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The ramifications of exploding interests in small-town living during the pandemic


In small towns all across the country, there's a shift underway, and it's rattling the status quo. As remote workers from big cities continue to move in, they buy up old houses, chasing up property values and housing costs. Erin Gottsacker from member station WXPR has this report from a small Upper Peninsula town in Michigan.

ERIN GOTTSACKER, BYLINE: With the option to work from just about anywhere, increasing numbers of remote workers are leaving big cities behind. They're instead opting for homes in small towns near outdoor attractions, like ski slopes or river canyons, where housing is often much cheaper. Philip Stoker studies urban planning at the University of Arizona and has been watching this dynamic for years now. He says when the pandemic hit, interest in small-town living exploded.

PHILIP STOKER: People who have jobs in larger cities that have higher incomes, and if they can work remotely, they can live in these rural communities and still be able to work, assuming there's the infrastructure for that, and then they'll just have more money and higher buying power in the housing market.

GOTTSACKER: But when out-of-towners with money move in, that can force some longtime residents to face new challenges - things like traffic congestion, a rising cost of living and a severe lack of affordable housing.

STOKER: These are big-city problems, but it's just they're being experienced in rural communities because they're attracting people.

GOTTSACKER: Take Ironwood, Mich., with a population just under 5,000, for example. Located near ski slopes and scenic lakes in Michigan's UP, Ironwood was once a thriving mining town with thousands more residents and the infrastructure to sustain them. But following the mining industry collapse, the population plummeted, with many houses here standing empty, until people like Rob Alexander began to buy them up.

ROB ALEXANDER: And then we didn't want to be near any big cities because we feel like they're a little chaotic and not really what we're looking for.

GOTTSACKER: Alexander was living with his fiancee in Southern California when the pandemic hit, and they decided it was time to move East.

ALEXANDER: Then we found the Upper Peninsula, and that instantly sparked our attention.

GOTTSACKER: Ironwood had much of what they wanted - cool weather, fresh water, small-town charm and houses cheaper than many California apartments. Alexander and his now wife bought their first one for $18,000. He found it such a bargain that he bought another to fix up as an Airbnb, and he's done that multiple times since.


GOTTSACKER: Inside one of his current projects, builders are stripping away layer after layer of old flooring.

ALEXANDER: This was, like, a really dated home with, like, the old panel walls. Like, the space on this, when it's finished, it's going to be a four-bedroom, two-bath house with an attached garage. So this one is worth fixing up.

GOTTSACKER: All fixed up, and this house could sell for three times what he paid. And it's happening all over this town. Tom Bergman is Ironwood's community development director and says all this change comes with a downside for some longtime residents.

TOM BERGMAN: There's been a real pinch, I think, on the lower-income bracket. At that level, those folks, they just don't have places to rent anymore. Families are living in hotels.

GOTTSACKER: Driving down Ironwood's main street, Rob Alexander pauses outside the town's old pool hall.

ALEXANDER: You can see it goes all the way back here. So there's four apartments in there.

GOTTSACKER: Another developer bought this building and wants to put in a business, an Airbnb and maybe a community center. But families rent those upstairs apartments now. They'll be evicted in the process. That illustrates a challenge that residents here and in small towns across the country are facing as their towns attract new money and new residents.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Gottsacker in Ironwood, Mich.


Erin Gottsacker