Long before COVID-19 became a household name, thousands of Long Islanders were already feeling squeezed by the area's high cost of living. Throw a pandemic and job losses into the mix and you've got a recipe for disaster, one that has left many scrambling to afford rent and other essentials, and forcing some to make a tough call: stay here and struggle or pack up and go?
"You're in a high cost of living area and now all of a sudden you have no job, which means you have no money. You also have to consider that we're in a place where for so many people, it's hard to save," said Joshua Daniel, a real estate agent at Melville-based Emerald City Realty who specializes in foreclosures and relocation services.
"Without any sort of cushion or savings to fall back on, when something like [the pandemic] happens...what I've seen and heard from a lot of my clients is that it's kind of like a 'time to face the music' moment, in which many of them are coming to that hard realization that it's time to do what they've got to do to improve their financial and living situation, and for a lot of people, that unfortunately means having to relocate."
Inquiries from callers seeking help with relocation services have spiked in recent weeks, Daniel said.
"The increase in demand is undeniable," he said. "People are furloughed, they're on unemployment...they're really struggling, so they're thinking 'Well, where can I go and live a more comfortable, even lavish life with the money I do have?' They're mostly looking at southern states, like Florida, Texas, South Carolina and North Carolina."
In June, more than 224,000 Long Islanders — 106,300 in Nassau and 117,900 in Suffolk — were collecting unemployment benefits, and tens of thousands more were receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, paid to those not normally eligible for jobless aid, according to the latest Labor Department data. Recipients of both types of benefits were getting an extra $600 a week in enhanced federal aid, but that bonus ended in July. Congress has not acted to extend it, and a proposal by President Donald Trump for a $300 federal bonus is mired in legal and funding challenges.
The job losses are motivating many to move, according to a June study by moving help site HireaHelper.com, which found that high-rent cities like San Francisco and New York saw 80% more people leaving than moving in, while New York state had 64% more people leaving than moving in. Of those who moved, 37% said it was because they couldn't afford their housing due to a loss of job or income.
Across the country, about 22% of U.S. adults said they had relocated due to the pandemic or knew someone who had, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in June.
'I hate to go, but I have to'
Colin Feeney loves Long Island. He grew up in Manhasset and got his first apartment with his girlfriend in Lindenhurst. But for the 26-year-old, who worked as an event promoter and rock band tour manager, losing his job during the pandemic put an abrupt end to his days here.
"We did the math, and based on some money we had saved and what we're getting in unemployment [benefits], we figured we could probably make it for about three or four more months, spending strictly on nothing but the minimum, paying for rent, bills and food, without accounting for pretty much anything else...no extras," he said.
"So, as much as I love it here, it became clear very quickly that it just wasn't financially feasible anymore."
Feeney's girlfriend Julia DiMartino, 24, who worked as a manager at a retail clothing store in Roosevelt Field, is immunocompromised and as a health precaution stopped working months ago. The couple has since been living off their savings, DiMartino's online sale of thrifted items, and the combined $684 a week they receive in unemployment benefits since the $600 federal enhancement ended.
"That's roughly $2,700 [a month], which is not bad," Feeney said. "Except for the fact that rent alone for our small one-bedroom apartment is $1,800, then add our car notes, insurance, groceries...it's just not enough money."
Feeney and DiMartino put their heads together and started looking elsewhere, quickly settling on Louisville, Kentucky.
"Colin has a lot of friends who are in the music scene there so we thought it'd be a good place to look," DiMartino said.
"We went online and started looking for apartments on websites like Zillow and noticed how much cheaper all the listings were... we were like 'wow, there we can probably get a house!' So, we looked at some of those, put in some inquiries and in maybe a matter of about 12 hours, we were in talks to sign a lease."
They drove to Kentucky to check out the property in person and make it official. That was less than a month ago, Feeney said.
"We've already started selling most of our stuff...we actually have someone coming over to look at our couch later today," he said.
"And we've also started packing all the things we do want to take with us into a small trailer we're attaching to the back of my car. The plan is having everything set and ready to go in about two weeks."
In Kentucky, a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom house "with a fully renovated kitchen, a nice porch and a huge backyard" awaits, DiMartino, who's originally from Rochester, said with excitement, adding "it has a washer and dryer, too!"
The rent? $1,800 — "the same amount ... as we've been paying here, but we'll have so much more space and extra rooms we can rent should we need the added income, plus the area is overall so much more affordable in almost every way," Feeney said.
"But leaving Long Island, it's still bittersweet."
He added: "If I lived in my parents' basement like most of my friends do...maybe I'd be able to stay."
Even so, the frustration over the Island's high cost of living is not exclusive to the younger generation, said Linda Provezano Gonzalez, 39, a former Sound Beach resident and founder of a private Facebook group titled "Escape from Long Island to North Carolina!"
Provezano Gonzalez did just that four years ago when she relocated her family of four to Cary, North Carolina — an area many joke was named for its high population of former New Yorkers, referring to it as a "containment area for relocated Yankees."
She had thought of moving for a while but said she finally did so when she "reached the end of my rope."
Her Facebook page, which now has more than 3,000 members, serves as a resource for other locals thinking of making the same move, most of them for similar reasons.
"We got to a point where we just couldn't do it anymore. I'm a massage therapist, my husband was in retail and it was the rent, the taxes, child care, the high prices when we'd go out to eat, you know it's not the one thing, it's everything," she said.
"Here, you definitely get more of a bang for your buck, your money takes you further and that helps to ease so much of the stress. It's a better quality of life."
That depends on who you ask, said John A. Rizzo, chief economist for the Long Island Association business group and an economics professor at Stony Brook University.
"While it doesn't surprise me that there are many families who feel this way and are deeply distressed by the high costs here, you also have to realize that we enjoy far greater health and education services than in most other states and areas of the country," he said.
"Unfortunately, that's the trade-off. If your most pressing needs are paying rent and putting food on the table, you may fare well by relocating, but if your priorities include access to good schools, good health services, like the ones we have here, then maybe not."
Regarding the Island's high cost of living, Rizzo said: "There's no quick fix."
"If more people continue moving away, it could lower our GDP [gross domestic product], the tax base, productivity...it's never a good thing when there's a loss in population," he said, adding that the thinning of the Island's middle class would be devastating to the local economy.
The distribution of income has become much more skewed over time, he said, increasing disparities and shrinking the middle class. "That's not a regional problem, that's a national one."
'Senseless to Stay'
For Melissa and Rian Guy of Westbury, making ends meet on Long Island was already challenging before the coronavirus outbreak resulted in permanent furloughs for both of them.
Thanks to the pandemic, Melissa, 35, who for years worked as a director at Bay Shore's Boulton Center for the Performing Arts, and Rian, 37, a longtime receptionist at a veterinary hospital in West Islip, were suddenly unemployed, Melissa said.
"Oh, it was awful, just like the rug was pulled out from under us," she said. "And immediately, we tried everything we could to make money and stay afloat."
Together, they spent hours on end, each applying to more than 20 jobs a day for several days, she said. But it was all to no avail.
"We applied to administrative assistant jobs, customer service jobs, grocery stores, everything and anything we saw listed but not one, not a single one called us back," she said.
The two then filed for unemployment benefits, and each received the extra $600 a week in enhanced federal aid until the program ended at the end of July.
"That's when we turned to each other and said 'All right, let's buckle down, let's cut our expenses as much as possible, save as much as we can and get out of here," Melissa said.
The Guys, who are parents to two toddlers, Nesta, 3, and Gryffin, 1, slashed their budget by downsizing their cell phone plan, selling Rian's 2006 Nissan Altima, trimming the grass — at Melissa's parents' house where they'd lived since getting married 5 years ago — themselves instead of paying a landscaper, and "being ultra-conscious of where each dollar was going," Rian said.
When they received their federal stimulus money, "we saved all of it," he said. "We were determined because we realized it made no sense to stay. We're getting nowhere here. We're killing ourselves working just to live here without even being able to afford our own place."
Rian recalls times the financial crunch forced him to make difficult decisions.
"I wanted to take some online classes to learn how to code in hopes of being able to improve our situation down the road," he said.
"But to pay for them, I had to cut something else, which at that time meant having to cancel my daughter's swimming lessons. It's things like that; you're constantly having to make those types of sacrifices ...we didn't want to live like that anymore."
With several thousand dollars in newly saved money, the couple started shopping for a new home state online.
"We were eyeing Georgia and North Carolina but the more I searched the more I noticed that in Atlanta, there were thousands of jobs being added on employment websites like Indeed and ZipRecruiter daily, even with COVID," Melissa said. "That's when I said, 'Atlanta, it is!'"
While Melissa admits she's sad to leave the only home she's ever known and hates having to say goodbye to her parents, she said leaving was "the only real option."
It's "the best thing for our family," she said. It was something "we had to do for ourselves in order to move forward...we just couldn't afford not to."