The rise of work-from-home towns
The coronavirus pandemic, and the accompanying mass shift to doing white-collar work from home, has led to reports of real estate frenzies in scenic places. The Kingston, New York, metropolitan area — aka Ulster County — which stretches from the Hudson River into the Catskill Mountains, had the fastest-rising home prices of any metro area in the country in the second quarter. In Lake Tahoe and neighboring Truckee, California, brokers complainthat they are “running out of homes for sale.” In western Montana, out-of-staters have been buying houses sight-unseen, in cash.
One thing these places have in common, other than mountains, is that even before the pandemic they had lots of residents who usually did their jobs from home. Micropolitan areas are defined as having “at least one urban cluster of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000 population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties,” while metropolitan areas revolve around an urban cluster of 50,000 or more. Some micro areas are so small that the Census Bureau doesn’t have reliable work-at-home data for them for 2018, but its five-year estimates for 2014 through 2018reveal a few more not-all-that-surprising havens for work-from-homers such as Clearlake, California (13.4%), Summit Park, Utah (which includes Park City; 13.1%), Taos, New Mexico (12.3%), and Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts (11.9%).
So this is the future, right? Everybody with a good white-collar job is going to move to some adorable small city, preferably with mountains nearby but cornfields will apparently do, where they’ll drink locally roasted coffee and microbrewed beer and go on hikes and bike rides when they’re not stuck in interminable Zoom meetings, leaving the nation’s big cities to wither.
Or not. These places tend to be, as noted, pretty small (metropolitan Asheville, population 424,858, is the biggest on the above list), and not really prepared to handle a large influx of big-city refugees. Some already tightly restrict development, meaning that new demand will simply mean higher real estate prices that will curtail the inflow, while those like Bend, Oregon, that have been willing to build tons of new housing are beginning to struggle with the consequences of all that growth. Plus, big cities have many attractions too, even if some of them have been off limits since March.
People have fled cities during pandemics throughout history, and generally returned afterward, so their current seeming unattractiveness probably isn’t a reliable guide to the future. On the other hand, the current trend toward working from home, or more generally working remotely, has been gaining strength ever since broadband internet began to become widely available two decades ago. The huge boost given by Covid-19 has got to have some lasting consequences.
The data here are from questions that the Census Bureau has been asking Americans since 1960 about how they get to work. The record 5.3% national work-at-home percentage for 2018 misses out on a lot of people who Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys indicate worked from home some of the time, and is way below what the percentage will probably be for 2020. But because the Census numbers are available down to the level of counties, cities and beyond, they can shed a lot of light on where working remotely was already becoming commonplace before the pandemic. And one thing that they indicate is that while places like Truckee and Kingston are certainly part of the working-at-home story, most of the Americans working at home have been doing so in the large metropolitan areas where most Americans live.
A lot of these are the kinds of places where big corporations locate back-office operations to save on real estate and labor costs, or secondary tech industry hubs where similar considerations are at work. Lots of individuals appear to be making equivalent calculations about cost and quality of life. The advantages of frequent if not necessarily daily in-person contact with colleagues and peers, of living near multiple employers in your field, with career opportunities for both members of a two-income couple, not to mention all the cultural and other attractions of metropolitan life, will I think continue to weigh heavily in favor of large metropolitan areas. In fact, more people working from home may make such places more livable both for the remote workers who no longer have to commute every day and the commuters who still do.