New Yorkers have been flocking to the small towns of Washington and Roxbury during the pandemic. Here’s why.

Photo of Rob Ryser

WASHINGTON - It’s not uncommon these days to pull up to a stop sign in Washington Depot and have two or even three cars ahead of you.

Neighboring Roxbury has seen similar and undeniable signs that the New Yorkers have indeed arrived to sample this quiet country life in the wooded hills of Litchfield County.

“Absolutely,” says Barbara Henry, Roxbury’s top-elected leader for the last 24 years. “I think we are going to see even more of this in the next year.”

While the future is no easier to forecast than a year ago, statistics from 2020 crunched by a national real estate research firm back up Henry’s prediction - namely that Roxbury and three Washington communities rank in Connecticut’s 10 hottest ZIP codes for newcomer growth, when figures are adjusted for population.

The latest analysis of U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data by the Dallas-based commercial real estate firm CBRE shows that Roxbury and the Washington communities of New Preston, Marble Dale and Washington Depot had net migration rates between 56 and 60 percent - compared to the vast majority of Connecticut ZIP codes that showed a much lower rate of growth in newcomers, and in many cases a net loss.

The reason will not surprise those who’ve followed the headlines about the wave of New Yorkers fleeing the pandemic-related pressures of urban density for a new home in Connecticut.

For some Manhattanites and other urban dwellers, the coronavirus crisis has transformed cities into what one CBRE economist calls a “poisonous cocktail” of high density and high cost.

Real estate agents and other observers in a position to know the minds of Washington and Roxbury’s newest residents say newcomers are buying homes here more than elsewhere in Connecticut because it’s quiet, rural and private.

The exception to this explanation is downtown Stamford, where the ZIP code 06901 was a top hot spot last year for net newcomer growth, with a net migration rate of 65.

“People are choosing this rural area specifically because it is not a suburb like Westchester County (N.Y.) or Greenwich,” said Jeff Phillips, a real estate agent with Madonna & Phillips Real Estate Group at William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, who has an office in Washington. “They appreciate the charm of a tiny little grocery store and a farmer’s market and our one state trooper.”

Roxbury’s First Selectman Henry agrees.

“This is a bucolic atmosphere where there is room in between homes, and there is a lot of respect for people’s privacy,” she said of the town’s resident artists. “People who are famous and have a lot of notoriety know they can walk the roads and people won’t come up to them and ask for their autograph.”

The impact New Yorkers are having on these two small New England towns is most profound at Region 12 Schools - a district comprised of Bridgewater, Roxbury and Washington, which saw enrollment jump by 105 students in August. The entire district typically has fewer than 700 students at the start of the school year.

Absorbing New Yorkers

“We were a bit nervous about what class size would be because of the pandemic, but the New Yorkers came in and we were able to absorb them,” said schools Superintendent Megan Bennett during an interview this week. “They brought in a new and wonderful energy to our schools.”

It remains to be seen how many New Yorkers choose to keep living in Litchfield as vaccinations increase, infection rates wane, and companies call employees back to the office. The same question is being asked across Connecticut, where 30,000 households from the Big Apple relocated in 2020.

CBRE data showed that Roxbury, a town of 2,180, had 91 more households move into town in 2020 than households that moved out, compared to a net loss of 31 households in 2019.

In Washington Depot, New Preston and Marble Dale, with a combined population of 1,900, 57 more households moved into those communities than households that moved out in 2020, compared to a net loss in those same communities of 58 households in 2019.

The result is a housing shortage that Phillips calls “very frustrating for buyers and discouraging for us as realtors.”

“The good news is this is a good place to live where people don’t want to put their houses on the market - even if I say, ‘I have a buyer for you at this price,’” Phillips said. “There is absolutely is a shortage of homes, because there is not a lot of land, and (new home) contractors are two years out.”

Homes are going from $750,000 to $6 million on Lake Waramaug.

Meanwhile leaders are wondering how long it will last.

“We are planning for next year with some degree of uncertainty by not knowing,” Region 12’s Bennett said. “Our hope is that they stay.”

Region 12 has already been at work to assure new families that they are welcome. School board members reached out to newcomers last fall to answer questions and offer help making families feel at home.

“This is a place where people look out for one another and make connections early on, and we are seeing that,” Bennett said. “We watch parents waiting for their kids to cross the street to school, and then the parents go off in a group to form new connections. If they feel connected, they won’t want to leave.”

Henry agrees.

“A small town is like a big family - it really is,” Henry said. “As long as there is not an election going on, we all get along, because it really is a special place.” 203-731-3342