WFH exodus creates opportunity for small towns


A lot has been made the exodus from the pandemic era to Lake Tahoe, Martha’s Vineyard or Aspen. White-collar workers, freed from the constraints of the office, decamped last year to more favorable climates for skiing and hiking – the Zoom Cities of the pandemic. The inhabitants were annoyed. The labor market has been reorganized. American life has changed irrevocably. Or so the story goes.

But more recent data suggests Zoom Town USA looks a lot more like Alameda County, California, across the Bay from San Francisco. Eighteen percent of those who left San Francisco last year landed there, just a subway, bus or ferry ride away. Ditto for the small towns around Boston – Natick, Worcester and Weymouth.

According to postal service data analyzed by real estate company CBRE, those who took stakes during the pandemic were less likely to travel to the hinterland than to move to nearby, less dense, slightly more distant towns. downtown. A CityLab Analysis found that 84% of people who left the country’s 50 largest cities between March 2020 and February 2021 stayed in the same metropolitan area. 7.5% more remained in the same state.

Analysis from the University of Chicago published last week suggests that these office exiles will continue to work from home. Using a series of surveys of 30,000 Americans of working age, researchers estimate that 20% of post-pandemic work days will be at home, up from 5% before the virus.

This suggests that a legacy of the virus could be of benefit to small towns and dormitory communities. More people could stay in their homes and spend money there. The same Chicago study estimates that the long-term shift to working from home will cut spending in downtown areas by 5-10%. But people will spend somewhere.

“People who work from home always want to go out, whether it’s during the day or after work, and they always want to spend their money on interesting things and interesting places,” says Bill Fulton, who heads the Kinder Institute for Urban Rice University Research. . “If you’re moving from San Francisco, you won’t want to spend all your money on Applebee, right?”

Brookings Institution Fellow Tracy Hadden Loh puts it another way: “I think boring people with laptops are going to be everywhere. They are coming for your favorite place.

The changes have prompted elected officials, town planners and developers to think about how to plan for this still unclear future – and to ask many questions. Who will live here? Who will work here? Who will drive or take public transport here, and when? Most essentially: types of accommodation should we build and for what types of people?

MassINC, a Massachusetts think tank that focuses on pro-middle-class economic development in the state, this month suggested that employers considering a “hybrid” work model – a mix of office jobs and work from home – consider setting up satellite offices in small towns across the state, many of which have empty storefronts. It’s a win-win, says the think tank: Businesses get bigger office space, without Boston rents, and smaller towns get more tax revenue from commercial tenants and money spent by residents. workers hanging out a few days a week.

“This is an opportunity for these small towns to reposition themselves and capture some of the growth of people who might no longer want to live in the heart of the city,” says André Leroux, who heads the Transformative Transit program. Oriented Development of the group. . Places like Lowell, Springfield and Worcester don’t need to be smaller Boston branches, he says. “They can ensure their historic places as hubs for their region.”

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