Will Covid Drive People Out of Houston?

Densely populated cities like New York and Chicago are seeing a flood of residents flee to outer suburbs or smaller towns as the novel coronavirus’ ease in transmissibility runs rampant in their hot-spot neighborhoods. Houston, far less densely populated, is likely to escape that fate. In New York City’s five boroughs, for example, there are 26,403 people per square mile. In contrast, in Houston, there are 3,829 people per square mile (2018 numbers). Houston, like Texas, has a more expansive view of city living.

“I don’t think people are going to move away from city neighborhoods, that they like to live in, because they’re afraid of pandemics. I do think some people might move to different locations if they engage in remote work long-term, meaning they don’t have to commute to an office every day,” says Bill Fulton, Director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. He’s one of the nation’s top city planners, and thinks Houston’s urban sprawl and job availabilities will continue to be attractive in the near future, a net gain in population more likely than a loss. Greater Houston is comprised of all our smaller towns, even West U within the city limits, and places like Katy, and now Katy's own suburbs, and The Woodlands, in neighboring counties. Houston offers high-rent, high-rise, urban-living for those who chose; suburban dwellings with room for the kids, loads of green-spaces and good schools for those who prefer it; and slow, small town, rural living in its shadows for those who don’t see themselves as city folk. You can flee Houston and end up in Houston, just a different part of it.

What Covid 19 could do is prompt more extensive use of remote work opportunities, a trend being seen across the country regardless of the size of the municipalities; even small towns are finding new efficiencies. Those forced to learn new technologies of zoom meetings, whose computers are now set up to allow access to their office desktops, may not want to get back to spending two hours a day being unproductive in bumper to bumper traffic. They might want out of the house for sanity’s sake, but not necessarily traveling as far for work as before. Fulton says the Amazon-effect on retailers may be a final death knell for some suburban strip shopping centers, which could be converted to remote office hubs. “People may choose to work in small work centers in their neighborhood rather than work at home or go to the office, as there certainly is going to be hollowing out of retail stores as a result of this,” he tells KTRH News.

Each American city will come out on the other end of Covid 19 with the uniqueness they had when the pandemic began, though it may look different. Houston will still have the world's best annual rodeo. The transformation of Manhattan from a broken string of sleazy strip clubs and adult theaters in the 1970’s to the over-priced, congested, thriving economic capital of the world today may portend each city’s ability to adapt to change. Houston’s future, though, is expected to be one of continued growth, hampered more by the economic frailties of the oil industry than the deadly coronavirus.

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