There’s a breed of viral article, generally published by The New York Times, Refinery29 or maybe Vogue, that you can tell just from the headline is about to annoy a lot of people online. Keywords might include “homeowners,” “wedding,” and “millennials,” and the subjects are often members of some reviled class, like the descendants of oil barons or New Yorkers who left the city during the pandemic. I always click (how could I not?), read the piece, then some of the most scathing Twitter replies, and carry on with my day.
But what is it like to be one of the people at the center of the rage-read of the week? To find out, I reached out to folks featured in a handful of these sorts of stories, and unsurprisingly, most didn’t really feel like talking. Andrew Joseph, however, did. He was one of the subjects of a February New York Times piece called “They Fled for Greener Pastures, and There Were Weeds,” which featured New York City residents who picked up and moved to more rural areas. He leads a public relations agency and has worked in media for more than two decades, which means he wasn’t too surprised at the response the piece elicited.
“I figured that there would be some kind of a backlash,” he told Jezebel. “I think we live in a world of cancel culture and people having super strong opinions, but I didn’t realize it was going to be as serious as it was.”
The Times story focused on the challenges of country living—yard-work, isolation, uninvited furry neighbors—faced by a handful of pandemic-era NYC escapees. Joseph shared his experience with the beavers who established themselves behind his Hudson Valley home, which he and his partner initially purchased as a weekend house in 2017, and turned part of the property into a swamp. Other subjects of the piece spoke of loneliness, trouble finding medical care, and being unprepared to shoulder home improvement projects and repairs.
Online, the interviewees were pretty thoroughly dunked on. Sympathy for New Yorkers who left during the pandemic has always been thin on the ground, and not only were the subjects of the article all privileged enough to relocate at the height of the pandemic but more than one, like Joseph, maintained two residences. Some of their unforeseen problems also seemed pretty, well, foreseeable. “Going to start a consulting company where I teach rich dumbasses how to live upstate,” one writer joked on Twitter.
Some of the critics were closer to home. Joseph said that another Hudson Valley resident tipped him off to some “pretty ugly comments” in a local Facebook group. “At that juncture in time, I was like, ‘You know what?’” said Joseph, “‘I said my truth. I’m going to take celebrities’ advice—which I never recommend doing—and I’m just not going to read the comments.” He also received hate mail, including a letter suggesting that, if he had a problem with beavers, he could always “go back to the city with its abundance of rats, traffic, & germs.”
It’s not surprising that real estate trends stories are among the most frequent targets of ire: The US is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. There isn’t a single county in the nation where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a two-bedroom apartment without spending more than a third of their income on rent. According to a 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a worker would have to earn a national average of $22.10 per hour in order to afford a “modest” two-bedroom—more than three times the federal minimum wage. In New York, the epicenter of many articles about the housing travails of the upper-middle class and wealthy, rents increased 33 percent over the course of 2021. Between January and March of this year, the rate of eviction filings from city landlords increased by 40 percent.
Given the current housing crisis, “I can see why stories about [real estate], even ones that seem sort of benign, might go viral and might get people pretty charged up,” Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, told Jezebel. Still, for every piece about housing or lifestyle trends among the privileged, that becomes the hate-read of the week, there are many more that pass without attracting much criticism. “I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘real estate porn,’” said Edmonds. Maybe, much like regular porn, audience reception is all about the context.
Despite the criticism, Joseph says that his face-to-face relationships in the community have been just fine since the article’s publication. “I think when you have to face someone in person, there’s a different type of civility that is required of you and that maybe even comes naturally,” he said. He doesn’t have any regrets about participating in the story and seems to have made peace with the beaver dams, too.
“One of my neighbors is like, ‘Well, we’d like to try and leave it where it is right now, because if you notice, there’s now a family of egrets that live there, and there’s more turtles and there’s a family of geese that come and go,’” he said. “And, you know, I like that. I think part of this trying to figure out that balance.”