x
Breaking News
More () »

How the remote work revolution could add fuel to the Treasure Valley’s population growth

As the job-based pull to more dense, urban, coastal cities rescinds, Boise could be seen as a desirable place for people to relocate.
Credit: Brian Myrick/Idaho Press
Ada Solomon at work in his home office in southwest Boise, Tuesday, May 4, 2021.

BOISE, Idaho — Editor's Note: This article was originally published by the Idaho Press.

At some point, everything became too much for Adam Solomon and his wife Angelene.

The constant traffic. The monthly rent. The price to do just about anything.

To commute to work at Tesla in Fremont, California, Solomon drove 45 minutes each way. He and Angelene paid $2,850 monthly for an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Fremont. Preoccupied with their newborn son, they didn’t spend much time exploring the Bay Area’s top attractions anyway.

“The cost of living is just stupidly obscene,” Solomon said.

Solomon, a supplier industrialization engineer, went on paternity leave in December 2019 when Elliott was born. He then worked remotely off and on for a couple months before the coronavirus hit the United States. When the pandemic began, everyone in Solomon’s office began working remotely, too.

The combination of a small apartment and not having family nearby wore on the new parents.

“All of that started to compound,” Solomon said, “and make us really want to get out of there.”

The couple met as college students at Boise State University. Angelene’s family lives in Boise. When their biggest draw to living in the Bay Area — Solomon’s job — didn’t require him to be there, the family looked elsewhere.

The pandemic has ramped up the popularity of remote work, especially for careers based around working on a computer without needing a physical location. As the job-based pull to more dense, urban, coastal cities rescinds, Boise could be seen as a desirable place for people to relocate because of the ample amenities and relatively lower cost of living.

MORE: San Francisco news reports 'Bay Area tech exodus' could target Boise next

That thought process for remote workers could pour more fuel on the fire of the Treasure Valley’s population growth. Experts anticipate the effects of the remote revolution will linger here.

Solomon, a California native, is an example. He was making six figures, but said he was still living paycheck to paycheck because of the costs in the Bay Area.

Solomon felt the quality of his work actually improved since he went remote. He negotiated a 20% pay cut with Tesla in order to make the change permanent. The family moved to Boise in May 2020. It was a successful deal in his eyes because his quality of life is better now.

“It was a matter of being in a situation where the lifestyle was really sustainable,” Solomon said.

He was attracted to the area because of family and he enjoyed his prior experience here while in college.

The family specifically sought a home with a room that could be used as a permanent office space, something Solomon didn’t have in Fremont. At the old apartment, Solomon’s office was a side table in the kitchen 5 feet away from a crying baby. Now, he has two screens set up on a wood desk, his 2015 Boise State diploma hanging behind his chair, a full bookshelf and a door separating his work life from his personal life. He still wears slippers while working, but those aren’t visible on Zoom calls.

The new home the family bought has three bedrooms and 2 1/2 bathrooms. It could increase to five bedrooms depending on how the space is arranged.

Solomon can take a longer lunch to help Angelene take care of Elliott. He can be with his family as soon as he finishes work for the day. The drive to Ann Morrison Park takes just 10 minutes. Getting to a park with similar amenities in the Bay Area required driving 30 minutes or more. Angelene’s parents and grandparents live within a 15-minute drive, which is much closer than the at least 90 minutes away from Fremont that Solomon’s parents live.

“That was one thing I told my managers,” Solomon said. “I enjoy what I’m doing here but now that I’m a dad and everything, I need to think more about what does my family need rather than what do I want?”


‘FREEDOM TO MOVE WHEREVER’

While technology made remote work more possible in recent years, the pandemic accelerated how much it’s used as a substitute for meeting in an office. Many companies have announced they’ll let employees work from home permanently. Some are becoming more lenient with how often employees need to be in the office. Others, like Tesla, might allow employees to negotiate a new agreement. 

In May 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking remote work. That first month, 35.4% of employed people worked from home because of the pandemic.

A month before that, the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated 37% of jobs nationwide can be performed entirely at home. That number far exceeded the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ previous estimate of “less than a quarter,” based on the 2018 American Time Use Survey.

Since certain types of jobs are more common in certain markets, the numbers fluctuate based on location. In San Francisco, San Jose and Washington, D.C., for example, more than 45% of jobs can be performed at home, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Like the remote work shift, the trend of people moving to the Treasure Valley was already prevalent before 2020. Since the coronavirus placed a premium on having more space, the pandemic sped up movement away from more populated coastal cities, according to the commercial real estate firm CBRE’s analysis of postal service address change data. That data also showed that people who moved to the Boise metro in 2020 came more frequently from within Idaho than any other state.

A city like Boise was positioned to absorb people because it offers outdoor access and urban amenities while maintaining a lower cost of living than bigger cities.

“What I see is just the rise of a lot of lifestyle cities,” Matt Mowell, a CBRE senior economist said. “If people have the freedom to move wherever, a lot of it can be closer to hobbies. … It is a key driver in what we’re seeing in the Intermountain West.”

In April, Zillow ranked the City of Trees third in its “Best U.S. Metros for Digital Nomads.” A couple weeks ago, Apartment List ranked Boise as the third best city for remote workers.

Zillow cited the city’s proximity to outdoor activities and local restaurants downtown. Apartment List highlighted Boise’s natural amenities and “remote friendliness.” But Apartment List’s Chris Salviati also pointed out how Boise rental costs have shot up in the past year.

“Boise could come to represent a cautionary tale,” Salviati wrote, “demonstrating the potential for disruption when remote workers abruptly flock to small and mid-size cities.”

RELATED: No small potatoes: How Boise's housing market compares to the biggest cities in the West

Boise State University professor Vanessa Fry is the interim director of the Idaho Policy Institute at BSU. She helped conduct the “Growth In The Treasure Valley In 2020” survey.

The survey spanned from Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 and 48.8% of employed respondents said they work from home some days or full time.

Fry believes remote work will continue playing a role in the Treasure Valley’s population growth. Until recently, housing affordability was “unparalleled” for the amenities offered, she said. Because acceptance of remote work swelled in the past 15 months, some people have more flexibility to rethink where they live.

“That’s very attractive to people that are living in places where maybe they don’t have access to the outdoors and there is air pollution and noise pollution and the crime rates are high and maybe the schools aren’t that great,” Fry said. “… What we’re seeing is a trend of people saying, ‘Gosh, I can continue to remote work.’”


‘LANDING SPOT’


Jeremy Nunes fell into that category. He lived in Woodland, California, near Sacramento. He already had family and friends living in the Treasure Valley. For the past five years, Nunes had his eye on moving here.

In December 2020, the 36-year-old fertilizer salesman took a job with a new company that allowed him to work fully remote. While he worked partially remote in the past, he still had to attend meetings or interact in person with clients. Usually, he was about a 30-minute drive away from clients, and he felt like he was often “hopping from metropolis to metropolis.”

For someone who preferred a slower pace of life and a more rural style, the Treasure Valley attracted him.

As they wait for their home in Star to be built, Nunes and his wife Georganna have spent the past six months at an apartment in Boise.

“If (the job) wasn’t based at home,” Nunes said, “I wouldn’t be able to do this work.”

Nunes’ new job netted him a 15% raise, which would’ve been substantial even if he stayed put. Here, lots of his typical expenses are less. So his new job not only paid him more money, but allowed him to work fully remote and therefore capitalize on the area’s relatively lower cost of living.

As a result of that math, Nunes said he and Georganna spent a little more on their new $586,000 house than they might’ve originally planned for. Nunes rationalized it, though, because he’ll have more financial flexibility living here compared to California.

“That was one of the key drivers. I was not going to move and do a backslide,” Nunes said. “I wasn’t going to do a lateral move. I had to get something that was better to justify uprooting my family. … That was a big deal for us.”

The house has three bedrooms, plus a dedicated office space. Like Solomon, that was a priority for Nunes. In previous arrangements, Nunes used an extra bedroom as an office. Then Georganna moved in and he had to reshuffle. He made sure his office wouldn’t be stuffed in a dining room or a basement.

The new space has a pocket door and is a place Nunes feels comfortable working.

“I needed something where I could put meetings on. I can put presentations together. I can go through sales reports and actually feel like I’m at work,” Nunes said. “But then be able to walk out the door and be home.”

Nunes’ cousin moved to Nampa a few years ago. They both like to hunt and fish. His aunt and uncle came shortly after. He has friends from California who moved here too.

It was an easier transition knowing he wasn’t all alone.

“It’s a landing spot for all those people wanting to leave California,” Nunes said.

‘MORE PEOPLE TO OUR PLATE’

The idea of people working remotely is nothing new to Becky Enrico-Crum, president-elect of the Boise Regional Realtors. The difference is now it’s becoming more common.

Enrico-Crum has noticed a lot of people moving to the Treasure Valley who already planned to move here eventually. As was the case for both Solomon and Nunes, working remotely allowed them to move sooner.

“How is that playing out? That’s adding more people to our plate,” Enrico-Crum said, “and we still don’t have the inventory up yet to support everybody.”

At the same time, she pointed out, remote work means the Treasure Valley can become more accessible to people who wouldn’t otherwise have jobs available here. 

Solomon, for example, said he’d likely have to change careers if he couldn’t work remotely and wanted to stay in the area. That’s a risk he’s come to terms with. Meanwhile, he can return to where he went to college and his wife Angelene can return to where her family is. 

“Some of these people that are coming back that can work from anywhere started out as locals but Idaho didn’t offer them the employment they needed or could get,” Enrico-Crum said. “… Sometimes we just didn’t have those jobs here. They had to leave Idaho. We need to remember that.”

Realtor Julene Webb said this week that two of her last 10 buyers are remote workers and wanted dedicated office space in their house.

It’s nice some people have the ability to work from home, Webb said, and she thinks the recent trends will continue.

“Some people like it and want to keep doing that,” Webb said. “And companies have seen that it works.”

Due to the shifting landscape and changing desires of workers, employers will have to adjust, Duree Westover said. Westover is the managing principal for the Boise office of workforce recruitment firm Experis and on the Boise Valley Economic Partnership board of directors.

Now there’s “borderless talent,” because of the spike in remote work, she said.

“Our data shows we will probably never go back to an 8-5 (work day),” Westover said. “We will never go back to an on-site 100%. There will be hybrid.”

Since “work is now an outcome, not a place,” Westover said, there’s one less major barrier keeping people from moving to a place like Boise.


‘PART OF HIS LIFE’

Fry, the BSU professor, likened the Treasure Valley’s housing affordability issues to a frog in boiling water. When prices rose steadily in the past decade, perhaps it was less noticeable — like a frog staying in a pot of water as someone slowly raises the temperature. 

Since the pandemic started, though, there’s been significant increases that have caught people’s attention — like how a frog placed straight into boiling water would immediately jump out.

Because of the recent surge in prices, Fry believes government officials are likely becoming more aware of the situation than they would have been otherwise.

“All of a sudden, I hear all these people talking about it because it’s affecting them,” Fry said. “And it’s quick. Oh my goodness.”

At some point, Fry thinks there could be a tipping point. If housing prices continue to climb, the ratio between costs vs. amenities will level off.

Until then, experts expect people to keep taking jobs with companies that are based elsewhere while taking advantage of living here.

The potential effects of the remote revolution are widespread. Fewer people commuting means less strain on roads, for example. It also comes with caveats.

“Households earning more than $100,000 a year are more than twice as likely to work remotely as those making less than $50,000,” according to The Wall Street Journal’s essay titled “How Remote Work Is Reshaping America’s Urban Geography.”

The valley’s housing crisis and lack of supply is exacerbated by people with more money moving to the area and buying houses at higher price points, Fry said.

On an individual level, Nunes and Solomon moved to the Treasure Valley to improve their lives.

Nunes has more time to spend with his wife and dogs while enjoying a new lifestyle and appreciating the extra financial breathing room.

Solomon is now closer to family. And he has a better view of his son learning how to crawl and walk, which he wouldn’t have had if he was still commuting in the Bay Area.

“I get to actually be part of his life,” Solomon said. 

Paul Schwedelson covers growth, Nampa and Caldwell. Follow him on Twitter @pschweds.