. “When we left Illinois, the playgrounds were taped off and everyone wore masks all the time. Now, my kids look out the window and see people walking their dogs without masks and kids are outside playing.

“We have a long list of friends looking to move from Illinois.”

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