Buying a rambler in the Twin Cities and setting up an intergenerational household was nowhere on Erin Horne McKinney’s plans for 2020.
“I thought we’d hunker down in Minnesota for the first wave [of the pandemic] but we never got past it,” said McKinney.
A tech and economic development executive, McKinney, 45, is a Minneapolis native who left town for college and went on to hold senior leadership positions in Washington, D.C., the Bay Area and Cleveland. She thought it would be a good idea to return temporarily, as the pandemic began, to keep an eye on her ever-more-fragile parents. She rented an apartment near them, fired up her work as a remote contractor and enrolled her two sons in online learning at a local school.
“Pretty soon I realized this temporary move was going to stick,” she said. “I had to do a huge life pivot. I am needed here right now, and we all benefit from being together.”
Earlier this fall, McKinney closed on a home in New Brighton for all of them, plus their pets and her teenage niece.
“We were intentional about buying a place we could make into a sanctuary, with a backyard, one-floor living for my parents and space for everyone,” she said. “It’s a lot of considerations, and it’s all connected.”
The Twin Cities area is seeing an influx of COVID-19 migrants, people who have been untethered from their lives in other places and have landed locally. The unexpected consequences of the pandemic will prompt some of them to settle here while others will move on after a temporary stop.
“These are workers who’ve been living someplace because their jobs were there. They’ve been told by their employers that they won’t be back in the office until sometime next year. They can work in a virtual environment for the foreseeable future, and they’re trying out life in other cities,” said Matt Lewis, vice president of strategic initiatives for Greater MSP, the economic development organization that tracks the regional workforce.
“Some folks don’t give up their leases, they close the door and stay with friends or family or in a place where they have connections,” he said. “Others put their stuff in storage and head out for a month here or two months there.”
Lewis said that while the team at Greater MSP is hearing lots of anecdotal evidence about these local coronavirus arrivals, their numbers can’t be quantified.
“It’s a tough trend to track with data. When we watch migration patterns, we rely on government data based on tax filings and Census Bureau statistics, and that data lags for a year,” Lewis said. “It cuts both ways. And no doubt we could be losing people from here who are doing the same thing somewhere else.”
Bits of evidence that show Americans on the move are starting to accumulate.
A June survey published by the Pew Research Center found that 3% of Americans moved permanently or temporarily due to the coronavirus pandemic, with another 6% saying someone moved into their household as a result of it.
The website Mymove.com collected change-of-address data from the U.S. Postal Service from February through July; an address change can be permanent or designated as temporary, when the mover plans to live at a second residence for less than six months.
Mymove’s data showed a 27% spike in temporary movers in that period. Minnesota ranked fifth among the states for adding the most new arrivals, with a net gain of 25,315 people moving to the state. (mymove.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/MM_Moving-During-Coronavirus_Infographic_4-2.jpg)
Collin and Laura Anderson are giving Minnesota a tryout. The couple’s Chicago condo began to feel cramped when they both began working at home and their second child arrived. They’ve been rotating between Laura’s parents in Cleveland and Collin’s mother’s house in the Twin Cities.
“We’ve had quite an odyssey but it’s been the blessing of the pandemic to have this time with our girls and the support from our parents,” Collin said.
Currently the family of four is camped in Collin’s childhood home in Edina, enjoying a playground across the street and a tight bubble that includes Collin’s sister’s family, with cousins for the kids. They plan to spend Christmas in Ohio and then travel to Virginia for a two-month stay with Laura’s sister.
The stretch of time away from Chicago has prompted the couple to rethink their life and contemplate a permanent move. With both of them likely to continue to work flexibly, the Twin Cities is the top contender to be their next home.
“This has given us the chance to give Minnesota a trial run. We like the ease of life and our connections here,” Collin said. “We’re watching real estate and putting the wheels in motion but we’re not doing it tomorrow.”
Waiting it out
Not everyone has a range of choices during this period of unprecedented upheaval.
Anna Wiebe considers herself “stuck” in the Twin Cities.
After graduating in May from the University of Wyoming, Wiebe, 23, took a job at a Minneapolis landscape restoration company. She arrived with her bike and a mattress and leased “the smallest studio apartment in Northeast.”
She expects her job will go on pause as the cold weather arrives and is uncertain about how to wait out the winter.
“I can’t go home because I have high-risk family members,” she said. “I’ve tended bar in the past but there aren’t any of those jobs now. It’s the first time in my life I don’t have a plan.”
Wiebe is thinking about subletting her apartment and heading south to bunk with friends or live out of her car in a more temperate part of the country for a while.
“This is a great city; I never lived in a town with more than 50,000 people, and I enjoy it here even though the culture is different now,” she said. “I made friends with a few co-workers and started seeing someone, and I’d like to stay and see where that goes. But I can’t just sit around and wait for work.”
A run on temporary housing is another indicator of the residential shift that started in March.
The tech-enabled hospitality company Sonder allows guests to use an app to book residential spaces in 35 cities. Sonder holds long-term leases on 183 fully furnished apartments in nine Minneapolis buildings, with 40 more units expected to be available by the end of the year.
“This is a flexible living situation with no leases and no minimum stays; we say we remove the friction of moving. People are staying with us for months at a time now,” said Sonder spokesman Mason Harrison. “They are people who need a place to isolate, or digital nomads who want their own place with a bedroom and a washer/dryer.”
Sonder’s business model has shifted from short to longer-term stays, a trend that is especially true in its Minneapolis properties. Before the pandemic, Sonder’s statistics showed that 20% of Minneapolis guests stayed 30 days or more. Now 70% of local guests book for a month or longer.
“Most of those guests aren’t wandering aimlessly; they’re there because they have ties to the area, they went to college there or have family, and they want separate living spaces for privacy or safety reasons,” Harrison said.
With COVID case counts climbing, no one can know how long the changes brought on by the pandemic will last, how the virus will shape housing patterns or twist decisions about where to live.
“I don’t think we will become a country of rolling stones, but this time has taken people out of their position,” said Matt Lewis. “The snow globe is still being shaken, and no doubt some of the flakes will settle differently when it’s done.”
That’s the case for Erin Horne McKinney, one that she’s ultimately happy about.
“It’s complicated. How do I keep everyone uplifted, build my career and tap into our network for the kids, who have no [local] friends?” she said. “What we are doing is uncomfortable and stressful, but I feel so grateful. We are here and as a family, we have gotten close; it’s a comfort. We get that feeling of Thanksgiving every day.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.