Alyssa Duffy and her boyfriend had established a busy life in Worcester. But when the pandemic hit, they decided they would feel safer in a place less crowded, partly because Duffy’s boyfriend has a compromised immune system.
So they moved to a quiet corner of Plymouth, steps away from the beach. And Duffy quickly found her new home to be a safe harbor when infections peaked and people hunkered down.
"During quarantine you had to bet on nature and being outside," Duffy said, looking out at the ocean on a recent overcast Friday. "If I were in Worcester, there wouldn't be any beaches around me. It was a city that closed down.”
Over the past year, many people like Duffy fled busy urban areas and flocked to quieter and sometimes more affordable ones like Plymouth, according to a WBUR analysis of change of address forms filed with the U.S. Postal Service from March 2020 through February 2021. The postal service released the data after WBUR and others filed public records requests for the information.
Nadia Evangelou, senior economist and director of forecasting at the National Association of Realtors, said national data shows people are leaving "some of the country's most popular areas and relocating to the suburbs."
Evangelou said the moves were likely driven by the opportunity to work remotely and the desire for more space.
The postal service data shows that many of the Bay State communities that gained residents last year had been growing for some time, but the pace of growth accelerated during the COVID era.
And no place in Massachusetts gained as many residents as Plymouth during the pandemic. More than 1,000 people moved to the town's main ZIP code through the end of February, postal data shows.
Ralph Grassia, a real estate broker, couldn’t miss the irony. Plymouth historically provided refuge to the Pilgrims over 400 years ago. Now, he said, it provided safe haven to a new wave of settlers during the COVID storm.
"There's a new wave of pilgrims that have come out of the cities and are coming to the Plymouth area," said Grassia, branch manager for real estate firm Kinlin Grover.
The influx has been a boon to sellers. Grassia, who has worked in the real estate business in the area since 1985, said he can’t recall a time when people were as aggressive looking for homes. Redfin, a real estate brokerage firm, reported that the median sale price for homes in Plymouth surpassed $506,000 in May, up 19% from a year ago, with homes typically selling above the list price.
"The agents were busy," Grassia said. "Our website had record hits last year at this time.”
The postal service data shows that other ZIP codes with large net increases of people moving in covered areas of Mashpee, Greater Barrington, Chatham, Westford and Provincetown. The full list includes a mix of outlying suburbs, where costs are cheaper, and popular vacation destinations.
WBUR used 12 months of data to reduce the effect of seasonal moves, such as people who move to the Cape every summer or people who head to Florida every winter.
By contrast to the ZIP codes welcoming newcomers, thousands of people moved out of urban cities in and around Boston as many businesses and universities shuttered their offices and went online. And no area lost as many people as Brighton, according to postal data.
Two of the residents who left were Colette Reynolds and her roommate, who packed up a U-Haul as soon their apartment lease in Brighton expired last September. They moved to Waltham, where they found they could get more space for the money.
“I liked my apartment” in Brighton, Reynolds said, “but it was a small two-bedroom with no outside space, and I was kind of losing my mind, especially with another roommate.”
Though schools are reopening, it’s not entirely clear whether all the residents will return. On a recent Saturday, real estate broker Neil Eustice worried hardly anyone would even show up for an open house.
“I doubt we’re going to have much traffic today,” he said, noting the sunny weather and the fact that the unit had already been sitting on the market for weeks.
Eustice said he personally worked with many people moving to the suburbs to save money or get more space, including a couple that recently bought a home in Framingham for $530,000. He guessed the same house would cost more than 50% more in Brighton.
But Eustice is confident people will eventually return to Brighton as colleges and universities resume in-person classes in the fall. He noted students often come for classes and then stick around for a while after they graduate.
“People will want to come back,” he said.
And then, almost on cue, people walked into the doors of his open house.
This segment aired on July 2, 2021.