Will Remote Work Upend Montgomery County Land Use Plans?
Thrive Montgomery 2050 Ignores Telework Impact on the County
Thrive Montgomery 2050 represents the county's proposed update to its zoning master plan.[i] It reflects land-use planners' "smart growth" objectives. They desire a county with more population density, proportionally fewer single-family homes, and greater dependence on public transportation.
The Thrive Montgomery 2050 debate has ignored the elephant in the room regarding the county's economic future. The county's proximity to the nation's capital is at risk of becoming a declining strategic advantage. For decades, Montgomery's job creation and population have grown more slowly than in northern Virginia. Nevertheless, the county has benefited from a share of the region's total growth. Now telework has dramatically expanded the choices that potential residents – and employers – have to choose from. The post-pandemic world could well alter the future of employment distribution. The most densely populated and highest housing cost communities are projected to be the hardest hit.
The COVID pandemic has dramatically documented those jobs performed by the 2.1 million-employee Federal executive-branch workforce that need not be required to be done on-site. The Federal workforce's share of teleworking every day rose from 3 percent before the pandemic to 59 percent at its peak last year.[ii] Before the pandemic, only 23 percent of federal employees teleworked at least one day a week. That number more than tripled to 74 percent at the pandemic's peak last year, falling slightly to 67 percent by the fall. [iii]
Growing evidence suggests that remote work is here to stay. Indeed, the Biden Administration has signaled that it is moving toward making work-from-home permanent for many Federal workers. [iv]
Remote work is encouraging more migration within the U.S. According to an Upwork survey, as many as fourteen to 23 million workers could relocate due to the pandemic, half of whom say they seek more affordable places to live.[v] Pew Research finds that between 2019 and 2021 alone, a preference for larger homes in less dense areas grew from 53% to 60%.[vi]
Near-term migration rates may increase to three to four times their normal levels. Major cities will see the most significant out-migration: 20.6% of those planning to move are currently based in a major city.[vii]
Increased telework transforms the longstanding trade-off between shorter commutes for higher housing costs. More people can now opt for a newer alternative of less expensive housing and telework.[viii] Many (52.5%) plan to move to a significantly more affordable house than their current home. Families are moving beyond regular commute distances: more are moving over two hours away or more from their current location. This is well beyond usual daily commuting distances.
Housing market data confirms that the highest-priced markets are taking the biggest hits: Rental data from Apartments.com reveals that the top 10 percent most expensive markets saw a 13% percentage point larger decrease in rent prices than rental markets in the bottom 10 percent.[ix]
Other jurisdictions have been quick to capitalize on attracting teleworkers. West Virginia, for example, has launched a program aimed at encouraging remote workers to move to the state. The incentives included in the Ascend West Virginia program include $12,000 in cash for relocation, one year of free outdoor activities valued at more than $2,500, free working space, and access to continuing education. Applicants can also receive $2,500 in mortgage assistance if they move to the state. [x] Other areas where remote work is growing most are small cities and Sunbelt locales such as Florida and the Carolinas. [xi]
Yet, larger, more affordable homes in less densely populated communities is precisely the opposite of what the land use planners behind Thrive Montgomery 2050 propose permitting county residents. Their "smart growth" dreams may well flounder on the marketplace realities of what consumers want and are willing to pay for.
[ii] Federal employee satisfaction ticked up in 2020 despite increased workload due to pandemic, government survey finds - The Washington Post; https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/federal-employee-annual-survey/2021/04/26/0a02adda-a6d2-11eb-bca5-048b2759a489_story.html