WASHINGTON — The crowds of remote workers who have flocked to rural communities during the pandemic have begun to dwindle as employers push to return to the office. But for many of the cities where remote workers arrived, the housing crisis they fueled has persisted.

“People can’t find housing, and I don’t mean affordable housing. I’m saying they can’t find housing at all,” said Barbara Bruno, mayor of Springdale, Utah. “Even if they can afford to buy something, there is nothing to buy. It’s really that bad.»

Small and medium-sized rural communities saw home prices rise during the first two years of the pandemic as workers gained the new ability to do their jobs from anywhere. relocated outside of city centers for more space and easy access to outdoor activities.

But that city-to-country migration has shown signs of reversing over the past year. Home buyers have been looking for places closer to large metropolitan areas, with cities like Washington and Los Angeles watching population gains again in 2022. The change comes as a growing number of employers are demanding that workers return to the office: For the first time since the start of the pandemic, more than half of workers in major metropolitan areas went to the office at least once. from January 18 to 25, according to data of the building security company Kastle Systems.

“They need to get back to work, they need to get back to their office, so we see big city centers coming back to life as more people come back,” said Nadia Evangelou, chief economist at the National Association of Realtors.

People’s desire to get out into nature also seems to have waned, with visits to popular national parks like Yellowstone and Zion. pandemic last year’s highs RV Demand slowdown, and various popular ski resorts, such as Vail in Colorado, have fewer visitors.

All of that should mean some relief for housing markets in popular rural communities where home prices have skyrocketed in the past two years due to an explosion of out-of-town buyers, putting local workers out of the market. . But residents and officials in affected communities say that while the lines of remote workers have dwindled, they have seen no relief from the massive housing shortages they caused.

In the city of Springdale, Utah, population 500, near Zion National Park, residents and officials have been increasingly struggling to find even basic housing to support the local workforce, leaving businesses and the national park chronically understaffed with little sign of the situation improving. said Mayor Bruno.

Before the pandemic, Springdale wasn’t known as a hotspot for outsiders looking for a second home or investors looking for rental income. But since the start of the pandemic, median home prices have risen nearly 60% in less than three years to more than $575,000, according to the Zillow Home Value Index, which uses a range of data to determine the median home value. That increase has been driven by foreign second home buyers, investors and the conversion of long-term rentals to Airbnbs and other types of short-term rentals, Bruno said.

That has left local businesses, which serve the millions of visitors who pass through the city each year on their way to Zion, struggling to hire everyone from hourly workers to skilled professionals needed to support the community. Bruno said he has heard of tenants repeatedly losing their lease because the property is being turned into a short-term rental, workers commuting more than 100 miles round-trip for hourly jobs, and others living in trailers. , campsites or shipping containers.

Affordable housing has been an issue for decades in rural destination cities such as Aspen, Colorado and Jackson, Wyoming, popular spots for wealthy visitors and relying on large numbers of low-wage workers to support the tourism industry.

But big numbers of people moving from large, expensive cities to smaller communities greatly exacerbated the housing shortage and spread the problem to new communities with less experience managing affordable housing and fewer resources to respond, said Danya Rumore, a professor of the University of Utah which founded the Gateway Region Initiative and Natural Amenities.

“The pandemic really accelerated what was already happening,” Rumore said. “The pandemic basically accelerated this trend by 15 years. So 15 years of a trend that we thought would happen we just compressed it into one.”

In Moab, Utah, residents have similar problems, as their desert community has become a popular new destination for second-home buyers, said Kaitlin Myers, executive director of the Moab Area Community Land Trust.

Even as demand appears to be waning and the housing market is cooling off, developers continue to build homes that will be unaffordable for most local residents, Myers said. She said several mobile home parks, which were one of the last bastions of affordable housing in the community, were purchased in 2021 by developers who plan to put high-end housing in their place.

«Our home prices were lower than many other resort communities, so we had an increase in second homes, and for the first time, we saw our community move to the next level of resort community,» said Myers, who says that You have started to notice more dark and empty sitting houses.

There are few nearby alternatives for village labor, with the nearest town over an hour and a half away. While in the past, lower-wage workers struggled to find housing, the rise in home prices caused by the pandemic means that even middle-income professionals, such as teachers, city officials and health care workers, have been excluded, Myers said.

“In 2018, 2019, you could be a working class family and we still had housing options that were $300,000 to $400,000, which is manageable. But now we don’t have options like that in our market anymore,” Myers said. “We definitely still need housing for housekeepers, restaurant workers, and river guides, but for the most part, we have a lot of companies starting to find housing for them. Our biggest issue is making sure we have housing for teachers, nurses and firefighters and our essential workforce that we need to run the community.”

In Whitefish, Montana, home to a ski resort and close to Glacier National Park, the the population grew by almost 10% in 2021, to 8,500 people, and house prices doubled to nearly $1 million from just over $450,000 at the start of the pandemic, according to Zillow data.

When Daniel Sidder began looking for a house in Whitefish last fall after taking a job there as executive director of advocacy group Housing Whitefish, he said he couldn’t find a place that would rent to his family for more than nine months out of the year. because many properties had been converted into vacation homes, and the owners wanted to use the house in the summer or rent it out for more money to summer vacationers.

“For a long time, Whitefish has been a pretty affordable place where people could come and work seasonal jobs and maintain a pretty decent quality of life and continue to build their careers over time,” Sidder said. «It’s getting harder and harder for those people who are looking for those opportunities to keep them long-term.»

Real estate economists say the rural areas that experienced the biggest booms from the pandemic will likely see outsized drops in prices, compared to the national housing market.

But given the limited supply of homes and the unwillingness of homeowners with low mortgage interest rates to sell, prices are not expected to return to their pre-pandemic levels, said Lisa Sturtevant, chief economist at the data firm Bright MLS real estate.

“There is such an imbalance between the amount of housing that is needed and the amount of housing that is available, and that is not going to change anytime soon,” Sturtevant said. «That will continue to be a challenge.»