It sounds like the premise of a delightful Netflix movie: An overworked startup employee, fed up with the stress, crowds, and cost of living in the big city, decides to leave it all behind to start fresh in a small town. Thanks to the rise of remote work, they keep their job (and big city salary) so they’re able to purchase a reasonably priced home in a charming neighborhood. It takes a minute to adjust to their new surroundings (there isn’t a Whole Foods around for miles!) but they quickly settle into their new hometown, browsing farmer’s markets, attending concerts in the park, exploring the picturesque main street, and striking up conversations (people are so much friendlier!). Soon enough, they’ve befriended their neighbors, become a part of the community, and embraced the joys of living life at a slower pace.
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After so many months (who’s counting anymore?) of working from the same cramped, overly priced home office in the midst of a global pandemic, the idea of striking out somewhere new sounds like a thrilling adventure. And while the exact COVID-fueled, WFH-focused movie I described doesn’t actually exist (or does it?), there are people living that very premise out in real life.
And they’re getting paid to do it.
Cities, regions, and states across the country have started launching relocation incentive programs aimed at enticing entrepreneurs and remote workers to pick up and move in. These relocation programs offer thousands of dollars—sometimes upwards of $10,000 in cash—and other perks to folks who are willing to live and work in specific locations. And it turns out, there are plenty of people who are ready to give it a shot.
I realized that if most of my work life was going to be spent on a computer, I could do it from anywhere.
When Tulsa Remote launched in 2018, they received thousands of applications overnight. “Since the program’s inception, we’ve seen over 50,000 applicants,” says Justin Harlan, Managing Director of Tulsa Remote. And they’re hoping to bring in 1,100 new people in 2022. The program has received interest from folks all over the country, but the majority come from more populated states like California, Colorado, New York, Texas, and Florida. And while Tulsa was the first city to pilot a program like this (Vermont was the first state), several others have launched their own versions in recent years.
So what’s it like to move to a totally new city as part of an experimental relocation incentive program? I talked to four people in four different cities and states about their experiences. Brace yourself for some serious wanderlust (and real estate envy).
The Silicon Valley Coder Turned Victorian Home Renovator: Tyler Jaggers in Topeka, Kansas
Before the pandemic, Tyler Jaggers was happily living in San Jose, California. He loved his job as a teacher and assistant manager at theCoderSchool in Palo Alto, enjoyed designing games at local coffee shops in his spare time, and regularly met up with friends and colleagues for dinner after work. “It was an expensive lifestyle, but when you’re in it, you don’t really mind because it’s fun. It’s a good life,” Jaggers says.
But then came COVID. “Suddenly, I was stuck in my apartment all the time, and the things that made living in the Bay Area worthwhile weren’t available to me anymore,” Jaggers says. “I realized that if most of my work life was going to be spent on a computer, I could do it from anywhere.” So he began considering a move out of state, citing the high cost of living and increasing wildfire risk among his primary reasons.
Eventually, after browsing real estate listings in more affordable markets around the country, Jaggers found Topeka, Kansas. More specifically, he found a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom Victorian fixer-upper (complete with stained glass windows). He made a trip to visit the area and connected with Choose Topeka, a program that offers remote workers up to $10,000 cash if they’re willing to move to Topeka and purchase a home there. The initiative has seen more than 6,000 applicants from over 20 states and around the world since its inception at the end of 2019. Jaggers snapped up his house for $47,000 (the average home price in Topeka is about $150,000—I know that hurts to read, it hurt to write it, too) and moved in at the end of September 2020. He immediately invested his Choose Topeka grant into a new roof and gutter repairs and estimates that he’s put another $100,000 into the home since he purchased it.
Jaggers was able to keep his job but getting his friends in Silicon Valley to understand his decision was a challenge. “My family was supportive,” he says, “but my friends in tech had a lot of concerns. It was like they couldn’t process my decision. They kept asking, ‘But what are you going to do for fun?’” Thankfully, his friends’ concerns were misguided. “Topeka is a beautiful city. There are plenty of things to do for entertainment, and there’s a lake near my house that’s great for walking,” Jaggers says. He adds that he’s been able to connect with new people through networking happy hours and mixers for local entrepreneurs and fellow Choose Topeka participants.
We’re sold on this American dream and told that if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to afford a house and have a family. But that’s not possible everywhere.
“What’s great about this community is that it’s small enough that you can really get to know people and make a difference, but big enough that you can still get a taste of everything a big city has to offer,” says Bob Ross, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Communication, and Events at Greater Topeka Partnership, giving me his best pitch for the city. “We have a vibrant art and music scene, a downtown with great restaurants and museums, a great local university, beautiful hills and lakes, and we’re just an hour from the airport,” he adds. “If you can work from anywhere, why not here?”
Jaggers says that the move has also positively impacted his overall health and well-being. “I’m debt-free, I have more space to explore, and I cook at home much more often now,” Jaggers says. “I sleep better and have more mental capacity to think critically.” Eventually, Jaggers saved up enough money to quit his job at the coding school and devote his focus to his former side hustle, a gaming company called Overidon Omnimedia. He’s launched two games since the company was founded and is currently working on a third.
Many of the applicants Ross has talked to share Jaggers’ entrepreneurial spirit. “A move like this gives people the chance to reinvent themselves and have enough flexibility to commit to something new because they aren’t house poor,” Ross says.
“We’re sold on this American dream and told that if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to afford a house and have a family. But that’s not possible everywhere,” Jaggers says. Sometimes, it takes a big change to make it feasible. Jaggers has been back to California to see friends and family a few times and enjoys visiting his former home state. “It’s not like I don’t like California,” he says, “I love it, and I love all my friends. But Topeka is my home now.”
The Community-Minded Music Lover Slash HR Specialist: Heather Brown in Shoals, Alabama
Heather Brown hadn’t ever visited The Shoals, but she was familiar with the area because of its rich musical history. “I’d watched Muscle Shoals, a documentary about musicians like Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones who’d recorded in the Shoals back in the ‘60s,” says Brown, who works in human resources for Palo Alto-based VMware. "It really piqued my interest." In the summer of 2021, on a whim, she applied to Remote Shoals, a relocation incentive program in the northwestern region of Alabama, and was shocked when they reached out about setting up an interview. (Full disclosure: VMware as well as Salesforce, below, are current clients of The Muse.)
“My wife Janice and I were living in Knoxville, Tennessee, and we were happy there,” Brown recalls. “But we’re both pretty adventurous, and we were starting to feel like it was time to make a change.” Originally from the Washington DC area, Brown had spent most of her life in the south. “I went to high school in Louisiana and college in Georgia, and I knew I wanted to stay in the south, mainly for the weather and affordable cost of living.”
Before her interview with Remote Shoals, Brown decided to make the five-hour drive from Knoxville to see the area for herself. “I packed in as much sightseeing as I could from dawn to dusk,” she says. “I visited historical sights, hiking trails, and a local animal shelter. I was looking for things we could get involved with, things that would enrich our lives.” Brown, a vegan, also wanted to be sure there would be places to shop and was pleasantly surprised to find a regional grocery chain that carries plant-based foods. “By the end of the day, I’d fallen in love with the Shoals.”
The couple (and their three rescue dogs) moved right after Thanksgiving in 2021 and are currently renting a craftsman bungalow (with a beautiful front porch!) in a quiet neighborhood and plan to buy a property soon. Brown, who was already working remotely from her home in Knoxville, was able to keep her job with no changes to her salary because she moved within the same region. Even better, she’s now on central time, just two hours ahead of her West Coast counterparts. Her wife Janice landed an on-site job at Dura, an automotive manufacturing company, with the help of the Remote Shoals team.
It’s not like living in a big city. But if you can find the quality of life you’re looking for and be happy, that’s the tradeoff. And you don’t have to say goodbye to your old life forever.
The program, which offers remote workers who move to The Shoals up to $10,000 cash as an incentive, has received applications from all 50 states and brought more than 100 new residents to the area since its launch in 2019. “We’re seeing young single people, families, and empty-nesters,” says Mackenzie Cottles, Marketing and Communications Specialist at the Shoals Economic Development Authority. “And we hear a lot about how much people want to know their neighbors and feel like they’re part of a community.”
Brown, who identifies as a progressive, acknowledges that living in the South puts her in the minority. But says she’s always felt welcome in the Shoals. “The people I meet around town are excited to talk to me about the Remote Shoals program. It’s a great icebreaker.” She’s also made an effort to connect with like-minded people in the area. “Janice and I were married in the Unitarian Universalist church, and there’s a small one here,” she says. She’s also gotten involved with the local chapter of PFLAG (an organization that unites parents, families, and allies of people in the LGBTQ+ community), started volunteering at an animal shelter in town, and plans to get involved with local politics.
While she’s had an easy time integrating, Brown recognizes that program participants from different parts of the country might be in for a bit of an adjustment. “It’s not like living in a big city. But if you can find the quality of life you’re looking for and be happy, that’s the tradeoff. And you don’t have to say goodbye to your old life forever.” While the couple enjoys traveling to visit friends and family from their “old life,” they’ve also been embracing their new life in the Shoals. They recently attended a holiday get-together at a retro bowling alley in town and are excited about expanding their group of friends. And they’ll have plenty of time to do just that, as they plan to stay in the area indefinitely.
The Finance-Savvy World-Traveler: Allison Irby Vu in Tulsa, Oklahoma
An avid traveler, Allison Irby Vu has explored countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, and South America, but she’d never considered visiting Oklahoma. That changed in early 2020 when she happened across an article about Tulsa Remote and decided to apply. “It’s the type of random, adventurous thing I would do, so my friends and family weren’t at all surprised,” says Irby Vu, who was born and raised in Washington, DC but struggled to find the sense of community she craved in adulthood. “I wanted to build a solid community and raise my son in a place that allowed him to be in nature often, the way I grew up—riding my bike without supervision, playing in creeks, and horseback riding,” she says.
When Irby Vu learned she’d been accepted to the program—which offers $10,000 up front to participants who buy a house or the same amount in smaller chunks over the course of a year to those who rent—the pandemic was in full swing. “I was already working from home and homeschooling my son, and I knew that we could do that from anywhere,” says Irby Vu, who is a financial planner at Brunch and Budget, where she specializes in working with people of color to bridge the racial wealth divide, and a single mom.
But she knew she needed to see Tulsa for herself, first. So she and her five-year-old son took a road trip. “Coming from a diverse area like DC, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was really surprised. We explored cool museums and I met really warm, friendly people whose values aligned with the things I’m passionate about,” Irby Vu says. “I thought, ‘I could do this for a year.’”
Irby Vu, who is Black, wanted to be settled in Tulsa before the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, so she moved at the start of 2021. “It was cool to see all the events and that folks were honoring, accepting, learning from the past. And there was a buzz of energy because it was a celebration, too. People here want to build something stronger and better,” Irby Vu says.
I feel like people should be rushing here to build the lives they want.
While the makeup of Tulsa isn’t nearly as diverse as DC, she’s grateful to have found a community through the program. Connecting with fellow participants—using Slack to reach out to other families and people of color, for example—has helped her feel at home. She recently purchased a more permanent place (a new build within walking distance to downtown) and was in the middle of cleaning out her garage with the help of her neighbor, Peg, when we spoke. “The people here are so kind,” Irby Vu marveled. “Who helps their neighbor move?”
As for her son, “He wants to dress like a cowboy and talks about being in the rodeo when he’s older,” she says. “It’s cool to see him being into the things the other local kids are into.” Irby Vu also found a new urban farm school to enroll him in and is excited about playing an active role in creating the curriculum with his teachers.
There are a few drawbacks, too, specifically around food (she’s yet to find a great Thai restaurant) and travel. “Before the pandemic, I was used to being able to fly directly to all kinds of exotic locations, but I don’t think that’ll be as easy to do from Tulsa,” she says. And dating is also proving to be a challenge.
Shallow dating pool aside, Irby Vu is loving life in Tulsa and plans to stay put for the foreseeable future. As a financial planner, she can’t help but mention that living in a more affordable town is a smart move. “I feel like people should be rushing here to build the lives they want.”
The Newlywed, New Parent, and New Homeowner: Alex Blalock in Tucson, Arizona
In March of 2020, Alex Blalock and his wife, Mari, were living in a 750-square-foot apartment in San Francisco. When they suddenly found themselves working from home full-time (they both work in tech—he’s in sales and she works in diversity and inclusion), it quickly became apparent that they needed a bigger place. By June of that year, they’d packed most of their belongings into a storage unit and took off in search of more space. “We rented Airbnbs in Boise and Salt Lake before coming down to Tucson,” Blalock says. This last stop wasn’t completely new—he’d done a semester of undergrad at the University of Arizona and she’d spent time there via an exchange program.
After a couple of months back in Tucson, the couple had fallen in love with the city. They applied and were accepted to Remote Tucson. “Our program doesn’t put a big emphasis on cash,” explains Liz Pocock, CEO of Startup Tucson, the economic development organization behind the effort. “We offer up to $7,500 worth of perks, including gift cards to local restaurants, entrepreneurial support, a designated local ambassador, networking opportunities, a year of free internet, and gifts that were purchased from local small businesses.” Remote Tucson attracted 600 applicants in 2021 and is gearing up for a second round in 2022.
Blalock says he and Mari most likely would have moved to Tucson even if they hadn’t been selected because they like the city so much. But the program “immediately connected us with a network of people who were experiencing the same things we were,” like moving away from an overpriced coastal city to start a life in a new town.
While the lower cost of living and more affordable housing options have been a welcome stress reliever, Blalock is aware that there may be some people in the community who aren’t as enthusiastic about folks from bigger cities moving into the area. “There is a sense of guilt coming here with Bay Area salaries knowing that there are people who may be getting priced out,” says Blalock, who kept his account executive role at the SF-headquartered Salesforce.
Potential resentment aside, Blalock says that he and Mari have felt incredibly welcomed by the folks they’ve met around town. “People in Tucson are much friendlier than in San Francisco. It’s been surprisingly easy to make connections with people in our neighborhood,” he says. And unlike in the Bay Area, many of the couple’s new friends and neighbors don’t work in tech, which Blalock finds refreshing. “People here don’t care what you do for a living; they just want to talk to you.”
Moving to Tucson allowed Mari and I to expedite our lives in a way we wouldn’t have been able to in San Francisco.
Other than being farther from family and friends, the biggest adjustment has come from encountering critters you don’t see in the Bay Area, like huge fire ants. “The bugs take some getting used to,” Blalock says. The central location, however, they embraced quite easily. Since making their move permanent, “We’ve driven to San Diego, Joshua Tree, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.” The couple also headed back to San Francisco over the holidays and were pleasantly surprised to find that they didn’t miss their old city. “We were scared we were going to want to stay, but by the end of our visit, we were looking forward to going back to Tucson.”
The move, Blalock says, “allowed Mari and I to expedite our lives in a way we wouldn’t have been able to in San Francisco.” They got engaged while they were renting an AirBnb in Boise and were later married in Tucson. “Buying a home there allowed us to get a dog, and two weeks after we brought home a three-month-old puppy, we found out we were pregnant.” The couple recently welcomed a son.
If you’re looking for a new adventure, a fresh start, or a house you can actually afford, a relocation program might be for you. But while getting paid to move to a new city for a better life might sound idyllic, it’s not without its trials. “Participating in a relocation program brings about the typical challenges that come with any massive life change,” Tulsa Remote’s Harlan says. “Not only are you moving, but everything about your life is changing. That can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining,” though the resources, support, and community that come with a relocation incentive program can make it less daunting.
Even if you’re up for the challenge, it’s not a realistic option for everyone. These programs are geared toward remote workers with well-established careers who earn higher-than-average salaries and the selection process can be competitive, given the volume of applications. But every program I spoke with confirmed that they’re planning to continue recruiting new people to their towns for the foreseeable future.
I have to admit that after talking to so many people who took the plunge, I’ve spent hours browsing real estate listings in all four of these cities. As a remote worker and lifelong San Francisco Bay Area resident, these programs make a compelling case for relocating. I know life isn’t a movie, but sometimes it’s fun to imagine what it might feel like to live as if it were.