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A Sam Altman-backed housebuilding startup is trying to convince tech workers to abandon the high-priced Bay Area as remote work gains in popularity

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  • The housebuilding startup Atmos is trying to encourage tech workers to relocate because of lockdowns.
  • The startup launched a calculator showing workers in the San Francisco Bay Area and other big cities what their rents would buy them if they worked remotely elsewhere in the US.
  • The pandemic lockdowns have forced huge numbers of people to work from home, and now some tech companies are introducing new permanent remote-work policies.
  • The shift could help transform the San Francisco Bay Area, which has struggled for years from a high cost of living and housing crisis.
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The pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area unable to leave their overpriced homes — and some are now reconsidering their commitment to the region.

Nick Donahue keenly wants to encourage this.

He's the CEO of Atmos, a young housebuilding startup backed by former Y Combinator President Sam Altman that is trying to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis and get folks in Silicon Valley and other big cities to consider moving elsewhere in the US, where they can build their own home and enjoy a lower cost of living while working remotely.

"A lot of people are already thinking, 'Why am I here? I live in a shoebox for $3,000,'" Donahue said in an interview with Business Insider. "People start to see the massive difference and start getting jaded ... people are realizing most of our meetings don't need to be in person."

The tech industry has long had a fraught relationship with the Bay Area. Over the past few decades, the picturesque region has grown ever more crowded by tech workers, contributing to soaring costs of living, the worst housing crisis in the nation, heavy traffic, and myriad other issues.

There have been predictions and calls for the industry to geographically decentralize for years — but the pandemic has the potential to make that a reality. Tech workers blocked from visiting their luxurious offices or enjoying the region's bars, parks, and other amenities are talking about finally ditching the area. High-profile companies like Twitter, Square, and Coinbase have announced shifts to permanent remote-first workplaces. And perhaps most consequentially, Facebook on Thursday announced it was ramping up remote hiring aggressively and expected that by 2030 or sooner half of all its employees (about 50,000-strong) would be remote.

Atmos startup

Atmos is trying to simplify the housebuilding process, providing an all-in-one service to make it easier for people to build homes to their exact specifications in emerging cities where demand often outstrips the supply. It's early days for the business — it's been going for a little more than six months and breaking ground on its first four homes.

Financial backers include Dropbox executive Adam Nash and Altman, a high-profile Bay Area investor who is now the CEO of OpenAI. Altman and Donahue met at a laser-tag event on Angel Island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.

Its focus thus far has been in North Carolina, where the four-person cofounder team is from — in particular Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte.

On Monday, Atmos launched a calculator to show workers in the Bay Area, New York, and other metropolitan hubs what their rents could get them elsewhere in the country if they built there and to encourage them to take the plunge.

A techie paying $2,400 a month on a 390-square-foot one-bed apartment in San Francisco could buy a 2,500-square-foot three-bedroom house in Baltimore, Maryland, for example. A New Yorker paying $1,800 for a one-bedroom apartment could splash out on a three-bedroom place with more than twice the square footage in Kansas City, Missouri.

Since the tool's launch, it's been visited 40,000 times, Donahue said. One in 10 of those visitors were from the Bay Area, and of those, their top picks were Raleigh, North Carolina (42%); Austin, Texas (15%); Seattle (8%); Boulder, Colorado (8%); Chicago (4.5%); and Portland, Oregon (4%).

(Note: Raleigh seems to be No. 1 at least in part because it's the default selection in the calculator tool.)

atmos house building startup

Part of the appeal of relocating to somewhere like Raleigh, of course, is the understanding that workers could transfer their California tech-industry salaries to live large in a region with a much lower cost of living. But there's one potential wrinkle in this idea: Employers could decide to adjust salaries to reflect where remote workers are living. Facebook has said it will start doing this in 2021; it's not yet clear if others will follow.

Donahue is expecting a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall after lockdown restrictions are relaxed and predicts it may spur further companies to allowing remote work. "With the second wave — we've already gotten these initial companies like Twitter say you can stay remote indefinitely — I think you'll see more and more companies doing that, especially startups."

It's a trend that has the potential to radically reshape the Bay Area and the broader American economy — reducing pressure on workers to relocate to California to work in the technology industry and relaxing the strain on the region's economy and housing market.

There is already notable appetite among residents to move: A recent poll by the anonymous work social network Blind of thousands of tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area found that two-thirds would consider moving away if given the option to permanently work remotely.

Contact Business Insider reporter Rob Price via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1 650-636-6268), encrypted email (robaeprice@protonmail.com), standard email (rprice@businessinsider.com), Telegram/Wickr/WeChat (robaeprice), or Twitter DM (@robaeprice). We can keep sources anonymous. Use a nonwork device to reach out. PR pitches by standard email only, please.

SEE ALSO: Facebook's huge new shift to remote work will likely reshape global office culture and transform the San Francisco Bay Area as other tech firms are spurred follow its lead

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