Can America's new 'Zoomtowns' avoid a remote-work catastrophe?

 Remote workers have flooded into small cities and towns across America, and now these up-and-coming communities are struggling to keep up. An analysis of 2021 US Census Bureau data published in April by the Economic Innovation Group supports what moving companies and scores of small-town residents and researchers have seen firsthand: Remote work and a hot housing market accelerated migration to rural and sometimes remote "vacation home" counties during the pandemic. The shift, though widespread, is most visible on the doorsteps of scenic public lands in the Intermountain West, where a growing number of "Zoomtowns" have become emblems of rising inequality and rural displacement

While these Zoomtowns share a lot in common with the boomtowns of the 19th century — from resource extraction to displacement — today's moneyed migrants don't necessarily fit the callous, land-grabbing archetype of their gold- and oil-seeking predecessors. The wealth these 21st-century newcomers bring could even be a boost for regions floundering in today's postindustrial economic landscape. Whether they will is a separate question, one that depends on structural and cultural variables that differ from place to place and the ability of the fast-growing cities to implement plans that let them flourish equitably.

We need more housing

On its face, rural population growth isn't a bad thing. For years, exurban and rural communities have been struggling with economic decline and outward migration. "Prepandemic, if you asked an economist or demographer about nonmetro rural counties, they would have told you population loss is a serious problem. Now we have reversed that, and there is too much of a rush to declare that a problem," Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group and the author of the analysis, told me. 

Ozimek surmised that today's migration patterns are largely a response to short-term surges in the cost of housing. Prospective homebuyers are being priced out of cities, suburbs, and even metro-proximate rural areas, and with increased flexibility to do their jobs remotely, they're more likely to consider their options farther afield. Whether or not their relocation to rural communities drives up prices in those places in the short term, Ozimek sees the big-picture challenge as one that's easily addressed. 

"The idea that high prices now represent some incurable structural problem is a misdiagnosis," Ozimek said. The solution is simply to build more houses. "In a place with lots of land and ease of building, that will help keep housing affordable." 

A home construction site in Reno, Nevada with mountains in the background.
A home construction site outside Reno, Nevada. For many Western towns, lots of land doesn't always mean it's easy to build more houses. 
George Rose/Getty Images

The trouble is that "lots of lands" doesn't necessarily equate to "ease of building." In these cases, local governments may opt to radically overhaul zoning and land-use rules. On the far northeastern edge of the country, the town of Auburn, Maine — population 24,000 — is an evolving example of what that might look like. The town has garnered national attention from planners and armchair urbanists thanks to a forward-thinking revamp of its zoning code to clear a path to build 2,000 new homes by 2025.

The experts I spoke with agreed that foresight is critical for ensuring new development meets the needs of rural and semirural communities. But for communities reacting to growth they didn't plan for, the challenge of keeping pace can outweigh efforts to benefit the most people. 

Small cities with big-city problems

In places like Bozeman, Montana, and Ketchum, Idaho, where rapid growth has turbocharged a housing-affordability crisis, service-sector workers are getting displaced en masse. More people want to live in these picturesque locales, but there aren't enough homes for them, let alone the infrastructure or public staffing capacity to meet rising demand.

Danya Rumore, a research professor of planning and the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the University of Utah, has studied rural Western migration trends and mediated conflicts that arise in growing communities. Since 2017 she has led research on how versions of the Zoomtown phenomenon are playing out on a smaller scale in rural communities throughout the Intermountain West, where she says "amenity-driven migration" to outdoor recreational "gateway communities" has been gathering steam since before the pandemic

This inequality-driving demographic shift is sometimes described as "rural gentrification," replicating patterns typically associated with urban neighborhoods and the displacement of minority communities by a white bohemian bourgeoisie. Rumore prefers to frame the trend as a clash of conditions: small, rural towns up against big-city problems they don't have the resources to manage.

In her work, Rumore has observed that the planning tools that could limit the harms of rapid rural growth — including land-use planning and affordable-housing development — are often at odds with the region's mythologized ideals of self-sufficiency with minimal government interference.

"I try not to overly generalize," Rumore told me. "That said, what I've seen working in a lot of these communities in a lot of different Western states is the fact that you have very strong private-property-versus-public-good tensions at play. And that is just sort of Western reality."

Locals' attachment to the idea of their communities as small towns poses another challenge to addressing sudden growth. While people who live in cities must accept that some degree of population change is inevitable, Rumore said small-town residents tend to be more change-averse. Community-planning tools reek of government, and that's already a strike against their implementation across the largely conservative rural West. But just as critically, planning presents a threat to local identities bound up in a narrative of scrappy self-reliance. 

"I think sometimes even talking about growth and change is really scary for these places, because it's accepting that change could happen," Rumore said. "We don't want to accept that it's happening, so we put our heads in the sand." By the time population growth has become a problem, it's often too late to reverse course.

Not-so-affordable housing, not-so-essential workers  

Jennifer Sherman, a sociology professor at Washington State University who wrote "Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and the Diminishing American Dream," agreed with Rumore that proactive planning is essential to capitalize on the growth potential of rapid in-migration. But she said that it isn't as simple as just starting building more housing. 

"One of the biggest challenges that I've seen so far in many efforts towards the creation of affordable housing is that developments will be zoned as affordable but then priced out of range of the average salary of locals," Sherman said — meaning the people who move into the affordable housing units often still end up being newcomers, typically those in nonprofit work or who don't have huge salaries. "But again, you're helping in-migrants versus people that have lived there for generations." 

There's a more pressing consideration: a labor market that devalues a sizable share of its most critical workers. It's an American problem, not a regional one.

Teacher protest for living wages in Minneapolis
Minneapolis teachers on strike for living wages in March 2022. In Montana, the average preschool teacher makes only $31,600 per year. 
Kerem Yucel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

"In 2020, there were a whole bunch of jobs that we deemed essential to the US economy," Sherman said. "We said we cannot function without these jobs and these people. And a lot of those are the same jobs that do not pay a living wage, that actually pay a poverty wage. A lot of these jobs do not pay enough for even a single individual to support themselves, particularly in a gentrifying community." In Montana, the average preschool teacher earns $31,600 a year; the median price of a single-family home in Bozeman is said to be as high as $905,000. 

Rumore echoed Sherman's observation. "How can you possibly afford to live in or near your community when you earn $25,000 a year and the average house price is well above $600,000?" she said. Rumore invoked a colleague's coinage, to sum up the conundrum: "impossible math."

Solving the Zoomtown puzzle 

It's better for communities to have an abundance of wealth than to not have enough of it. Money is, after all, what builds businesses that create jobs; it improves built infrastructure and makes for better schools. The trouble is that in Zoomtowns, the goods and services that follow new arrivals tend to benefit those newcomers first and foremost. Instead of trickling down to foster widespread growth, the influx of new money drives development that might not be accessible or even especially appealing to longtime locals. The likelier scenario is that it forces them out. In places like Missoula, Montana, this is already happening

Among newcomers and locals alike, those lucky enough to own their homes may find themselves forced to convert their properties into short-term rentals through apps like Vrbo and Airbnb in order to cover their higher cost of living. This puts even more pressure on housing markets already strained by the increased demand for a short supply of homes.

As Rumore sees it, the structural inequality that's built into every piece of the Zoomtown puzzle isn't an elephant in the room but a leviathan. 

"What we're seeing play out in these communities, I think, is a microcosm of the wealth inequality in this country," Rumore told me. "When people have exponentially different buying power, there's only so much you can do as a community." 

Planning policies like short-term-rental moratoriums and affordable-housing zoning can empower communities in the near term and ease some of the Zoomtown pressure. But in the longer term, they are effectively Band-Aids applied to leviathan bites. As these towns grow, they will be increasingly subject to the kind of income inequality that is woven into American life in cities big and small. Economists who study inequality generally agree that the widening wealth chasm would be narrowed if governments enacted a suite of corrective policies including a more progressive tax code, a higher minimum wage, universal healthcare and childcare, and housing protections.

"We need to change the rules of the game," Rumore said. "Otherwise, we're in a lose-lose situation where these communities become playgrounds for the rich, and the things that make these communities such special places to live and visit get eroded."

Kelli María Korducki is a journalist and author. She has written extensively about work and culture and has a book about the feminist history of breaking up.

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