From her East Village walk-up, Jessica Fine used to take the subway to her job as a physician assistant on the Upper East Side. When the pandemic began, she switched to Citi Bike for the three-mile commute.
Now she has plans to move, so she can avoid the subway for good.
In the spring, she and her fiancé started hunting for a co-op to buy. “Proximity to work is a big factor for me,” said Ms. Fine, 29. “We are looking in the radius where I can bike or walk to work. I work in a hospital, so I will never be working from home.”
Avoiding public transit has been a “precautionary measure that is easy to take,” she said, “because even though I don’t think I’m sick, I don’t know who’s riding that subway car with me, who’s sitting next to me, who sat there an hour ago and coughed on the pole.”
Subway ridership fell by 90 percent in April, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the New York State on PAUSE executive order, advising New Yorkers to limit their use of public transportation. With unemployment reaching record levels, subway ridership has since reached only a quarter of usual levels even as more people have returned to work in recent months.
Ms. Fine and her fiancé, Bryon Shek, are focusing on co-ops close to her workplace at the Hospital for Special Surgery, on East 70th Street. Mr. Shek, 33, who works in the field of demand planning, has an office north of Herald Square, but is working from home indefinitely.
While many city dwellers with the wherewithal are moving to the suburbs, where they can find more space and work more comfortably from home, real estate agents are reporting a surge of interest from clients looking to live closer to their city jobs. For essential workers and those whose jobs require them to be on-site — including medical workers like Ms. Fine — the issue is especially germane.
Ms. Fine and Mr. Shek, who were already getting tired of living on the sixth floor of a seven-story walk-up, focused on Midtown East, said their agent, Harjot Kaur Nayar, of Keller Williams NYC.
“Their priorities were very clear, which made it much easier to look for homes — a starter one-bedroom co-op type, easy enough for her to get to the hospital and for him to work out of,” Ms. Nayar said.
After touring about two dozen places, the couple set their sights on a large Murray Hill studio, priced in the high $400,000s, with a sleeping nook and an office space carved from the living room.
If Mr. Shek returns to his office, he will have a quick walk rather than a subway trip. A bonus: “We will be able to avoid a crowded laundromat because there is a laundry room on each floor,” he said.
For Ms. Fine, whose workday sometimes starts at 6 a.m., the subway or bus “is there if I want it,” she said. “I anticipate biking more often than I did pre-Covid. I think it has become more valuable to people — the proximity to work and not having to rely on public transit. It’s a factor in a big decision because we are making a multiyear, multi-thousand-dollar investment, and want to make sure work is not going to be compromised.”
Pandemic or not, New York is a walkable city. In recent years, around 10 percent of New Yorkers have reported walking to work, with about 56 percent using public transit, according to census information.
Recent figures from the real estate data site UrbanDigs, examining the ratio of new listings to contracts signed, show that so far this year, pending sales of homes within a 10-minute walk to “work” neighborhoods have fallen 34 percent from the market average. (“Work” neighborhoods are defined as those dense with office buildings, such as Midtown and the financial district. Meanwhile, pending sales in “neutral” neighborhoods, which are more than a 10-minute walk from a concentration of schools or office buildings, have risen 16 percent.) That’s not surprising — many people who are working remotely or who have lost their jobs aren’t looking to move into crowded neighborhoods right now. But real estate agents say that among workers who must travel to work — as well as some who know they’ll be returning to their offices eventually — demand in these areas is robust.
At an available one-bedroom co-op unit on East 57th Street, listed in the high $500,000s, many prospective buyers specifically have mentioned proximity to their Midtown offices, said the listing agent, Ryan Aussem, of Brown Harris Stevens. “People state it like it’s normal now: ‘I will go back to work at some point; I am looking where I won’t have to rely on public transportation.’”
His sellers there, Heather and Patrick Hofer, both of whom work in finance, enjoyed walking to their Midtown offices before the city shut down, with stops for coffee (her) or the gym (him) along the way. “When everyone started getting freaked out and said we have to work at home, I was not concerned, because I didn’t have to take the subway,” Mr. Hofer said. “I could walk to work and keep myself safe. I still wanted to go to the office because we were blessed to have an apartment so close to work.”
Mr. Hofer was soon required to work remotely, so his walk became moot. Now, with an infant son, the Hofers are planning to decamp to a house in Connecticut.
Many New Yorkers cannot avoid a lengthy subway or bus ride because they commute to jobs in Manhattan from other boroughs. But until this year, Mr. Aussem said, most of his buyers were generally content with a 20-minute subway commute. “Now, it’s: Let’s make that a 15-minute walk,” he said. “You have people who are really focusing on a long-term play in their life, where they are altering their transportation situation so they can have a safer, or what is perceived as safer, way to get to work.”
It’s not just trips to work. Some people hope to avoid public transportation to almost everywhere. The pandemic spurred Alessandra Rago to give up her downtown rental, which required a subway trip to her office near Rockefeller Center. She has been staying with her parents in New Jersey while working remotely. It seemed like a good time to hunt for a one-bedroom to buy.
“I was a bit of a germaphobe before the virus, so I am probably of the population that is taking the virus more seriously than others,” said Ms. Rago, 29, who works at an asset management firm. “I can’t even imagine being on the subway until everything calms down and we return to some kind of normalcy. Everything is so uncertain going forward that I want as much flexibility in my new apartment as possible. I don’t want to depend on the subway or the bus for the places I go every day.”
Those places include a good grocery store and her exercise studio, which has multiple branches. (Gyms in New York City were permitted to reopen on Sept. 2, with restrictions.)
“Before we looked at anything, she had to ‘Google walk’ them to find out if that element would work for her,” said her agent, Brenda Di Bari, of Halstead.
“I am using Google Maps to gauge how sustainable a walking commute would be for any given apartment,” said Ms. Rago, who is targeting co-ops in Midtown East in the $600,000 range. “Will I walk an extra seven minutes for a bigger apartment? A lot of these places have trade-offs.”
She has been touring prospective homes masked and gloved, she said: “Brokers don’t even want you to touch anything.”
For Josie O’Toole, a renter, the pandemic became an unexpected reason to leave her beloved West Village, where she lived for seven years. She is a pediatric nurse practitioner at Mount Sinai Hospital, north of Carnegie Hill. Working from home, she said, “doesn’t apply to health care. I have to be there.”
Ms. O’Toole, 30, had been commuting via the packed 6 train. “When everything started to get scary, I had taken the subway once and decided that was going to be the last time,” she said. She switched to Citi Bike, but the ride was long, so she temporarily stayed at a friend’s place near her hospital. (The friend had skipped town to avoid the virus.)
“I didn’t know how long this was going to go on for,” she said, “so I decided to look on the Upper East Side, which I thought I would never do. The West Village was where my friends were and my life was.”
No longer. Several friends moved back home with their parents. “That made it easier to leave the West Village,” she said. “My friends weren’t even there. All of my favorite places were boarded up.”
Some rentals weren’t allowing in-person visits, which limited her options, and she refused to take a place sight unseen. “I was way too skeptical because that can be so deceiving,” Ms. O’Toole said. “You can’t check stuff like water pressure. You can’t see into every corner.”
She was able to visit one studio in person, about 20 blocks south of the hospital. That’s the one she now calls home. She has a 20-minute walk to work, or a five-minute Citi Bike ride. “I will bring a Clorox wipe with me and wipe down the handlebars,” she said.
The listing agent for her rental, Peggy Dahan, of Brown Harris Stevens, is seeing a brisk rental market. “People want to be no more than 30 blocks from work because they want to get the fresh air,” she said. “Once they get to work, they are in their mask, so because they are going to be in the mask all day, they prefer to walk. They would love to take the Citi Bike, but sooner or later it is going to start raining and be cold.”
Ms. Dahan also sees a trend away from shared apartments, even if it means downsizing to studios. “People want to separate from their roommates,” she said. “One roommate wants to be in the mask and one couldn’t care less. One is partying and one is scared to go out. People will spend an extra $800 or $1,000 a month to be healthy alone, on their own.”
Despite the risk in buying a home sight unseen, Dr. Elie Harouche, a surgeon, bought a one-bedroom Midtown pied-à-terre before setting foot in it. (He and his wife, Rosemary Harouche, live primarily in Suffolk County.) His main criterion was to be minutes from his workplace, a new medical spa on East 57th Street, Clinique des Champs-Élysées, where he is the director. The opening, which was delayed, is scheduled for next week.
“The idea is to be proactive, so that if this virus is as virulent as it’s explained, then we have to respect that,” said Dr. Harouche, 71. “As a physician, I totally agree with all the distancing and face-covering and hand-washing. There are ways to maintain health and decrease the collateral damage this thing is doing to us.”
In April, there were plenty of available options for what the Harouches were seeking — a one-bedroom in a doorman building in the 50s for around $600,000, said their agent, Jed Lewin of Triplemint.
“The trend I’ve been seeing is an either-or,” Mr. Lewin said, noting that some people crave more space, whether indoor or outdoor, while others who anticipate a return to the office want proximity to work. “Everyone has been re-evaluating whether being in a certain area has the same advantages as it used to. For some, they really want to reduce their risk of exposure by being around as few people as possible. For people who do need to be somewhere specific, being able to walk is a driving force.”
A transit-free commute, he said “is a small measure of control, and control is what a lot of people have felt has been lacking.”