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Some Cities In America's Heartland Offer To Pay Remote Workers For Moving There

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ten thousand dollars is a significant chunk of money, but would it convince you to pick up and move to an entirely different part of the country? Well, some cities and regions in the heartland are offering that and more to attract new residents, especially during the pandemic. NPR's Uri Berliner reports.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Living in the San Francisco Bay Area was becoming a grind for Jaleesa Garland, and that was even before COVID. She had a ton of roommates and little space or privacy.

JALEESA GARLAND: I shared a bathroom with at least three other people at any given point in time. Yeah, it was rough.

BERLINER: Garland is in her early 30s and works for an e-commerce company based in San Francisco. When everyone started working from home during the pandemic, rough became even rougher.

GARLAND: When you're there all day long with four other people, it starts to wear on you after a while.

BERLINER: It was time to move to a new city. She considered places somewhat cheaper that are popular with millennials like herself, like Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. And then she heard about this program, and it's called Tulsa Remote. Here's how it works. If you can work remotely and you qualify, it'll pay you $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Okla.

GARLAND: I came out in July just to see the city, and I was pretty amazed at, you know, the quality of life here and what you can get for the money. So it was kind of a no-brainer. When I was given the offer to move, I said, yeah, absolutely.

BERLINER: In October, Garland became a resident of Tulsa. She has two dogs, one of which she adopted on her drive east, and plenty of space.

GARLAND: I live in my own one-bedroom apartment.

BERLINER: Nine hundred and forty dollars a month compared to the 1,150 she was paying for a tiny room in a shared apartment in Berkeley.

GARLAND: I share a bathroom with myself. It's great. I have a nice patio. I can't complain.

BERLINER: The Tulsa Remote program is funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Its aim is to attract skilled, motivated people to liven up the city and juice its economy. Ben Stewart is the interim director.

BEN STEWART: Since inception two-plus years ago, the program has brought nearly 500 members to Tulsa.

BERLINER: And interest has surged during the pandemic.

STEWART: We've seen applications over the course of the last six months increase up to threefold.

BERLINER: Other regions also see an opportunity in the shift to remote work, like Northwest Arkansas. It's home to Walmart, the University of Arkansas and is surrounded by lakes and mountains like in the TV show "Ozark." The Northwest Arkansas pitch - come live here, and we'll give you $10,000 and a bicycle. A bicycle?

NELSON PEACOCK: Bentonville, one of the cities in Northwest Arkansas, has proclaimed itself the mountain biking capital of the world, and a lot of experts would not disagree with that.

BERLINER: Nelson Peacock is the president and CEO of the Northwest Arkansas Council. The region started its initiative after the pandemic started.

PEACOCK: When COVID took place, we really saw people reevaluating their lifestyle and what they saw was important, and we felt that we needed to take advantage of that.

BERLINER: The effort is partially funded by the Walton Family Foundation, a financial supporter of NPR. For those pondering a move to Northwest Arkansas, Peacock says it's not just the outdoors. There's culture, a top museum of American art. And it's monumentally cheaper than, for example, San Francisco.

PEACOCK: Say you make 150,000 - pretty good. It's comparable to $63,000 - is what you would need to have the same lifestyle here.

BERLINER: That's some pretty serious savings, but the same lifestyle moving from San Francisco to Northwest Arkansas or Tulsa, Okla.? Jaleesa Garland says her new neighborhood in Tulsa - it's progressive politically and doesn't feel that different from her old hometown of Berkeley.

GARLAND: To other parts of the city, yeah, it's very, very, very different from Berkeley, from San Francisco, from the Bay Area.

BERLINER: And so's much of the rest of the state. Oklahoma is one of the reddest states in the country. Garland is a Democrat, and she's actually looking forward to meeting people with different views.

GARLAND: Especially in these challenging political times, you have to see what - the other side. And so I think that living in this city will give me an opportunity to kind of have a better understanding of the other side of things. And so I think it's actually very exciting.

BERLINER: Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.