- Cities across the country are testing remote work incentive programs where people are paid to move.
- 4 professionals who took the $10,000 to move to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for a year shared their experiences.
- They said they’re saving money, living in more comfortable spaces, and making plenty of friends.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
I’ve lived within the same seven-mile radius on a tiny island on the shores of the Hudson River my entire life. But after three decades of living in Manhattan, I was itching to move and stop shelling out thousands of dollars each month to rent out a cramped one-bedroom apartment.
Which is why, one sunny April day in 2019, I found myself searching for an apartment in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In 2018, the George Kaiser Family Foundation launched Tulsa Remote, a program for people who can do their jobs from anywhere in the country.
The foundation offers applicants $10,000 to move to Tulsa for a year, along with cool perks like apartment specials, a swanky coworking space, lunch-and-learn lectures, and bowling nights. After initially welcoming members in cohorts, the program shifted to rolling applications, with no limit on the number of members accepted.
Over 10,000 people applied to Tulsa Remote in the first 90 days, and as of March 2021, they’ve received over 50,000 applications.
With an acceptance rate of about 1.5% of their annual applicants, the odds of getting in are tougher than admission to an Ivy League institution.
To date, the program has brought more than 600 people to Tulsa. “More importantly, more than 90% of our members have stayed in Tulsa beyond their one-year commitment,” Ben Stewart, executive director of Tulsa Remote, told Insider.
I applied in a late-night haze, and in early 2019 I was invited to a phone interview and eventually accepted.
I knew next to nothing about the place beyond my love for the 1978 Don Williams’ hit, “Tulsa Time,” which felt like more than enough to merit a visit. (Sure enough, the country tune was blasting through the airport when I landed.)
I visited and fell in love with the city. Unfortunately, work and personal obligations prevented the Tulsa Dream from coming true for me, for now, but I’ve never stopped living vicariously through the other Tulsa Remoters I met on my trip and scouting the current participants on social media.
Fast forward to today, and the incentive-driven relocation program — one of the pioneers in a growing movement that’s seen Northwest Arkansas, Hawaii, Natchez, Mississippi, and more locales join its ranks — has continued to flourish, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have seen a 300% rise in applications since March 2020 and welcomed 380 new members to Tulsa in 2020,” said Stewart, noting that they’ve also modified programming to allow for social distancing, including offering virtual visits for prospective candidates and community programming designed for online environments.
In fact, the pandemic has created an influx in interest in third-tier American cities like Tulsa, as many workers newly empowered to toil from afar have fled expensive cities like New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago to cheaper and more spacious territories.
To find out what it’s really like to be paid to live in a new location during the pandemic, Insider spoke with four program participants about their experience — and whether they regret making the move.
Leconte Lee moved from the DC area and loves the program’s virtual opportunities
When Leconte Lee, 30, a senior communications manager at SchoolHouse Connection, relocated in November 2020 from Alexandria, Virginia, he found himself enamored by Tulsa’s lower cost of living as compared to the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, where purchasing a home was unattainable for his budget.
“I now live in a three-bedroom, 2.5-bath Spanish Colonial house with my partner with extra pocket change to buy new plants,” Lee told Insider. For the same rent that he paid in Alexandria, he’s getting three times the square footage, plus a front patio and a backyard — a serious boon during the pandemic.
In true Midwestern fashion, Lee has become chummy with his hairstylist, who made him feel “so welcome,” he said, and doled out plenty of her local intel. “I love Tulsa for its sense of community; people genuinely want to connect and help,” he said.
Besides adjusting to Central Time, Lee said nothing really has changed in his work life.
“I work for an entirely remote organization pre-COVID, so there wasn’t much adjusting for me to do,” he said. “The Tulsa Remote program does come with a membership to the coworking space 36 Degrees North, minutes from where I currently live.” He added that he makes it a point to go into the “office” once a week to change things up and boost his productivity.
While meeting in groups is out of the question, Lee praised Tulsa Remote for the steps it’s taken to foster community. In recent months, he’s enjoyed everything from a Mardi Gras virtual game night to a Galentine’s Day flower arrangement class to a “sip and paint” evening of art to holiday lights at the Botanic Garden to a tour of downtown Tulsa’s historic and eclectic architecture. He’s also enjoyed getting together with fellow Tulsa Remoters for hikes or Korean BBQ.
For Lee, he’s found the program’s
account key. On the messaging platform, Tulsa Remote participants can pop into various channels for everything from breakfast recommendations (for what it’s worth, Chimera Cafe, Jane’s Delicatessen, and Blue Moon Café get my vote) to where to get a new bike.
The Tulsa Remote Slack group that helps participants stay connected.
“This program is what you make of it,” Lee said. “Being in a new place, I made it a point to put myself out there, connect with more people, be open to new experiences, and make a difference in the local community.”
As he settles into life in Tulsa, he’s eager to get more involved with Tulsa Young Professionals (TYPROS, as locals say) and spend more time volunteering with local nonprofits. He’s even hoping to start a vegetable garden.
As of right now, Lee plans to stay in Tulsa after the program is up. “I hear Tulsa is a fun and vibrant place pre-COVID, so I’m excited to see how else Tulsa can exceed my expectations,” he said.
Alana Mbanza swapped her ‘pretty nomadic’ lifestyle to build roots in Tulsa
After a period of extensive wandering over the past five years, Alana Mbanza, 35, a college access coach at New Tech Network, most recently found herself back in Chicago before realizing the Windy City grind just wasn’t for her anymore.
“Even though there was always a lot to do, many things felt inaccessible because of traffic, weather, or cost,” she said. “I love that Tulsa offers unique opportunities for social and professional connections, without the same level of effort necessary in bigger cities. I value the ease and quality of my life here. I’m way more active, social, and Tulsa feels like home.”
She also just bought a home — the rent of her apartment in Chicago was double her current mortgage — solidifying her place in Tulsa even further for at least the near future.
Work-wise, Mbanza admitted there have been no big changes in her routine, other than the fact that she now has the space for a home office. “On warm days, I enjoy finding cool places around town to work,” she said. “My favorite is The Gathering Place, something about being near the water makes me feel more productive.” (The $465 million Gathering Place waterfront park opened in 2018 offers free admission and a heady skate park.)
Though Mbanza’s time as a member of Tulsa Remote officially wrapped up in December 2020, she still actively participates in the community, logging in for virtual trivia, game nights, and happy hours and even attending a few socially-distanced outdoor events, like Christmas Lights at the Philbrook Museum of Art and the drive-in end of year Tulsa Remote celebration.
“There are always new people moving to Tulsa because of the program, so there is a constant supply of cool folks to connect with,” Mbanza said.
She said that some of her most meaningful experiences have taken place when she’s flown the coop. “I volunteer with Impact Tulsa to support college and career readiness, and they have welcomed me with open arms,” she said. “I get to work with amazing educators and support students and families at community events.”
She’s also managed to bond with her new neighbors, something that can certainly feel out-of-reach for big-city dwellers. “All of them came to welcome me when I first bought my house, and now we text each other regularly to check in,” she said. “It’s cool to be a part of a neighborhood where I actually know who lives next to me.”
Bobby Reyes moved from Chicago to seize the ‘opportunity to do something special here’
Like Mbanza, Bobby Reyes, 37, a UX Designer at Forager, was ready to part ways with the big-city hustle of Chicago when he decided to move to Tulsa with his partner in November 2020.
“I’ve worked remotely in the past, so it’s all very familiar to me,” he said, adding that in an ideal world he’d like to toil at various coffee shops around town.
The main draw was a desire for more space and less traffic. What cinched the deal was the chance to be part of a community that Tulsa Remote afforded him and his partner, who’s not part of the program but has had the opportunity to participate in events, as have many significant others.
“We saw an opportunity to do something special here,” he said. Tulsa’s other big perks — its parks, a burgeoning art scene, and museums, to name a few — made relocating a veritable no-brainer.
As did the lure of better real estate deals: Back in Chicago, Reyes lived in a one-bedroom apartment in popular neighborhood Logan Square. For the same monthly rent, he now resides in a three-bedroom house in the Brookside neighborhood of Tulsa.
Reyes, too, is a big fan of Tulsa Remote’s Slack account, which helped him get situated into his new life more quickly, discover new restaurants, and learn about volunteering opportunities.
All in all, he has no regrets about his decision. “Everyone is friendly and genuinely interested in you as a person,” he said.
After his time with the Tulsa Remote program is done, Reyes isn’t quite sure what his game plan is, as the pandemic has made it difficult to feel immersed in the city’s fabric.
“I was fortunate to visit Tulsa pre-pandemic, which sold me on moving here in the first place,” he said. “But given the situation, it’s been hard to really experience all that Tulsa has to offer. So in order to give the city a fair chance, it means sticking around here until it is safe to fully take advantage of all its great offerings.”
Native New Yorker Nikki Gomez is seeing her ‘dreams come true’
Nikki Gomez, 43, a professional photographer and model coach, saw Tulsa Remote as a personal and professional opportunity to stretch beyond her comfort zone in New York City.
After spending summer 2020 in Minnesota and quickly pivoting her business to create online courses for aspiring and working models in the fashion industry as well as offering virtual photoshoots to clients, she knew it was time to leave her nest on the East Coast behind.
“I realized if I can expand and increase my income in small-town Minnesota during a global pandemic, there is no reason to solely rely on New York,” Gomez said — especially when she would be paying at least double her monthly rent for something comparable to what she rents in Tulsa in New York City.
After making the move November of last year, she was pleased to land in a city with so much potential for her “to grow in so many ways,” she said, and be immediately folded into the Tulsa Remoters community. She’s clicked so well with her fellow program participants, in fact, that a few of them are even in talks about starting their own band together.
“As an entrepreneur, I have a lot of ideas for future endeavors, and Tulsa is one of the best cities for entrepreneurship,” she said.
Having moved to Tulsa sight unseen, Gomez had no idea what was in store for her. Despite having lived in New York City her entire life, she’s found the transition virtually seamless.
While she’s yet to determine her plans for when her year is completed, she said she’s now focusing on “making local friendships and establishing community.”
“When my friends ask me what I think of Tulsa, I keep saying the same thing: Tulsa is where dreams come true,” she said. “Or at least, this is where my dreams are coming true. I have the apartment of my dreams. I am doing what I love for a living, and I have the fortunate privilege to live in a city that is much more affordable than I ever experienced in New York. I have met amazing, friendly, kind, and open-hearted people. I will never stop being grateful to be here.”