I've avoided specifically talking about the effects of the coronavirus epidemic on the housing question for a while, because I've never quite had a handle on the way that things would eventually shake out. But now, you can start to see the outlines of how the future of work, and the future of housing, are going to be going forward.
BOTTOM LINE, UP FRONT: Coronavirus has unintentionally opened up a safety valve for the housing crisis, because it makes a lot of semi-remote work possible, and it extends the big-city commuter belts further out than was previously practical.
The single largest cause of all of the housing problems that I write about is that a handful of superstar metropolises - San Francisco, New York, LA - have created massive numbers of jobs, and have flatly refused to build enough housing to meet the demand. And that's what created the current shitty situation: sure, you can make 30% more in SF or NYC or LA than you can in Phoenix or Houston, but you won't have anything to show for it.
This has caused two separate but interrelated housing crises: (a) affluent professionals getting priced out of places like Beverly Hills, leading to gentrification in poorer city neighborhoods; and (b) a massive shortage of working-class housing all across the board, with the poorest being forced out to the urban periphery or the streets. But coronavirus has changed this calculus pretty dramatically, and I don't think people have quite processed how much has changed after the massive natural experiment of the last year.
Let's start with how it affects the affluent. Pre-virus, if you were well-off but not a one-percenter, the smart money was to move to Phoenix or Houston. Sure, salaries are lower and the weather sucks, but the cost of housing was so much cheaper that on balance you'd be better off. $500,000 buys you a 21st-century townhouse in Houston's gayborhood, or a house in bougie Scottsdale, AZ - the kind of lifestyle that's out of reach for objectively affluent people in the Bay Area or NYC.
But post-corona, there's suddenly another practical option which means you don't have to move cross-country.
If you're four days remote and one day on-site, you can keep your high-paying job in the Bay Area, buy a house in Midtown Sacramento or Davis, and you don't have to compromise on anything. Midtown Sacramento and Davis give you new houses, safe streets, good schools and walkable neighborhoods for $750,000 - well within the reach of gentrifying yuppies. And the data bears this out: since last March, rents are flat or dropping in San Francisco, while Sacramento is booming. It's not crazy to think that this could happen with Philadelphia and New York City, Long Beach and the LA Westside, or Baltimore and Washington DC.
For the working classes, it creates a whole bunch of new options as well. The megacities' sheer economic gravity in the pre-virus world had hollowed out nearby mid-sized cities, leaving their economies in ruins. You probably know those cities, because no one really wants to go there. San Francisco has Stockton; New York has Scranton; LA has San Bernardino. These places all have one thing in common: they're too far away to be in the commuter belt, but too close to maintain a strong economic base of their own.
For those decaying mid-sized cities on the metropolitan perimeter, the shift to remote work now puts hundreds of thousands of good jobs within range. Let's put this in dollars and cents: per Glassdoor, an admin assistant in Stockton makes an average of $43,000 a year, while an admin assistant in San Francisco makes $56,000 - fully 30% more.
Pre-virus this commute wasn't practical. It's four hours round trip from Stockton to San Francisco, and if you do that every day all the extra salary gets burned in gas and tolls. But post-virus, that commute goes from "this is totally insane" to "this sucks but I only have to do it once a week." It means that workers in Stockton or Scranton or San Bernardino can take advantage of the opportunities of the megacity, without having to pay megacity rents. It integrates the periphery into the greater metropolis.
None of these changes, on its own, is enough to deal with the housing crisis. San Francisco, LA and New York still need to build more housing to cope with fifty years of underbuilding. Not to mention, not every job can or should be made remote. But it's good that people don't have to live so close to their office anymore. It's a temporary respite, a safety valve to buy time while the megacities get their act together.