Paying Remote Workers to Relocate Gets a Pandemic-Era Boost

Tulsa has spent the last few weeks in an uncharacteristic place: the national limelight. Not only was the Oklahoma city of 400,000 the site of Donald Trump’smuch-discussed yet under-attended campaign rally, it’s also where, in the summer of 1921, a white mob destroyed the city’s Black Wall Street and killed hundreds of Black Tulsans,a seismic tragedy that’s been revisited as the country addresses the legacy of racist violence in America.

But for years, Tulsa has been more of an off-the-radar city, one that promoted its parks, breweries, and amenable climate to boost its appeal to workers looking to move away from the coasts. To attract a new generation of Tulsans, the city launched a philanthropy-funded incentive scheme in November 2018. The program, Tulsa Remote, awards $10,000 grants to digital nomads who land in Tulsa and stay for at least a year. Along with the cash, the George Kaiser Family Foundation provides amenities like co-working space, and a connection to a thriving (and growing) domestic ex-pat community.

Despite the global uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Tulsa Remote’s executive director Aaron Bolzle says that the program is more popular than ever. He’s received twice as many applications in April and May than in February and March, and traffic to the application website doubled, too. After starting with about70 participants in last year’s cohort, Bolzle and his team set a target of bringing about 250 people to the city this year; as of June, 125 have made the move, and about 100 of them have arrived since the pandemic started. In just one week in June, 25 applicants visited the city to decide whether to move; as they arrive, they’re treated to virtual orientation events and are easing into outdoor happy hours. 

Perhaps this new interest in the program shouldn’t be surprising. Remote work was already one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country when coronavirus came around, closing offices and stranding millions of professionals at home. Employees are proving to their bosses that remote working isn’t only possible, it’s preferable — at least for now — and the prospect of a work-from-anywhere future now seems less hypothetical. So instead of trying to lure whole companies with economic development incentives, more cities are beginning to target individuals who suddenly have the agency to pick a city on its merits, not its employers. 

Case in point: Savannah, Georgia, population 145,000. The city’s new Savannah Technology Workforce Incentive, run by the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA), will offer $2,000 grants to cover moving expenses for remote tech employees who choose to relocate to the city this year. It’s a Covid-era offshoot of the city’s existing incentive program for tech companies, which can be eligible for up to $100,000 in grants if they relocate to the city and hire up locally.

Jennifer Bonnett, SEDA’s vice-president of innovation and entrepreneurship, moved to Savannah two years ago from Atlanta to be closer to her parents, who’d retired there in the 1990s. Inspired by Tulsa’s remote worker program and asimilar pay-to-move initiative in Vermont, Bonnett pushed for a worker-specific grant, arguing that even though the recipients may not be employed by Georgia companies, they’d contribute to the economy in other ways. “They’re being paid by a company elsewhere, typically a fairly large salary, and able to buy a house in our region,” she said.

When offices started shuttering, she sensed an opportunity. “I call it ‘Hashtag Choose Savannah,’” she said. “If you can work anywhere, why not #ChooseSavannah?”

Tulsa’s program welcomes people in any field, but its application is extensive, and it runs interviews to suss out whether applicants will contribute positively to the city’s culture. In Savannah, eligibility is instead discerned by whether applicants work in a technology-related field and have at least three years of experience. The benefit is retroactive: Potential recipients have to have moved to Savannah more than 30 days ago, registered for a Georgia driver’s license, and signed at least a one-year lease or bought a house.

Within the first week of launching, 35 people expressed interest in the incentive, though not all are eligible, Bonnett said. One family she’s been talking to fled to Savannah from Manhattan during the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic, because they had relatives in the area. “They were going to be in lockdown in NYC, and they decided, why not live in my in-law’s basement?” she said. “They’re already here, so if they decide to stay, all they have to do is sign a lease and get a driver’s license and they’re good to go.”

For Melissa Morris, Covid-19 facilitated a longtime dream. She’d grown up in Pennsylvania, and ended up raising two daughters there , but was “never a big fan” of the Keystone State, she said. When her daughters’ father died last year, she suddenly had the opportunity move anywhere in the country, and Savannah — balmy, beach-adjacent, and more affordable — caught her eye. Morris, who works in marketing and customer service for a company that provides software to locate pipelines, was working and virtually homeschooling her kids and sleeping in one tiny two-bedroom, $980-a-month apartment in the Philadelphia suburb of Lansdale. After searching unsuccessfully for a new job that she could do remotely, Morris asked her employer if she could just keep doing what she was doing, but from Savannah. 

“I’ve proven that I can work remotely from home for 2.5 months at that point,” she said. “They said yeah, absolutely.”

Morris and her family moved to Pooler,  a city 15 minutes outside of Savannah, in the beginning of June; she’s now in the process of applying for Savannah’s incentive. 

“It’s a little funny because [the incentive] didn’t play into the decision. I had already made the move and committed to do it,” she said. “In my situation it’s a very nice compensation for something I’ve already planned. As a single mom with two daughters, it’s certainly going to help me.”

The home prices may be bonus enough: Rent for her four-bedroom Georgia house, complete with a home office, is $1,450 a month.

Topeka, Kansas, population 125,000, launched its own “Choose Topeka” program last year. Run by the county’s Joint Economic Development Organization (JEDO) and the Greater Topeka Partnership, its economic development board, the program incentivizes companies to bring employees to the area by matching performance-based relocation benefits. (Renters can make up to $10,000, and buyers or rehabilitators of local houses can make up to $15,000.) Topeka’s program was originally designed to target office-bound employees, especially the 40% of people already working for Topeka-based businesses who choose to live outside the city. But Bob Ross, who does marketing for the Greater Topeka Partnership, says they’ve decided to make the case that next year, it should include remote workers, too.  

“We’d gotten a lot of interest in the beginning about the potential for remote workers, but it wasn’t the first priority,” he said. “Covid did really change the game for us.”

Ross says that after a slow February and March, he’s seen an uptick in applications this April, “especially from the coasts.” Since January, 20 companies have taken advantage of the incentive, and the employees’ average wage has been about $85,000 a year, he said — nearly double the city’s median income of $46,000. As summer nears, he’s heard from families whose New York or California-based relatives were already “a little” interested in Topeka, some of whom traveled to Kansas to ride out the worst of shelter-in-place. “Our hope is that when they do move here and start to realize this place is incredible, they may choose to stay here even as things start to get back to more normal in the next couple of years,” he said.

These incentive programs represent a paradigm shift away from the Amazon HQ2 model of economic development, says Doug Ludlow, theCEO of MainStreet,  which helps connect companies looking to move with government job-creation incentives.  “You are going to see [economic development funds] shift from building a physical factory to incentivize the hiring of an individual Google engineer,” he said. “And it’s actually far better for the economic development of that city, because using those new models and the shift towards information workers, cities can ensure that their tax dollars are being used in a transparent, accountable way.”  If Miami wants a more robust tech scene, he says, they can start incentivizing 500 different companies to bring an employee each, rather than move one whole company. 

Whileanecdotes about an exodus of young professionals from big cities abound, other indicatorsseem to point in the other direction. And touting the benefits of a major life change mid-pandemic is a delicate proposition, especially as coronavirus infection rates rise in many states. Bonnett delayed sending out a press release about the program for weeks, wanting to ensure that Savannah didn’t suddenly become a coronavirus hot spot or host protests against police brutality that escalated into violence. Bolzle says he stopped advertising entirely, worried it wasn’t appropriate to encourage a virus-era move. (On the weekend of Juneteenth, Tulsa Remote’s landing page didn’t lead to an application. Instead, showing a Black Lives Matter symbol.) Even MainStreet, which first gained international attention for offering to pay people $10,000 to leave the Bay Area back in November, abandoned that plan. Though thousands expressed interest, the company didn’t end up paying anyone to follow through. (Their plan was focused on getting people together in physical co-working spaces run by MainStreet, which Covid scuttled.) 

But by scrambling so many people’s short-term expectations and long-term plans, the coronavirus may have also helped pave the way for a fresh start. Those who may have been waiting to move until their children finished out the school year didn’t have to wait, Bolzle says. He also recalls that one applicant initially got cold feet and declined a Tulsa relocation offer because she couldn’t bear to “break up with Brooklyn.”

A month later, from deep in quarantine, she emailed him again: She’d changed her mind.

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