Some hints about the effectiveness of relocation incentives offered by American communities

A number of American communities are offering monetary incentives to bring in residents and workers. Do the incentives work? Here are some recent clues:

Photo by Alexander Mils on

Fifty-three communities in 24 states and Puerto Rico are trying to lure new residents by offering cash, covering moving costs or providing other incentives, according to, an online directory of such programs. They largely seek remote workers from expensive coastal areas. Though the idea started before the pandemic, COVID-19 fed the movement by quintupling the number of remote workers and dampening some of the conviviality millennials sought in big cities.

So far, many areas have failed to bring in significant numbers of remote workers despite offering incentives. Most don’t have the staff and money backing the Tulsa Remote program, which is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

Even so, smaller areas have found advantages in remote worker programs. Natchez, Mississippi, a river town north of New Orleans where the population has been declining for decades, saw home sales double to 700 in the past year, even though only 12 people have used a $6,000 incentive for remote workers, said Chandler Russ, executive director of Natchez, Inc. Economic Development, which operates the Shift South remote worker incentive plan…

Tulsa’s program is often cited as a rare success story. It moved 100 people in its first year, 2019, and despite the pandemic it projects another 950 moves this year. Along with cash incentives up to $10,000 for living in Tulsa at least a year, the program offers a free trip to check out the area and intensive social networking in person and online…

A new study by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization, found the new workers created almost $14 in new local labor income — a measure of earnings by employees and business owners — for every dollar spent on relocating workers, adding $62 million in earnings by the workers themselves and the jobs created to support them in 2021.

It sounds like more data and time is needed to figure out whether the incentives lead to increased populations and, if they do, how and/or at what cost or benefit.

But, I could imagine many communities and their leaders would be interested in offering such incentives even if the data suggests they do not do much. Why? It is an actionable step that sounds like it should work. The community can lead with the incentive in their marketing. If people or businesses are looking to move, wouldn’t an incentive help encourage a particular decision? At the least, such an effort would get the name of the community out in front of the public or other interested parties.

Some of the other tidbits from the article cited above are interesting. Incentives could target particular kinds of residents or businesses. Increased housing costs could make an incentive worth very little. Could we imagine a future where potential residents negotiate with several communities in order to get a better deal? Just as businesses negotiate for tax breaks and communities compete with each other, why not residents?

Limiting the presence of people in city-building video games

A recent review of several city-building video games suggests they focus more on buildings and landscapes than residents:

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

What’s missing from these titles are people, but this is arguably part of the fantasy they’re presenting. Citizens are complicated; they have needs and wants, which of course influence the way towns, virtual or otherwise, are laid out. On the one hand, the absence of people could be interpreted as an unintentional but darkly misanthropic view of the city. On the other, perhaps these are exercises in utopian thinking; cities are filled with compromises that these city-builders allow us to calmly transcend.

I have not played any of these games – my video game attention is elsewhere – but I have a lot of experience with SimCity where the role of residents was interesting, to say the least. The people themselves were not often present on the screen. Instead, the focus was on land and how it could be transformed into different uses.

Where citizens tended to show up were in their reactions to your choices as mayor. Perhaps it was demanding a police station or a school. Perhaps it is was in the mayor’s approval rating. Perhaps it was in the construction of new residences, suggesting your community had some attractive features.

But, they were just abstract concepts. If you wanted to deal with people directly, you could play The Sims. SimCity was about systems, not characters. While this broke ground in some ways, it also obscures the real and productive roles residents play in cities. SimCity encourages a top-down view of cities: development happens at the behest of one leader, a mayor/tyrant urban planner or leader, who is only curbed by a budget, complaints, and the occasional disaster. This is not the participatory community building that can help link residents to their neighborhoods and communities.

It is hard to imagine a city-building game that fully incorporates residents and community members as part of the process. The mayor wants to build a new bridge but residents complain about the effects on the environment and demand input? The mayor wants to put a highway through to reduce traffic but the community believes it will scar their neighborhoods? Imagine a virtual reality game where the leader makes decisions, walks through the places they have helped create, and has to interact with the people there. Perhaps this is the next step, games about communities and the people that inhabit them rather than cities as systems easily changed.

How residents of Great Britain choose where to live

A new study looks at why people live where they do in Great Britain:

Not surprisingly, the key things that matter to people about the neighborhoods they live in include a mix of housing costs, being close to family, and proximity to where they work. More than a quarter (28 percent) of respondents cited housing costs and proximity to friends as key factors in the neighborhoods where they live, followed by the size and type of available housing (22 percent), and proximity to their workplace or their partner’s workplace (21 percent)…

The full report offers this conclusion:

Where people choose to live is largely determined by their stage of life. Young people aged between 25 and 34 prioritise proximity to the workplace, cost of housing, and access to leisure and cultural facilities when choosing where to live. Those aged between 35 and 55 tend to value access to good schools, and the  size and type of their houses. And those aged over 55 prioritise access to countryside and green space.
These preferences help to explain the differing demographics seen across cities and their surrounding areas – different parts of cities are more able to offer amenities that are prioritised by people at different stages of their lives.

Overall, it sounds like two factors matter most even with the age differences: a favorable location in regards to social necessities (jobs and relationships) and good but affordable housing. Of course, obtaining these two goals may be quite difficult for many given that: families and friends don’t necessarily prioritize living near each other as opposed to living close to work or going where the jobs are, employers tend to be concentrated in certain locations, affordable and desirable housing can be very difficult to find in many popular areas, and consumers can’t exactly find housing that is everything that they want.

If age or life stage matters so much, should planners and others really go after lifestyle sorts of communities appealing to just one group or provide options for multiple groups within individual communities?

Mosque proposed for unincorporated site in DuPage County

The Chicago area has experienced several proposals in recent years for mosques to be built in the suburbs. Several proposals have been in DuPage County where communities or the County have rejected plans. There is a new proposal being brought forward now for an unincorporated site near Lombard, meaning it will be under review by DuPage County:

Proclaim Truth Charitable Trust is seeking a conditional-use permit that would allow it to demolish a 65-year-old single-family house along Highland Avenue and construct a new 5,200-square-foot mosque.

Sabet Siddiqui, the group’s representative, stressed to members of DuPage County’s zoning board of appeals Thursday night that the proposed mosque would be used by about 100 families who live in the area and currently attend services in Villa Park.

“Unlike other mosques and synagogues and churches that you folks have heard in the past, this is a different scale and different scope,” Siddiqui told the board. “It’s a small neighborhood mosque.”…

Siddiqui said he believes the mosque would be “a perfect fit” for a neighborhood that already has two churches and a synagogue. He said the brick and masonry structure is designed to “match the surrounding residences as much as possible.”

Almost all the residents who attended Thursday night’s public hearing voiced support for the plan, including a representative from neighboring Congregation Etz Chaim.

In comparison to some of the other cases, it sounds like this particular proposal is experiencing a stronger welcome from residents in the neighborhood.

It would be interesting to do a study of these cases that have popped up in recent years. Do Christian churches experience the same kind of process and complaints that mosques do? How exactly do nearby residents voice concerns – it is typical NIMBY material like traffic, parking, and noise or are there broader issues brought up in the cases of the mosques? Is the support or concerns about the proposed mosques tied more to the size of the mosque or is it more about the demographics of the surrounding neighborhood?

Portland faces mocking on television show

Some large cities have better images than others. Portland generally has a positive reputation, particularly among urban sociologists and planners who have admired the city’s restrictions on urban sprawl.

So what happens when Portland takes some mocking from a new television show named “Portlandia”?

For years, many residents here have reacted with practiced apathy and amusement toward the national fascination with Portland. Outsiders and media critics have glowed over everything from its restaurants to its ambitious transit system of streetcars and light rail. Yet with “Portlandia,” the flattery has given way to mockery, however gently executed, of this liberal city’s deliberate differentness…

In a popular line from the show, which is on IFC, Mr. Armisen’s character describes Portland as a place “where young people go to retire.” Sure enough, economists have shown that the city in recent years has drawn a disproportionate amount of young people, and that many of them end up being underemployed…

The show has limits as social science. While many parts of Portland feel like one big group hug, the city is a complicated place, struggling with government budget cuts, manufacturing losses and the housing downturn even as demand for office space downtown has risen. The Gilt Club restaurant is just a few blocks from a Salvation Army shelter.

If Portland residents do not like the portrayal of their city, they shouldn’t worry too much: the Independent Film Channel, home to “Portlandia,” is not a very well-known channel.

Of course, how residents see one’s city can differ quite a bit from the view of outsiders. And television is not necessarily a good reflection of reality. It will be interesting to watch how Portland residents continue to respond to this show, particularly if the humor has an edge to it or takes on sacred cows.

Which comes first, the jobs or the people?

New research from an urban sociologist suggests that the conventional wisdom that jobs bring new residents doesn’t match reality:

But according to a study in the Journal of Urban Affairs, MSU’s Zachary Neal found the opposite to be true. Bringing the people in first – specifically, airline passengers traveling on business – leads to a fairly significant increase in jobs, he said.

“The findings indicate that people come first, then the jobs,” said Neal, assistant professor of sociology. “It’s just the opposite of an ‘If you build it, they will come’ sort of an approach.”

For the study, Neal examined the number of business air-travel passengers in major U.S. cities during a 15-year period (1993-2008). Business passengers destined for a city and not just passing through are a key to job growth, he said.

Attracting business travelers to the host city for meetings and other business activities by offering an easily accessible airport and other amenities such as hotels and conference centers is one of the best ways to create new jobs, Neal said. These business travelers bring with them new ideas and potential investment, which creates a positive climate for innovation and job growth. In the study, Neal analyzed all permanent nonfarm jobs…

Neal added that business airline traffic is far more important for a city’s economic vitality than population size – a finding he established in an earlier study and reaffirmed with the current research.

So will cities alter their strategies for creating jobs to match this research?

This could be taken as a call for improved infrastructure, specifically airports and convention centers. Such projects can be expensive and difficult to get off the ground. (As a good example, see the case of the proposed expansion of O’Hare Airport.) But if Neal is right, then having more capacity to bring in business travelers would lead to more jobs. The upfront cost to expand the airport or convention center or attract hotels for business travelers would pay off down the road.

What to do when development projects, such as HSR, encounter opposition from residents

This is a common story: a developer, community, or a set of politicians put forth plans for a new development. Some residents or citizens complain that the project will negatively affect them. What is to be done to balance out their concerns versus the plans that have been made? How do we balance the rights of the individual versus the needs of the community?

This is taking place currently in California as state officials continue to move forward with plans for high-speed rail (HSR). According to The Infrastructurist, there are several fronts for complaints: one community suggests the high-speed rail will alter the character of their community and farmers are unhappy that some of their land will split by the tracks.

Within this debate, several themes emerge:

1. A longer and/or bigger view helps provide perspective. In the California case, the start of HSR in the Central Valley looks like a boondoggle because it doesn’t yet connect the largest cities in the state. But it is the start of a network that will expand and eventually provide 2.5 hour travel from San Francisco to LA.

1a. This might help: show that the funding for the later stages in the project, where the Central Valley start is connected at both ends to larger cities, is guaranteed. Otherwise, there might be some worry that this first part will get built and the later funding will dry up or disappear.

2. The time for debate about whether HSR rail is good or appropriate for California is over – it is going forward, particularly since there are Federal dollars committed to this. Yes, these farmers and communities may be affected but they are not going to be able to stop the whole project (unless, perhaps, they get a whole lot more people on their side).

3. The key for those promoting HSR is that they need to continue to focus on the benefits that will come. Some of this is through city revitalization as the HSR serves as a new economic engine. More broadly, it will benefit the state in terms of reducing traffic, provide a quicker form of transportation that flying, and be greener. Yes, people will complain that these are just guesses but then the promoters need to follow through and ensure that HSR actually does benefit the state.

4. Change is not easy. Even if all Californians agreed that HSR was good and it should be pursued, there are always issues regarding making it happen. This is a long-term project that will affect a number of people. The hope is that in the end, it will lead to more good than harm.

How other states see Illinois’ income tax hike

The news this week that Illinois will have higher personal income and business taxes has spread to nearby states. According to this AP report, “neighboring states” are “gleeful” over this news:

Neighboring states gleefully plotted Wednesday to take advantage of what they consider a major economic blunder and lure business away from Illinois.

“It’s like living next door to `The Simpsons’ — you know, the dysfunctional family down the block,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in an interview on Chicago’s WLS-AM.

But economic experts scoffed at images of highways packed with moving vans as businesses leave Illinois. Income taxes are just one piece of the puzzle when businesses decide where to locate or expand, they said, and states should be cooperating instead trying to poach jobs from one another.

“The idea of competing on state tax rates is . . . hopelessly out of date,” said Ed Morrison, economic policy advisor at the Purdue Center for Regional Development. “It demonstrates that political leadership is really out of step with what the global competitive realities are.”

A few thoughts:

1. Mitch Daniels watches The Simpsons? Might this admission hurt his possible presidential run or would it help him sell a hipper image? In the minds of some, perhaps where the analogy breaks down is that the Simpson family always seems to turn out all right in the end.

2. Income taxes are just one factor that businesses consider. I would like to read more about this at some point. For example, the conventional literature on suburban development suggests that low taxes is one of the reasons that residents and businesses decided to move out of the city in the first place. It would be helpful to know what are the “most important” factors that businesses consider – is income tax a lesser factor or a greater factor?

3. How many businesses will actually move to Wisconsin or Indiana or elsewhere and is there a way to predict this? It is true that Americans can vote for certain policies or actions by moving. Taxes may even be part of the reason the Sunbelt has grown in population in recent decades. At the same time, there are other factors beyond taxes that anchor people or businesses to certain places. I was intrigued with this question when living in South Bend, Indiana. Some people said they couldn’t wait to leave. Others wanted to stay. What pushes people (or businesses) to the point where they actually will move? Moving is not an easy process – it requires quite a bit of change and money (though money might be saved in the long run).

3a. The opinion of Wisconsin or Indiana held by Chicago area residents is often not the highest. Are these tax increases enough to push people toward places that they chose not to move to before?

3b. Is this “gleefulness” from other states tied to larger issues other states with the state of Illinois?

Still a few residents who are choosing to stay longer at Cabrini-Green

The notorious housing project known as Cabrini-Green is nearly gone. Due to plans begun in the 1990s, nearly all of the buildings have been torn down. But one building, at 1230 N. Burling, is still occupied and today, a few residents said they wanted to stay longer even though the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) wanted to move them out:

CHA spokeswoman Kellie O’Connell-Miller acknowledged that a court-approved, 180-day notice for the residents to leave the Near North Side housing complex does not expire until Jan 4, 2011. But because there were fewer than 10 families remaining in the building, the CHA and the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council agreed that they would try to speed up the relocation, she said.

O’Connell-Miller would not say exactly how many families still lived in the building. Richard Wheelock, housing supervisor at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, which represents the Cabrini-Green Local Advisory Council, said five to seven families were in the building at the start of the day, but two families refused to leave because they objected to the accommodations they were offered…

Legally, there was no order forcing people out today, but the CHA and the LAC had worked to speed up the relocation for safety reasons, O’Connell-Miller said.

I can imagine that some people would ask, “Why in the world would people want to stay in a near empty building, let alone the last occupied one in the Cabrini-Green project?”

The article hints at one reason: the new accommodations for those moved out of Cabrini-Green might not be any better. This has been one of the sticking points since demolitions efforts were announced in the 1990s: where exactly would these public housing residents be moved? A small number could qualify for new mixed-income housing built on or near the Cabrini site, some might be moved to other public housing projects in Chicago or given Section 8 vouchers to use with private housing, and then some simply disappeared from the public housing rolls. But overall, there was not enough public housing to take in all of the people who would be displaced from Cabrini-Green. Moving out of public housing yet ending up in substandard housing in a hyper-segregated city neighborhood is not necessarily better.

Another issue may play a small role: few people like to be told where or when to move. Even when the conditions aren’t that great, home is home and the home you know might seem better than a new place. Middle-class or upper-class people also don’t like to be told to move when the government exercises eminent domain and those people even get a fair price for their property. These two issues are related: if you feel like you don’t have a choice and your options aren’t very good, moving may be undesirable.

Thinking of all this, we need more media attention on what has happened to these notorious public housing projects like Cabrini-Green or the Robert Taylor Homes. What has happened to the former residents and have their lives been improved? What do these sights look like now and who has benefited from making use of the land?