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Families reunite in pandemic and rethink what home means

Sandy Kramer, 71, stands with her daughter Jennie Gordon, 40, son-in-law Seth Gordon, 40, grandson Myles Gordon, 8, and granddaughter Madeline Gordon, 6, at the Gordon’s home in Franklin, Mass. Kramer moved from Tucson to help her daughter. (Sophie Park/For The Washington Post)

Sandy Kramer had never planned to return to Massachusetts. For the past 17 years, Kramer, 71, a retired medical librarian, and her late husband lived in Tucson. There, she said, she had a community of like-minded friends who shared her interests in travel, quilting and antique-button collecting. And then the pandemic hit.

“My daughter, Jennie, called me, and she was telling me that it was very stressful for them because of the children,” Kramer said. Jennie Gordon and her husband, Seth, were working full time in Franklin, Mass., and were trying to negotiate care for their two young children, ages 6 and 8. “So I said: ‘You know what? I’m retired now,’ ” Kramer said. “I’m going to get on a plane.”

Kramer, who is originally from Brookline, Mass., came to Franklin for an extended stay with the family. The stay, she said, was meant to be temporary, but after extending her trip multiple times, she decided to uproot her Tucson life and return to Massachusetts for good. Now, the Gordons are adding an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom “in-law” dwelling onto their 3,100-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home so Kramer can have her own space. In January, Kramer sold her 2,300-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom Tucson home, as well as many of her belongings.

The move, Kramer said, developed organically from the experience of reconnecting with family. Her siblings and mother are still in Massachusetts, and when she returned, “it made me realize how important it was to be with family.”

Choosing the suburbs over city life during the pandemic

Kramer’s experience is not an outlier. According to a recent YouGov survey conducted by Miro, an online collaborative whiteboard platform, proximity to friends and family is a driving reason for relocation. Of the 1,000 survey participants, 40 percent said being closer to relatives was their primary reason for relocation. Thirty-four percent of those surveyed said they would probably relocate if remote work were to become permanent in their companies.

Adding to that data, the 2020 United Van Lines Migration Study established that 40 percent of Americans who moved last year did so for a new job or transfer — down from 50 percent in 2019 — while 27 percent moved to be closer to family, “which is significantly up over prior years.” With the traditional workplace changing, and traveling to see relatives a complex situation in the pandemic, people from around the country are moving with the express purpose of being closer to family members. For many, these moves are not temporary.

A 'wake-up call'

Moving was permanent for Unique Michael, who had been traveling abroad for about a year when the pandemic called him home. Michael, 29, who works as a creative and technical copywriter for Alpine IQ, had planned to wrap up his year abroad with a home purchase in Brooklyn. Faced with a world in flux, he abruptly changed course, moving to Mobile, Ala., to live with his mother, Sharmila Michael. Michael was compelled to return, he said, because his mother, a pharmacist, was on the front lines of the covid-19 crisis.

“It was this really big kind of wake-up call for me,” he said of the pandemic. He realized, he said, “how selfish I was,” and that he should return home to make sure his mother was okay. He decided to “find a way to make my advertising career work while also being here for my mom, and supporting her through a pandemic, and not just finding a job and jumping ship and treating my mom like an island.”

Michael chose to put down roots in Mobile. In October, he and his mother purchased a 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom home together. The move, he said, has been for the better. “We have a real relationship, and it’s something that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” he said. “If a company offered me six figures to go off and live somewhere else right now, I’d say no.”

Minimizing angst on a long-distance move

Dan Schawbel also embraced the permanence of a move to be near family. Schawbel, 37, the managing partner of Workplace Intelligence, had signed a lease on an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side when his plans were interrupted last winter. He grew up in Newton, Mass., but had spent the past few years living in various locations. His lease on the 630-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment was only two months old when he relocated to his parents’ 1,880-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom Massachusetts apartment, for a stay that lasted seven months.

“It felt like the safe and responsible thing to do,” he said.

After more than a half-year at his parents’ apartment, Schawbel decided not to return to New York, opting instead to move to an 850-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Dedham, Mass., just 20 minutes away from them. That move, he said, was made in the interest of his relationships and mental well-being.

“Parents and family are symbols of safety and security,” he said. “If I’m alone in New York, or wherever else, and I don’t have that type of access and support system, I feel less safe and secure.” Part of that safety, from Schawbel’s perspective, concerns combating the anxiety and mental health pitfalls surrounding isolation.

Connecting with relatives

For Emily Klein and Valerie Fleming, moving closer to family meant an opportunity for their children, ages 3 and 1, to connect more fully with their relatives. In January, the couple, who had been living in a 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in San Francisco, bought a 2,800-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home — sight unseen — in D.C.

During the pandemic, distance from family and time spent in close quarters had ultimately convinced them to move to the East Coast. Fleming, 39, who works in finance and operations in the tech industry, gave birth to the couple’s youngest child last March, which was, she said, a defining moment.

“I really was upset with the thought that our families wouldn’t meet the baby,” she said. “This was a thing for me that I couldn’t just get over.” Living in the Bay Area also meant that Klein, 39, who works in corporate finance, was far from her Nashville-based family.

After relocating, the couple and their two children are close to Fleming’s parents and sister, and are closer to Klein’s family, which they said has changed the dynamic of the relationship their children have with their grandparents.

“There’s a really nice comfort level that wasn’t there when we were so far away,” Fleming said. That comfort level, she said, has made a difference. The couple’s children view their relatives as members of their intimate circle now, rather than as “strangers.”

Searching for an affordable home in a tight market

Some coronavirus relocations may be temporary, but have served the same purpose of reuniting disparate family members. Last spring, Susannah Maher, 49, learned her landlord would be selling her Brooklyn building. She left behind her 650-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment and headed north, to Rockland, Maine, near where her sister and father live.

“We have a family home that was empty at the time, so I just jumped on that window of opportunity,” she said.

In the intervening year, Maher, who is currently between jobs, has bounced between places in New England, staying in coastal Maine, Cape Cod, Mass., and Burlington, Vt. Her father, who is in his late 80s, suffers from dementia, she said, and one objective in her year north has been to remain close to him.

The other has been to assist and spend time with her 4-year-old niece, with whom she has grown close. Maher has not made up her mind about where she will eventually land, but the experience of relocating has been driven — and continues to be driven — by family.

“There’s a significant bond being formed with my niece,” she said. She also noted that, “no one’s time here is forever,” recognizing the importance of being near her father.

No longer 'tethered' to desks

The real estate market, said John Eric, senior vice president and senior adviser for Compass in Arlington, Va., has been reframed by the coronavirus. “The pandemic has reset the wants and needs of Americans across the board, and what they can actually do now that really fits the lifestyle in which they want to live,” Eric said.

Over the past year, Eric said he has seen “a huge influx of people” arriving from outside the D.C. area. “The driving factors, in many cases, have been ‘closer to family.’ ” An increasingly remote-friendly working world has made this priority shift a very real possibility.

How the D.C.-area housing market fared in 2020 by Zip code

Alison Bernstein, 45, the founder and CEO of the Suburban Jungle Group, an advisory service that helps families find the best suburbs for their needs, has found that workplace freedom has given rise to more family-based migrations.

“It’s really giving people more freedom to say: Hey, let me look not just in the New York suburbs. Let me look in Austin, let me look in Florida,” she said. Her clients, she said, are taking into account where their families are rooted, since they are no longer “tethered” to their desks. They are reevaluating what is most important to them.

In reconciling what is important in life, many people have ultimately concluded that family — and proximity to them — is most meaningful. It’s not where to live, Americans are saying, but who to live near.

“When you’re with family,” Kramer said, “it’s a very supportive and loving and warm environment to be in.”