Influx of New Residents Brings Changing Vibe to Western Cities

Since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered offices across the U.S., white-collar urbanites have been looking for a little more elbow room.

Thousands of homeowners and well-off renters, particularly those in expensive coastal cities, share in a dream: Cash in the equity or empty the savings account and buy something bigger someplace nice.

Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City all are seeing residents decamp in unheard of numbers. The perceived flood of city dwellers has driven real fears in amenity-rich gateway communities such as Gunnison County, Colorado, which temporarily banned second-home owners from returning.

But it’s not at all clear whether the pandemic-driven rise in telecommuting will significantly change the makeup of America’s high-priced cities and attractive small towns. It may yet offer some relief to renters priced out of urban housing markets who are now able to work and live in the suburbs, where their housing dollars goes further.

As trends go, though, the “Zoomtown” boom may be being overplayed, says Jeff Tucker, a senior economist in Zillow’s in-house think tank.

What the data does show, Tucker says, is a trickle of emigrants from high-cost cities heading toward the beaches and mountains. That’s not to say the cities are emptying — “2020 was, unexpectedly, a very hot housing market,” Tucker says — though it may feel like that’s the case in more rural communities.

If one in a hundred Manhattanites or San Franciscans moves on, the cities they leave won’t change appreciably. But for the small cities and rural communities they land in, the rush of new arrivals, Tucker says, will “seem like a tidal wave.”

Boise and the other small cities in Idaho’s Treasure Valley began seeing an influx of outsiders a few years ago. Stacie Herrig joined that migration in 2017, leaving San Diego for suburban Boise after her husband retired from the U.S. Navy.

Having bought a house when she arrived, Herrig, a 30-year-old real estate agent living 15 miles from Boise in Kuna, says she feels like she got to Idaho just in time to dodge a hot housing market she now helps other would-be homeowners navigate.

Housing prices are skyrocketing. Idaho, which leads the nation in residential real estate price increases, saw home prices jump 14% in a year, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency’s most recent accounting. They are up 73% since 2015, compared to a 35% increase nationwide during the same time frame.

The average Boise-area home now sells for $434,000, Herrig says, and the market remains incredibly tight even as developers carve new subdivisions out of agricultural lands around the city centers. Bidding wars are the norm; Herrig jokes that asking prices are really starting prices.

“A lot of the locals are kind of disheartened,” she says. “They’re getting priced out of their own state, which resonates with me — I got priced out of California.”

Rising as they are, housing costs are still far lower in Idaho than in California, by far Idaho’s biggest source of new arrivals. Herrig says Californians are advised to change their license plates as soon as they arrive; “Don’t California my Idaho” is a common complaint. One well-to-do suburb, Eagle, is derided by locals as “Little California.”

That wages haven’t kept up with the rising cost of living is only an issue for those who work in Boise. Herrig said she’s had several clients who commute to Orange County a couple times a month. She knows new arrivals who are holding onto their jobs in Seattle and San Francisco.

Telecommuting, of course, has only become more common since the pandemic set in.

Work-from-home rates spiked to 21% during 2020, a nearly four-fold increase from 2019 according to a National Association of Realtors estimate released late last year. Lawrence Yun, the association’s chief economist, says he expects that rate will likely dip as the pandemic subsides but that he wouldn’t be surprised if far more workers ultimately end up on flexible schedules that enable them to spend much of their time away from the office.

“There appears to be a minimal loss in worker productivity, if not an actual increase in productivity due to savings from commute time,” Yun said by email.

Lower housing costs aren’t the only draw. There’s the mountain ambiance and conservative politics. Herrig says Idaho draws “political refugees” unhappy with coastal liberalism.

“Their beliefs,” she says, “align more with Idaho.”

All the growth is straining the infrastructure in Boise, Herrig says, and many Idahoans worry the character of their place is changing.

Those concerns are shared by communities across the western U.S., says Philip Stoker, a professor of planning at the University of Arizona’s college of architecture who conducted a study of 1,522 small cities and towns across the West.

Targeting “gateway” communities within 10 miles of natural amenities such as national forests and with fewer than 25,000 residents, Stoker found most were growing, and some were growing quickly. Outdoor hot spots such as Bend, Oregon, and Provo, Utah, consistently rank among the fastest growing communities in the country. Absent any regional coordination, services and infrastructure aren’t keeping up.

Affordable housing is vanishing, Stoker says, and the hundreds of city leaders surveyed during the study, published in 2018, worried their community’s character was disappearing, too.

Asked by Stoker and his colleagues which cities they don’t want theirs to end up like, elected leaders and city managers listed some of the most popular tourist destinations in the region: Aspen, Colorado; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and Moab, Utah. While they welcomed growth to varying degrees, they didn’t want their communities to turn into packed playgrounds for rich “amenity migrants,” Stoker says.

“They like their community,” he says. “They don’t want them to change. They like that small-town feel.”

In the most attractive communities, rising home prices leave lower-wage workers stranded. As one city planner put it to the researchers, “the local workforce is simply priced out. … It’s becoming the haves and have-nots.”

The economic hit delivered by the pandemic appears to be deepening that divide.

“The recession didn’t bring a lot of economic damage to high-earners or people with a lot of wealth,” says Tucker, the Zillow housing economist.

It “landed much harder on renters,” he says. “A whole lot of the people who got laid off were not in the purchase-side of the market.”

The stock market has remained strong, interest rates are at record lows, and most higher-earning workers continue drawing paychecks. Those factors, coupled with a forbearance policy that’s kept distressed homeowners out of foreclosure and their homes from flooding the market, have kept many housing markets tight.

For those considering a chalet or beach house, 2020 proved a good time to buy.

Many did, and many more considered it; researchers at Zillow saw a 50% uptick in housing browsers looking at listings in communities full of second homes, with Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Key West, Florida; Lake Tahoe, Nevada; and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, among the most coveted areas. In about half those communities, pending sales were up 30% year over year.

Still, Tucker says he believes almost everyone is waiting to see whether the shift to remote work will last.

“My hunch is that many of those people who have gotten that freedom to change places have not yet acted on it,” he says.

Housing inventory — the number of homes up for sale — has remained very low in cities and suburbs, keeping prices up, Tucker explains.

The growth in remote work may prove a boon to renters who have been priced out of the cities where they work but could afford to buy in suburbs or elsewhere. By Zillow’s estimate, about 2 million renters — 4.5% of all renters nationwide — may be able to buy if they move.

It appears homes in the suburbs have been drawing in-city homeowners looking for more space, and renters who, inducted into remote work during the pandemic, no longer are put off by the commute, Tucker says.

“It was a hot housing market in most cities,” he says, “but even hotter in most suburbs.”

Herrig, the Boise-area real estate agent, spends much of her time helping would-be homeowners catch a home they can afford. Usually, she says, that means finding homes before they’re listed for sale; once the bidding starts, buyers stretching to buy their first home can’t compete.

While rising prices represent a windfall for owners, Herrig wonders what comes next.

“It’s obviously not sustainable forever, but I don’t know how much higher it can go,” she says. “It’s going to be devastating whenever the market turns.”

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Influx of New Residents Brings Changing Vibe to Western Cities originally appeared on usnews.com

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