The Pandemic Sparks a Real-Estate Gold Rush in Upstate New York

In her late-career novel “Hudson River Bracketed,” Edith Wharton memorialized the landscape just north of New York City—the “precipitate plunge of many-tinted forest, the great sweep of the Hudson, and the cliffs on its other shore.” In Wharton’s time, upstate was where Manhattan’s wealthy migrated seasonally, taking trains to enormous homes like Wyndcliffe, in Rhinebeck—the stolid mansion of Wharton’s aunt, Elizabeth Schermerhorn Jones, which is said to be the source of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses”—or the Mills family’s sixty-five-room Staatsburgh mansion, designed by McKim, Mead, and White and thought to be the inspiration for Bellomont in “The House of Mirth.” If they didn’t decamp to Beaux-Arts piles, they sought “the elaborate rusticity of an Adirondack camp,” as Wharton put it in that novel. For the gentry, leaving the city was practically compulsory, she wrote in “The Custom of the Country”: “In the early summer New York was the only place one could escape from New Yorkers.”

Wharton would not have approved of the three-story Airbnb house upstate that some friends and I rented at the end of July, seeking to escape not so much our fellow city dwellers as the isolation of quarantining in our dark city apartments. (Theirs were in New York and Boston; mine in D.C. We all got COVID-19 tests before the trip.) When I first searched for rental listings in the region, in June, I discovered that the usually plentiful pickings on the platform were slim—fewer than a dozen properties across the Hudson Valley and the Catskills matched my search. The place we ended up booking, in the Catskills village of Tannersville, had no reviews, but the photos were appealing, with a blurb pointing out a new leather Chesterfield sofa, from the furniture startup Joybird. The listing’s owner told me a woman had just cancelled her monthlong stay, so I should grab it fast. It was only when my group arrived that we discovered there was no furniture in the TV area except a credenza and television pushed against a wall. The dishwasher held a pond of stagnant water. A loose bedroom window sash fell out onto one guest’s forehead. On the same property across the yard, not more than twenty feet away, were two smaller cabins. A family with young children had been renting them for two months, quarantining in one and lending the second to rotating groups of friends. The ground was scattered with toys and drying bathing suits.

I later learned that the owner, Deirdre Patton, a former bar owner in New York City who moved to the Catskills in 2016, had closed on the property with her partner at the beginning of the year and expected to spend a leisurely year fixing up the houses, in between renting them for the weekends. Instead, she told me, the coronavirus struck, and “we went into mad pandemic time just trying to renovate them really quickly, because so many people wanted long-term rentals.” When the house and larger cabin first went on Airbnb in early June, “We rented both of them without any pictures.” The woman who had cancelled had actually arrived and been disappointed with the lack of polish: “It wasn’t quite the condo they were hoping for, so they left,” Patton said. I reserved it less than twelve hours later. Patton’s three Airbnbs on the property in Tannersville, and another two nearby, have been booked solid the entire summer, and fall looks no slower. In another act of pandemic entrepreneurship, she also turned a coffee shop she owns in town into an artisanal contactless grocery store.

When the pandemic first arrived in New York City, in March, most people did not immediately attempt to get away. Second-home owners who did retreat to the countryside became the targets of public disdain for serving as vectors of possible infection; in late March, several upstate New York counties issued announcements asking weekenders to stay away. But, as social distancing continued into the summer and infection rates in New York declined, city dwellers became desperate for a break from urban quarantine and newly interested in the spatial plenitude to be found in rural areas. The closest at hand were the Hudson Valley, just to the north of the city along the river; the Catskills, the mountainous area west of the Hudson; and even central New York, north of the Catskills. These areas have been standbys for New Yorkers since the eighteenth century, but their peak passed in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, when affordable air travel expanded horizons. The area has seen growth again in the past decade, but nothing like that of the past six months. During the pandemic, affluent New Yorkers who might otherwise escape to Palm Springs, Tulum, or Bali have settled for a different kind of vacation, more like taking a leave of absence from urban life, a few hours’ car ride away.

The consequence is a kind of upstate gold rush, with property owners cashing in. Airbnb searches for “less densely populated” destinations were up fifty per cent in August of 2020, with upstate New York one of the most in-demand areas for long-term stays, according to a report released by the company. (Others include the mountains of Vermont; Portland, Maine; Summit County, Colorado; Whitefish, Montana; and the Shenandoah region, in Virginia.) “Our rural hosts are earning much more,” Alexandra Dagg, the senior policy director at Airbnb for Canada and the northeastern United States, told me, adding that those in Oneonta, in central New York, saw a two-hundred-per-cent increase in income in June, 2020, over June, 2019. I was shocked to learn that even Utica, a bleak, clammy Rust Belt city an hour north of Oneonta, where my grandparents live, saw a forty-one-per-cent jump.

Catskill Mountain House, between 1900 and 1910.Photograph from Detroit Publishing Company / Library of Congress

The surge in demand has left both hosts and guests scrambling. Aleksis Bertoni, an architectural designer living in Brooklyn, was searching for an upstate Airbnb for his fiancée’s thirtieth birthday, in August. “We asked to reserve three or four, and all of them rejected or denied our requests,” Bertoni said; it turned out that many owners had moved into their second homes during the pandemic but failed to take down their listings. Bertoni finally came upon a polished four-bedroom house, in downtown Hudson. The owner had been living in it, too, but noticing the boom she decided it would be worth vacating for a weekend rental—for two thousand dollars, more than double the usual price. Bertoni had a pleasant stay there, but a friend of mine had less luck renting a Catskills cabin with a group of friends in August. On the group’s first night in the house, my friend explained, the water from the faucets ran rust-red before stopping entirely. One of the guests happened to work in water treatment and later jerry-rigged a solution, but the management company didn’t respond to their complaints until after the trip was over. There was also a baby gate installed on the stairs to the basement, which had been advertised as finished; when they clambered down, they discovered a large hole in the ceiling.

Jennifer Grimes runs Red Cottage Inc., a boutique upstate vacation-rental service, which promises to free guests from the inconsistency of Airbnb. Her “curated portfolio” of rentals—clear water guaranteed—has barely had a day available since the middle of March. (I know because I tried.) “Everybody was contacting us saying, ‘Your calendar isn’t working!’ Sadly for them, it’s working just fine.” Many of the homes listed on the site, three of which Grimes herself owns, are well renovated, modern, bright, and stocked with mid-century chairs, partaking of the airy smoothness that characterizes the archetypal appealing Airbnb. With the pandemic, though, “We went from hospitality to safe housing,” Grimes said. “The questions changed overnight, from ‘Is the hot tub open?’ to ‘What are the megabits per second for the Internet?’ ” Many white-collar workers are still working remotely, which is encouraging them to book longer stays, as the Airbnb report found. Grimes set a two-week minimum booking to comply with coronavirus quarantine recommendations, and many of her clients have extended their stays; two sets of guests are booked through next March.

Paul Caiozzo, the founder of a branding agency in Manhattan and a usual resident of Clinton Hill, is one of the owners who decided to rent out his family’s “Ideal Mountain House,” as Red Cottage lists it, in the Catskills hamlet of Olivebridge. In March, as things were worsening in the city, he and his wife and two children fled to the house, a glassy box with the austere décor of a Blue Bottle Coffee. They stayed until June 1st. “I always knew that I’m not a permanent country guy, but we all harbor a fantasy that we can be,” Caiozzo said. “I was thrilled to go home.” When he opened the house to rentals, it was booked immediately. “You get to an Airbnb, there’s no pots and pans, there’s no knives; we have really fancy stuff in the house.” The listing advertises mattresses, linens, and towels from the startup Parachute and a chef’s kitchen featuring a Bertazzoni range—a “modern take on a cabin in the woods.”

Even so, Caiozzo isn’t optimistic about city dwellers’ long-term prospects upstate. “What you’re going to see is a next wave back, call it a year or two away. You’ll see people come home,” he said. His family, however, has moved once more, from Brooklyn across the Atlantic, to a rental apartment in Lisbon. They looked for a place with low infection rates where schools were fully open, and Portugal won out. “I can talk on Zoom in front of a white wall somewhere else. It came down to, did we want to move to Stockholm in September or be on the beach in September?” Caiozzo, who also has Italian citizenship, said. “I got introduced to this guy named João—he lived around the block in Brooklyn. Now we’re renting a place from his best friend. The government is working really hard to get you here. They’re trying to position themselves as a remote-work hub.” Meanwhile, Caiozzo’s mountain house has scattered availability in November and December, at a pandemic premium of two thousand and seven hundred dollars per week.

Pandemic migration, temporary or not, is the continuation of a very old inequity. The rich are always more mobile than the poor, especially in the case of an emergency. The Times has recently made a cottage industry out of urban flight, trumpeting “coronavirus escape” as early as May and offering guides for buyers on choosing the right suburb. Such headlines have been met with a riposte of data showing that suburban houses are not actually selling any faster than urban ones and urban real estate is not seeing price cuts in many cities, as Curbed reported. But in specific spots like upstate, at least, the shift is very real. Megan Brenn-White, a marketer turned real-estate agent who moved from Brooklyn to Kerhonkson, in the Catskills, in 2016, told me that her Keller Williams team did twenty-four million dollars in sales in 2019; this year, she predicts sixty million dollars. In Ulster County, in the Catskills, where she is based, the median home-closing price in July, 2020, was three hundred and twenty thousand dollars, compared with a little more than two hundred and seventy thousand in July, 2019. “We’re seeing prices routinely ten to twenty per cent above ask or more,” she said. (Data are still scarce because homes take up to three months to close.)

Sales aren’t just to new residents. “We’re seeing people who are also starting to sell their weekend places to get bigger places or places that are less remote,” Brenn-White said. The dream for a lot of people, she said, is no longer a cabin hidden in the trees down a long dirt road: “They want to be within ten minutes of Kingston.” It’s another throwback: many of the grandest houses in the area were built boastfully close to main roads, long before the risk of motor noise. Driving through the region today, you see the houses standing stately and tall but often crumbling, their faded glamour perhaps due for revival.

On Brenn-White’s Instagram account, @upstate_realestate, she shares stories and posts presenting an aspirational image of upstate life, offering all the possibilities attracting city dwellers: rustic barns, secret hiking trails, easy dog ownership, hygge cabin interiors with big fireplaces. Along with her husband, a designer, she owns three houses; when I spoke with Brenn-White, they were living in one of them and renting out the other two on Airbnb, one in Kerhonkson and one in Livingston Manor. One family booked a two-week-long stay in March and ended up staying through July, extending month by month, forcing Brenn-White to cancel other preëxisting bookings. She had little recourse: “When people stay over thirty days, they get the same rights as long-term tenants,” she said, plus “there were no evictions because of COVID.” She threw her agency’s resources into helping the family find an alternative; they eventually bought a property and left the Airbnb. “What we’re telling people now is, just buy if you can,” Brenn-White said. “Think of it as a rental; don’t make it be perfect.”

Profiting from pandemic-era travel or migration—whether by renting out a home, selling off property, or taking a commission on either—is almost as fraught as deciding to travel yourself: the safest option, as long as the pandemic lasts, is for people to stay put. Many states, including New York, Connecticut, Kentucky, New Mexico, and Maine, still mandate fourteen-day self-quarantine periods for visitors from places with higher infection rates; some accept negative test results as an alternative. Still, Casey Scieszka, the proprietor of the Spruceton Inn in West Kill, New York, decided to remain closed when other hotels began reopening in June. “I have not become more comfortable with being personally responsible for any possible hospitalizations or deaths,” Scieszka said. It’s not for lack of demand: “People e-mail me, direct-message me, call me every single day.” In a typical summer, the inn sees two thousand or so travellers, Scieszka said; she worries about the impact so many visitors would have on the county, which doesn’t have its own hospital. “When you grow up in a capitalist society in America, you are trained to feel crazy when you choose to not make money when you possibly could,” she said. For now, her family is instead living off her husband’s earnings as a children’s-book author and illustrator and painter.

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