Aly Berger first realized what she was missing as she viewed Instagram stories from her friends in New York City.
It was late June and most coronavirus restrictions on businesses and social gatherings had been lifted.
“People were back at bars and restaurants without masks and having fun and kind of returning to normal life,” says Berger, 24, a product marketing manager for a tech startup who watched the action unfold on social media from her apartment in San Francisco.
“When you look at how the cities have bounced back and how they've changed, New York has just done that so much better," she says. "It is livelier. Things are open later.”
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In August, Berger and her boyfriend, Ryan Jacobsen, an investment banker, both of whom have been working remotely over the pandemic, decided to test out the Big Apple by renting an apartment on Airbnb for four weeks.
This month, Berger signed a lease on an apartment in the West Village with two other friends who are making a similar move from California. Her boyfriend is moving in with his friends to another NYC apartment.
Berger and Jacobsen are not the only ones making the move.
Remote work and lower rents have enabled young workers from around the country to live their New York City dream while working for a distant boss. After more than a year of major rental concessions as the city emptied out during the pandemic, the current influx is causing rental bidding wars and record-breaking leasing activity.
Rental activity started picking up in April just as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout began gaining steam. It marked the highest number of Manhattan lease signings on record, according to a report by Douglas Elliman Real Estate, which was prepared by real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller.
The uptick in activity was also spurred on by continued price declines (which had dropped close to 20%) and landlord concessions, with the average lease length rising each month since January as tenants locked in discounts.
In June, more new rental leases were signed than in any previous month since at least 2008. By August, even as COVID-19 discounts began evaporating, new lease signing rose by 63% year-over-year, and the net effective median rent fell annually by its lowest rate in fifteen months, according to the Elliman report.
John DeLorenzo, 28, who works as a director of software engineering at a Boston-based technology company decided to act on his long-held wish to live in New York.
Over the pandemic, he had been working remotely out of his apartment in South Boston.
He scheduled a slate of apartment tours over the Fourth of July weekend in 2020 and found a discounted one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side for $3,000.
Then he called his boss.
“I asked, ‘how do we think we feel about me just converting to being a telecommuter full time and he basically just said, do it,” DeLorenzo says.
Last September, as he observed early signs of a New York comeback – with a lively outdoor dining scene – DeLorenzo asked his landlord if he could extend his lease to June of 2022, with a $600 reduction in rent. His landlord agreed.
“I knew prices would be going up,” he says.
The market share of two-year leases stood at 54% in August, up sharply from the January low of 16% as tenants continued to lock in longer-term leases to preserve savings.
It’s a phenomenon that runs counter to the severe handwringing that ensued during the depths of the pandemic over whether New York was dead. Even comedian Jerry Seinfeld felt the need to respond via a New York Times op-ed to “some putz on LinkedIn” who predicted as much.
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Miller calls it a “youth renaissance.”
“Manhattan saw the most outbound migration because of its greater wealth and mobility,” he says. “And those consumers could afford to buy a second home to go somewhere else in the country temporarily.”
That caused rents to plummet.
“The result was the inbound migration of younger renters coming in and taking advantage of greater affordability,” he says. “That essentially primed the pump and gave a jumpstart to renewed activity in the leasing market.”
Christopher Morales, a real estate broker with Douglas Elliman who helped Berger and her friends find the apartment, says they viewed it via Zoom. Berger's boyfriend, who was in New York (and looking for his own place) toured in person with him.
Berger, who moved to San Francisco after graduating from Dartmouth in 2019, says the pandemic has allowed companies to try out the fully remote model and offer more flexibility to employees, letting them live where they feel most at home.
In her case, the native Texan’s choice is New York.
“We've really lost those two years right out of college. So I want to be super social, I want to be going out,” she says. “I want to be staying up all night like we missed doing with COVID," she says, adding, "San Francisco just doesn't really offer that. New York is a lot more fun.”
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Living the NYC dream: Remote work and a 'youth renaissance'