Written by Claire Hogg who served as an Advocacy Intern at Fahe.
Beginning the early March days of COVID-19, many city dwellers found themselves flocking to rural spots to wait out the social distancing orders, whether that be by rentals or moving in with family. Los Angeles and New York City residents have relocated to their parents’ homes in places like northern New Hampshire or small-town Connecticut, and those without family houses in pastoral zip codes have found rentals in similarly smaller areas.
With this migration out of major cities, speculation grows as to whether these relocations will be short-lived and disappear with a vaccine or instead be emblematic of a future movement towards rural residence. The media has highlighted stories about the virus convincing urban families to search for homes in places that allow for backyards, car commutes, and greater living space. Real estate agents in rural Pennsylvania have been inundated with people from cities looking for properties to rent and, in some cases, buy.
Although this migration could have benefits for small, local economies and industries, the notion of people moving from wealthy areas to rural—often poorer—places has the potential to wreak havoc on already vulnerable communities. When people move to places part-time, small communities often suffer from high housing prices and a sudden exclusion from that market.
Appalachia is no stranger to people from wealthier areas buying homes. Asheville, long a refuge for the wealthy to escape southern heat, has seen its gentrification overtake the entire city, forcing out long-time residents who are no longer able to afford rent. In 2017, Asheville’s Citizen-Times cited a study finding the city the 2nd most gentrified in the United States, due to its median house price jump from $125,000 to $235,000 in just fifteen years. Despite housing market growth, salaries in Asheville remain almost $10,000 lower than the national average, making it difficult for families to find reasonable spaces. Although tourism is booming, the workers are having to commute into a city they once occupied.
Many other areas in Appalachia are gaining traction as places to invest in second homes. The mountains of East Tennessee near Dollywood, the small towns dotting through western North Carolina, and parts of West Virginia within striking distance of the booming economy of the DC are all featured in magazines and newspapers as recommended places for vacation homes and relocation. As these regions become destinations, the housing problems in Asheville will become more common.
And, unfortunately, the shortage of affordable homes for residents is already a prevalent issue in Appalachia to begin with. Whether people from big cities relocate permanently or invest in second homes, the shift has the possibility to create even greater housing inequity in our region. Housing costs will likely increase without salary increasing, especially if the number of vacation homes climbs.
Yet, in many of these rural places, a symptom of the community pain has been the flight of young people. Stalling or reversing this trend through sudden migration could actually have rejuvenating effects.
The flipside of an increase in housing costs is that these groups of affluent and often young people moving to Appalachia could provide benefits to these communities. How governments handle that shift will determine whether those communities are strengthened by this influx or not.
If we invest in stable, quality jobs, our small towns will be able to support a sudden arrival of new workers and better bolster the existing residents. Housing, services, manufacturing, education, and healthcare investments will provide long-lasting employment to the evolving communities. Increasing the wages of existing workers will also help offset the climbing housing prices, making affordability more realistic now and as costs continue to rise. Ensuring an appropriate tax structure will allow for reinvestment into the pillars of community – such as education, healthcare, and infrastructure. And speaking of infrastructure, if we want to keep not only these potential new residents, but also our children and their children, the expansion of broadband internet connection will play a crucial role.
Movement from cities into Appalachia has the potential to upset the housing markets in smaller towns, but if these places are proactive, they can protect their current residents while planning for a more prosperous economy for all.