CINCINNATI – Lana Santavicca couldn’t wait for the moving van to arrive last month at her big house in the Indian Springs subdivision of Sharonville, a northern suburb of Cincinnati.

The award-winning horticulturalist whose outdoor gardens have been featured in Cincinnati Housetrends magazine recently bought a third-floor condo in the historic American Building in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, just north of downtown.

The retired 6th-grade teacher in the Princeton elementary schools had been planning to downsize and move to the city’s urban core for the past eight years. 

“I just love the area and the building,” she said, referring to the 18-story Art Deco condo tower on East Central Parkway that she now calls home. “It’s close to everything and convenient. I have no reservations about moving there because of COVID or anything else.”

Neither COVID-19 nor the police protests and civil unrest that continue to plague Cincinnati and other cities across the country could deter Santavicca from her dream of trading the quiet life for the vitality of living in the big city.

That may come as a surprise to those who’ve read recent headlines suggesting many Americans are fleeing crowded cities amid the turmoil and COVID-19 crisis, including a USA TODAY headline screaming, “Get me out of here!”

A Harris Poll conducted during the height of the pandemic in April found about 40 percent of urban dwellers said the COVID-19 crisis had prompted them to consider leaving for a less crowded place.

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Not in Cincinnati

That’s not happening in Cincinnati, where demand for houses in city’s urban core was almost twice as great as demand in the suburbs over the yearlong period that ended in June and included the outbreak of the coronavirus and COVID-19, according to a recent market analysis from home-listings giant Zillow.

Zillow researchers looked at home price appreciation in both suburban and urban ZIP codes as an indicator of demand. They found prices in Cincinnati’s urban ZIP codes rose about 10% percent from June 2019 to June 2020 to a weighted median price of $162,220.

Meanwhile, prices in suburban ZIP codes – determined by population density and other measures – rose a little more than 5% to a median weighted price of $202,825 over the same period, according to Zillow.

Overall, home sales in the Cincinnati metro area have sustained a massive comeback since a coronavirus-induced dip in early summer, The Enquirer previously reported.

“Both cities and suburbs are seeing remarkably strong price appreciation and demand right now,” said Jeff Tucker, a Zillow economist and author of Zillow’s 2020 Urban-Suburban Market Report. “But the pace of price appreciation in urban parts of the (Cincinnati) market was one of the most striking takeaways from all the metro areas we looked at.”

In fact, Cincinnati topped the list of metros where home prices were growing faster in urban areas than the suburbs during the Zillow study period. It also showed the biggest difference in growth rates between cities and suburbs in the 30 biggest metro areas in the country.

Bigger cities harder hit

Some of the country’s largest metro areas – including Houston, Atlanta, Washington, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and New York City – saw home prices grow exponentially faster in the suburbs than the cities during the pandemic, Zillow found.

Tucker said the pandemic may have accelerated the ongoing migration out of some of the country’s largest cities, where the high cost of living has led many residents to flee to less expensive cities or suburban enclaves.

But the overall trend in migration nationally has remained relatively stable, according to Tucker, who noted nationally both suburban and urban home prices grew at about the same rate – just over 4%.

It could take months or even years to know definitively how many people will leave cities, but experts say it’s too early to write off urban real estate as a result of COVID-19.

Tim Voss, whose been a development consultant in the Cincinnati area for more than 25 years, acknowledged there are more questions’ about the housing market now than before the pandemic began.

But that hasn’t stopped developers from sinking millions of dollars into urban projects, including a recently proposed townhouse development near the University of Cincinnati on Volkert and Ravine streets for which Voss has been hired as a consultant.

The developer, Doug Newman, wants to knock down an abandoned church and build seven market-rate townhouses there ranging in price from $250,000 to $290,000, according to documents submitted to Cincinnati’s City Planning Commission.

“We started looking into this market before COVID,’’ Voss said. “There’s greater uncertainty now. But ultimately, I think this is a good location…and I believe the city will continue to move forward and things are going to improve.’’

‘Still an amazing place to live’ 

While the outlook remains uncertain, many residents of Cincinnati’s urban core are content to stay put, even though the once-bustling OTR and downtown areas can be hard to recognize these days.

Empty storefronts, vacated office buildings and littered sidewalks left in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and police protests have given the area a somewhat ominous overtone, according to Alex Durst, an employment attorney who lives in Over-the-Rhine and works downtown.

“It’s not as busy or as lively as it was before the pandemic and the protests,” Durst said. “But the core of OTR is still there, and it’s still an amazing place to live.

“I’ve lived here for nearly five years, and I’m definitely not leaving,” he said. “I absolutely love it; being close to all the bars and restaurants and being able to walk to work and stop by (the downtown) Kroger on my way home.”

Still, Durst – who regularly commutes from his OTR condo near 12th and Vine streets to his downtown office – readily acknowledged the area has been scarred by the impact of COVID-19.

Durst said the streets are eerily quiet during the day because so many office workers are now working from home.

As a result, he said, panhandlers seem more aggressive because they have fewer targets, and the police presence that keeps them at bay seems thinner.

“Things have definitely gotten a little rougher down here,” Durst said.

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