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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

The Possible Impacts of Remote Work on Cities, Neighborhoods, and Households

Working from home appears to be an outcome of the pandemic that is here to stay. Nearly two years of experience has shown that it is possible, and perhaps even preferable, for many to work from home. Indeed, surveys show a majority of office workers—and a significant share of employers—expect to work from home at least once a week going forward. This ability to skip the commute (even just one or two days a week) could change where enough people choose to live to reshape housing demand in cities and suburbs. Supercharged residential sprawl becomes an initial concern, as larger houses in more affordable neighborhoods farther from employment centers could become a viable alternative for millions of metro area workers. However, as we anticipate these changes, a look at earlier research suggests it may not be so simple, and the suburbs may not only be the only place that would see increased demand from remote workers.

While pre-pandemic literature on the subject of remote work may seem obsolete, due to the seismic changes over the past two years, much of it remains relevant today. For example, a review of studies on the impacts of information and communication technology on the spatial form of cities finds a common thread expecting decentralization and expansion of low density urban growth, but also continued value of place and physical accessibility, especially links to transportation and communications networks. Another slightly older study, which looked at neighborhood preferences of remote workers in the early 2000s, finds “considerable nuance in the relationships of the built environment and working from home,” challenging the notion that remote work will simply shift demand from cities to suburbs and beyond. One particularly interesting nuance is the possibility that the urban amenities we utilize while working in an office (restaurants, shops, etc.) were in some cases associated with more working from home.

While increased working from home can raise demand for living in areas farther away from city centers, it may not necessarily mean less demand for living in cities. Some urban neighborhoods may even see more demand as highly desirable city neighborhoods, which were once only convenient to a subset of commuters, become more accessible to a larger set of potential new residents. At the same time, however, this could be a problem for distressed urban neighborhoods where proximity to employment centers may have been their best asset. Outlying suburbs and rural areas, too, with fewer amenities and poorer access to broadband and/or transportation networks, may also be further disadvantaged. These areas could see even less demand which could, in turn, affect the ability of existing residents to move.

In a future less tethered by the job-housing link there is a strong possibility that neighborhood amenities could play a larger role in housing choices beyond simply cities vs. suburbs. While increased mobility may open up new neighborhoods and opportunities to some, it could also further neighborhood inequality between amenity-rich and distressed neighborhoods and household inequalities between those who can work from home and those who can’t. Therefore, as we prepare for the impacts of increased working from home on mobility and neighborhood change, we must be sure to consider both the areas in which to expect newfound growth and demand, but also the neighborhoods and households at risk of being left behind.