Large numbers of city-dwellers can supercharge regions with new tax dollars and fresh ideas, but unwanted urban sprawl is the Trojan horse many transplants bring with them.
A recent Gallup poll of 140,000 American workers found that 24% expect to be fully remote in 2022 and beyond. A further 53% expect to be remote part time. And a 2021 report by the Brookings Institution referenced CBRE data showing that most remote workers who move do so to neighbouring counties. Jumping counties can give the denizens of big cities a breath of fresh air, while still allowing that 53% of hybrid workers to get back to the office when they need to. A longer commute is acceptable if it’s only a couple of times a week.
There are a few characteristics that set apart the most attractive remote work destinations. One community matching that description is Bend, Oregon, renowned for its very high rate of remote workers – they make up around 12% of its workforce.
For Jon Stark, interim CEO of Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), there’s a housing challenge and a local services challenge, and both are connected. The high cost of living has put pressure on the labour market, particularly for lower paid service jobs. “Most locals cannot afford to re-buy the house they have today, myself included,” says Stark. “We haven’t been able to keep up with housing demand. Really nowhere in the country has been able to.”
Bend’s housing shortage extends beyond affordable into workforce housing, but that may not be the case everywhere. John Hughes FRICS, a founding partner with planning firm Hemson and 2017 RICS President, says: “Most people leaving cities are going to places where they can afford to buy the dream detached house with a garden, and that isn’t automatically the affordable market.”
Nonetheless, as prices at the top get bid up, other potential homebuyers get priced out and start looking downmarket towards cheaper accommodation. Hughes is clear about what should be done: Make it easier to build new housing by streamlining the approvals process and making administrative hurdles easier to clear.
Housing challenges are not stopping high-profile remote work programmes like those offered in Tulsa, The Shoals region of Alabama, West Virginia, and Vermont from taking a much more direct approach, luring remote workers with hefty financial incentives. The outcomes, when properly executed, are tantalising. Tulsa Remote, one of the buzziest and busiest remote work incentive programmes, offers $10,000 plus other benefits to remote workers who come to the city. Launched in 2018, last year the programme brought over 900 new people to the city, and was responsible for more than $62m in new local earnings.
Tulsa Remote’s leadership team and EDCO’s Stark agree on one of the critical strategies for boosting local service employment: bring trailing spouses into the fold as local employees. In Tulsa, around one new local job is created for every two remote workers who come to the city. Justin Harlan, managing director for Tulsa Remote, says that many of those new local jobs are spouses. “We work closely with InTulsa Talent, a talent matchmaker, both for remote and local jobs,” he says. “If we get the spouses of remote programme participants local jobs, their partners are more likely to stay in the city.”
Coordination is central to effective management of inbound remote workers, and it stretches beyond just interagency cooperation. Laurel Farrer is CEO and founder of Distribute, a remote work consulting firm. She explains that there are five groups that need to coordinate to maximise the positive and mitigate the negative impacts of remote work. “Governments, workers, resources, cities, and employers need to coordinate together,” she says. “Most of the time all five of these are not involved, it is just a nonprofit trying to stimulate the economy, or a government that is just looping in remote workers. Sometimes you have three or four but not all five.”
Recent research from CBC found that over the past 20 years, major cities in Canada expanded their urban footprint (the physical size of the city) by 34% while their population density fell by 6%. These increasingly sprawling cities, like many in the US and elsewhere in the world, require more cars, more fuel, and more greenhouse gas emissions on average than their denser cores.
Sprawl is in many ways the core of the issue when it comes to integrating transplants and locals. Bend’s population has grown by around 50% in the two decades since 2000. EDCO’s Stark says: “If you asked a room of 100 people in Deschutes County [which includes Bend] when they got here, you’d have maybe 5% say they are natives.” Hughes goes further, adding: “Locals aren’t saying ‘who are these strangers arriving in town?’ It's more that these small communities like the way they are, they don't like sprawl.”
Some will say that the rise of remote work will be short-lived. But not every city is a Tulsa, with around 400,000 residents, or a Bend, with around 100,000. For many communities, the potential benefits of tax revenue, new faces, and new ideas is worth it.