Brett Smith first arrived in Truckee as a recent college grad in 1992. He “did the usual thing — ski patrolled and river guided and worked construction,” and ultimately spent a decade working as a construction superintendent. Smith had always intended to go back to school for a master’s in architecture. In 2004 he did just that, and attended the University of Washington in Seattle. In spite of all this moving around, Truckee/Tahoe never stopped calling.
In 2011, Smith’s wife got a job at Squaw and he saw an opportunity to move back, but worried about work. “I had worked in construction here and I had two observations: it’s not very diverse work and the swings in the building economy here are pretty violent,” Smith says.
Both things gave him pause about working in the industry in Tahoe in 2011, when the bottom was falling out of the housing market. Smith thought if he could keep working for his Seattle firm, but expand his work to include projects in California and Nevada, he might be able to insulate himself a bit from the vagaries of any particular market. “So, I went to my business partner and I said, ‘we’re moving but I want to keep working with the firm, can we work out a way to do that?’” he recalls.
Smith says his partner is the sort of person who likes a challenge and was willing to hammer out a solution that worked on both sides. For the first few years, that meant Smith worked out of his home, commuted to Seattle regularly from Truckee, and worked on projects throughout the West. His theory proved correct: Being able to work remotely, and thus regionally, helped protect him from the volatility of other building markets.
Smith is part of a large and growing population of telecommuters in Truckee and North Tahoe, and his story follows the sort of trajectory you hear a lot of small-town mayors talking about these days: If they can snag the remote professionals, the thinking goes, they might eventually open a local office, or convince their company to move. After being a remote worker for seven years, Smith now has a small office at the Tahoe Mill Collective and is looking to hire locally and grow a Truckee team for his firm, DeForest Architects. These sorts of stories are becoming more common as companies get increasingly comfortable with the idea of remote work, and the result can mean perks for both workers and the communities they choose to call home.
Megan Michelson co-founded the Tahoe Mill Collective — a co-working space at the base of Alpine — in December 2013 because, as a freelancer herself, she wanted a place where she and other freelance professionals she knew in the area could not only go to work, but also find each other. Michelson continues to run it today and telecommutes as a freelance writer for various magazines and companies such as Powder and Outside magazines. She’s seen a noticeable uptick in membership the past two years, which she attributes to companies offering more flexible work arrangements.
“This summer we had two women who were here for the summer, who work for companies that are based elsewhere (one in the Bay Area and the other in New York), and they could live anywhere and work from anywhere,” Michelson says. “I think more companies are seeing the value of letting employees have that flexibility of remote work. So, we’re seeing more people come to Tahoe because why wouldn’t you live in Tahoe if you could work or live anywhere?”
That tracks with what’s happening throughout the country. According to the most recent Gallup poll on remote work, at least 43 percent of Americans spent at least some time working remotely in 2016. The wave of remote workers means more of a mix of skills and personalities in the community, and an increase in the number of professionals.
Of course, the influx of remote workers, particularly those whose jobs pay more than local jobs do, also puts pressure on an already-stressed housing system. According to the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, the median home price in Truckee and North Tahoe has been increasing over the past three years, a stat the Tahoe Sierra Board of Realtors confirms. According to the TSBR, from 2008 to 2017 the number of residential units sold in the Truckee-Tahoe area more than doubled. Although no one has looked at how many of those homes were sold to remote workers, it is known that about 15 percent of the local workforce in Tahoe works remotely, reports the Tahoe Prosperity Center. According to the Truckee Chamber of Commerce, in Truckee that number stands at 18 percent.
“For the people who have been here, and who have been looking for jobs and housing, and really struggling, seeing someone move in here with their fancy job they can do from anywhere, including a bench overlooking the lake? That could be a little annoying,” Michelson says. “But hopefully people will see it’s ultimately a net good to have a variety of people here, and more money in the economy.”
Truckee town council member Morgan Goodwin has been on multiple sides of this equation as both a remote worker himself for years, and a city council member and former mayor who has seen the impact of remote workers on the area. “It absolutely has an impact on the housing available in the community,” he says. “On the one hand, these are good jobs that bring incomes to the area for more than just the tourist amenities and help keep restaurants busy in the off season. On the other hand, we don’t build housing fast enough to keep up with supply, so a remote income will usually out-compete a local service industry income. In my view, that’s why adding to the supply of housing in the area is key and doing so in ways that require local employment is the right track.”
In addition to the seasonal residents, plenty of remote workers are full-time residents, too, like Smith, and Mike Rogge, a writer, director, and producer who freelances for various organizations and magazines. In 2015, Rogge started a local enterprise after working solo for several years, launching video production company Verb Cabin in Tahoe Vista. Now his work consists of a mix of Verb Cabin projects, for which he sometimes hires local freelancers but also works with independent contractors who live elsewhere. He also runs his own freelance gigs for companies located throughout the country. Rogge says that while Tahoe may not offer the professional networking opportunities that some cities provide, especially for creatives, it does have some competitive advantages.
“When I have writer’s block, or creative lulls, depression, anxiety, anything like that, I go outside,” he says. “Dogs and nature tend to provide answers. That’s a competitive advantage our non-Tahoe living creative friends don’t have.”
Another competitive advantage is the cost of living, which although higher than many places in the country, is still lower than in most big cities. By way of comparison, the average home cost in the Bay Area is currently $935,000, while in the Tahoe/Truckee area it is currently $587,700. In Seattle it’s $820,000; in Los Angeles it’s $939,500.
Freelance creatives like Michelson and Rogge have increasingly been flocking to smaller towns for a variety of reasons: more inspiration, less competition, and lower costs, which mean more time to be spent on purely creative endeavors. According to Steven Pedigo, an expert in economic and urban development who directs the NYU Schack Institute of Real Estate Urban Lab, almost as soon as we hit a point where the majority of Americans lived in cities a few years ago, we started to see a swing the other way, starting with creatives. “We’ve seen an increasing exodus out of big cities in the last couple of years,” he says.
Outside of Tahoe, the freelance economy in general is growing. According to the annual Freelancing in America report from Upwork and the Freelancers Union, nearly half of all millennials are already freelancing, and more than half of the entire U.S. labor force is predicted to be freelance in the next decade. In addition to situations like Smith’s, where a company has decided to let one or more employees work remotely, or has enabled the setup of a satellite office, there are a legion of freelancers who often work for multiple companies and thus can generally live wherever they want.
Remote work is not without its challenges, of course, for all sides of the arrangement. Smith says he joined the Mill, after working from home for four years, in search of community. “I felt disconnected from the local community,” he says. “It was like, I went to work and my head was other places, and I didn’t have that connection.”
Co-working spaces like the Mill and, in Truckee, Lift Cowork, provide some interaction with the community for remote workers, but there are other ways to plug in, too. “I got involved by going to the Silicon Mountain meetups, attending the Thrive Tahoe meetings, working from the Lift, and then eventually starting to organize my own stuff like the maker space,” Goodwin says.
On the flip side, Michelson says the local community doesn’t necessarily benefit from transient remote workers. “A lot of people are just passing through — that’s fine, it brings people in and out, and they spend money, and patronize local businesses. But they’re not necessarily invested in Tahoe.”
Technology can also be a challenge to making remote work successful. Although technology has improved over the years, enabling more remote job possibilities, there are still challenges, especially when the spotty nature of #mountainWiFi interferes with your video conference call — or in Smith’s case, virtual reality (VR) conference call. That’s not only frustrating for the remote worker, but also contributes to employers’ persistent misgivings about remote work — for every company head embracing flexible work arrangements, there’s one who doesn’t really think telecommuting can work. Given the highly collaborative nature of architecture, Smith and his team have come up with a desk-cam contraption they call the “sketch cam” that’s a video camera connected to a boom so that architects in different locations can virtually sketch together.
These issues highlight the impact poor-quality broadband has on economic development in the region, a problem the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation, Sierra Business Council, and Tahoe Prosperity Center have been working on for more than two years. “People sometimes hear that we’re working to expand broadband coverage and think that’s a luxury issue,” says Heidi Hill Drumm, of the Tahoe Prosperity Center. “But it impacts everything from job opportunities to work to whether kids can submit their homework on time.”
The broadband issue has even become a sticking point in the upcoming District 4 election. As a district that includes large swathes of land that have either no or very minimal broadband access, it’s critical to economic development. “Especially being in California, this center of technology and innovation, we don’t want to see this district left behind,” says candidate Jessica Morse.
Even with cutting-edge broadband and the most inventive virtual tech, you can’t always close the distance gap, of course. “You do need to see people face to face at times, so working remotely means traveling,” Smith says. Still, being a resident of Tahoe and a worker of the world means almost endless opportunities and a broad and diverse network, another benefit that flows both ways.