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For the cost of their one-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles, Brock Wilbur and his wife, Vivian, were able to get two stories in Missouri.
One month after they moved to Kansas City, Wilbur had enough money to open his first-ever savings account. And now, two years later, the couple owns something they never expected to have: a house.
“The fancy place we’ve stumbled into would be a multimillion-dollar house in Los Angeles,” said Wilbur, who now works as the editor-in-chief for Kansas City’s local alternative magazine The Pitch. “Especially during a lockdown, I couldn’t be more thankful that we made the choices we did.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, making both income and housing more precarious for those living in costly cities, Wilbur has been preaching the gospel of Kansas City to weary Angelenos: “We’re watching from a distance as so many of our friends are getting priced out of L.A. or losing so much income that they’re getting evicted at the end of this, and we let everyone know that Kansas City is a pretty good option.”
Leaving a coastal metropolis doesn’t have to mean letting go of culture, diversity, or open-minded community. I recently spent two months traveling the country researching my book “Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States” — and what I found were vibrant queer communities all across the country, from Salt Lake City to Bloomington, Indiana. On some level, that shouldn’t be surprising: About eight out of every 10 LGBT adults in the U.S. live outside of California or New York. And this month, we saw how a mass movement for racial justice wasn’t limited to the big cities, with support for racial justice and equality coming through loud and clear throughout the country in predominantly White and even rural areas. Black Lives Matter protests sprang up in all 50 states over an incredible 2,000 cities, according to a count by The New York Times.
Obviously, picking up and moving cross country isn’t an option for everyone. The upfront costs of a long-distance move, which average over $4,000, according to the American Moving and Storage Association, can be prohibitive. Even before the pandemic, for example, moving company data suggested that wealthy people were disproportionately more likely to move out of New York, presumably because they have the means to do so. After COVID-19 hit, the richest neighborhoods became ghost towns.
For the longer term, though, it does seem that COVID-19 will draw more attention — and potentially more moving trucks — to cities that were already becoming attractive financially. Redfin noticed that page views of homes in small-town America were up 105% year over year. “Even before this crisis, we knew the next 10 years were really going to be about the second-tier cities in America that offer a better balance,” said Chris Fair, president of the destination branding company Resonance Consultancy.
If you do have the ability to move, it’s worth chasing an affordable housing market. Less expensive housing doesn’t only translate to more square footage or a bigger yard; it can mean the ability to save more money for retirement, tackle any looming debt, and perhaps even usher in significant (and costly) life choices such as having children.
The cost of housing is the average American’s biggest monthly expense. If a change in work or life has suddenly made that slice of your budget more flexible, here are 10 housing markets you might suddenly want to consider. We’ve compiled the list based on average home values, everyday affordability, and some other more cultural factors. Maybe it’s time to get a move on.
- Zillow Home Value Index: $174,109
- Cost of living as percentage of U.S. average: 85.5 (For comparison, Manhattan’s is 258.3)
- Ohio’s U.S. News & World Report affordability ranking: 2nd in the nation
- Number of topiary people in the park that recreates Georges Seurat’s famous painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”: 54
Columbus’s housing market is red-hot right now — and for good reason. Thanks to a growing population, a large university, and plenty of Fortune 500 employers, the Ohio capital has emerged as hip and desirable. Think of it as an introduction to the Midwest’s charms for any East Coasters still convinced they have a monopoly on culture and cuisine. Columbus is both an approachable place to find some unique comfort food (hello kimchi-topped hot dogs) and a sophisticated city of art and music. The downtown Hilton has $1 million worth of artwork, as the Chicago Tribune noted in a review of Columbus’s “surprising” art scene. To longtime locals, though, Columbus’s appeal isn’t new. They were already aware a city can have both a boatload of museums and a Division I college football team. OH-IO.
You’ve probably seen those opportunities about getting paid to move to a tiny village in rural Italy or an underpopulated Greek island. Sounds appealing in theory, but without ready access to urban amenities, very few Americans actually go for it. Instead, how about getting paid to head to Tulsa? The program Tulsa Remote offers $10,000 and co-working space to accepted applicants who already have full-time remote employment. That makes Tulsa especially enticing if you find yourself telecommuting after COVID-19: Not only can you save money on housing, you could make an extra 10 grand by the end of your first year in Oklahoma. Plus, you’d have access to the city’s many perks, whether you have a taste for ballet, opera, or the rodeo. There’s even an entire Woody Guthrie museum. Imagine getting paid to read the lyric journal of the Dust Bowl Troubadour.
Elizabeth Venell, an online faculty member for a southern university, is evangelistic about Tulsa, where she moved last year from Atlanta to join the first cohort of Tulsa Remote. “It’s definitely gloat-worthy,” said Venell, of her drastically reduced housing costs. “In my case, I live in a much nicer space for about the same I was paying in Atlanta, but without the visits from possums and palmetto bugs.”
Mississippi has witnessed population decline for four out of the past five years, yet the state remains one of the most culturally vital in the country, playing a key role in the development of American literature and music, and in the civil rights movement. If you want to experience Mississippi’s richness firsthand — and perhaps live out a writerly fantasy of your own — consider Oxford, located one hour south of Memphis, Tennessee. A town square surrounding the county courthouse boasts several gourmet restaurants and the renowned Square Books (which of course has a large Faulkner selection). Local University of Mississippi is both a jobs generator and a game day playground. That’s why, in a state where the population is decreasing, Oxford has become one of the “fastest-growing micropolitans in the nation,” according to the Walton Family Foundation.
Forget what you’ve seen on the dour, blue-tinted Netflix drama “Ozark.” In person, the Ozark Mountains are absurdly beautiful, lush and green all summer, yellow and rust orange in fall, and serene year-round. Not only is the city of Fayetteville in Northwest Arkansas perfectly situated among the Ozarks, but it also offers proximity to Fortune 500 companies like Walmart and Tyson Foods, and to the University of Arkansas, the city’s top employer. One perk of relocating to Fayetteville is that Eureka Springs, a local getaway where old Victorian buildings nestle against verdant hills, is only an hour’s drive away. An LGBTQ hotspot with numerous bed and breakfasts, Eureka Springs offers a relaxing weekend when you need to get away from Fayetteville’s relative bustle.
Tired New Yorkers can find familiarity in Bloomington, Indiana — the limestone used for the Empire State Building came from here. A growing college city, Bloomington has co-ops, independent coffee shops, and a queer-friendly vibe. But it also has the feel of a quintessential Midwestern small town, with a courthouse square surrounded by boutiques, bars, and restaurants. Indiana University is the major employer, but entrepreneurial and business opportunities abound, which is why the town ranks so highly on Forbes’ list of “Best Small Places for Business and Careers.” When it comes to nightlife, you can catch the many comedians and musicians who stop here on their college-town tours.
The lakeside city of Marquette often shows up on lists of best places to retire, thanks to low median home prices, an excellent cost of living, and plenty of outdoor activities. Located on the western end of Michigan’s scenic Upper Peninsula, you can ski all winter, boat on Lake Superior all summer, or sit inside humming Sufjan Stevens if you’re not the outdoorsy type. Locally, much of Marquette’s economy can be attributed to the shipping industry, Northern Michigan University, and a growing health system. But the real draw of Marquette is how remote it feels, while still only being a puddle jumper away from Chicago. Nearby Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, with its sandstone cliffs, offers a striking landscape. You can feel a bit more confident buying property in a lakeside city because Marquette has been working to combat the effects of climate change, in part by rerouting some of its runoff into nearby wetlands. After you settle in, become a regular at Donckers, a hybrid lunch counter and chocolate shop that’s been a fixture on Marquette’s main drag since 1914.
Kansas City, Missouri
If a handful of your friends have moved to Kansas City over the past few years, you’re not alone. The Midwestern hub’s population has increased seven percent since 2010, notably growing both downtown and in the suburbs. That trend has been driven in large part by migration from other parts of the U.S. It’s easy to understand the appeal: Kansas City has fantastic restaurants and nightlife, and a robust and diversified economy that spans multiple industries including agriculture, manufacturing, and government agency labor. But perhaps the best thing about moving to Kansas City is the peace of mind that comes from its affordable cost of living. “Already, we’ve had so many friends move here from bigger cities, who seem wildly happier here than they were back there,” said Brock Wilbur, editor-in-chief of local magazine The Pitch. “And I think so much of that probably stems from having such nicer spaces to live in without the financial hardships you’d find in other metros.”
The presence of four Fortune 500 companies, chief among them Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is in large part why Resonance Consultancy labeled Omaha the “discreet economic powerhouse of the Midwest.” That economic strength provides a strong foundation for the city’s ample cultural offerings, which include a world-renowned zoo with the country’s largest indoor rainforest, a wide range of theaters, and a historic downtown market. With its especially potent combination of economic vitality and affordable housing, Omaha was recently ranked 7th on SafeHome.Org’s list of best cities to raise a family. The median monthly rent is around $1,173 and green space is everywhere: Omaha has a comparable number of parks to Portland, Oregon. So if you spent the Covid-19 lockdown inside an 800-square-foot apartment with your significant other, your dog, and a little one or two, perhaps there’s a four-bedroom home in Nebraska with your name on it. Just think: You’ll be able to buy your Omaha Steaks in person instead of getting them in the mail.
Des Moines, Iowa
Picture this: For the price of a 500-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, you could buy houses (yes, plural) in Des Moines. The capital city has its very own East Village neighborhood, complete with a horror-themed burger bar, a gourmand’s take on the comfort food diner, and a swanky hotel lounge. Thanks to cable news coverage, Iowa is primarily associated with farmers and presidential caucuses, but the Hawkeye State’s capital is as cosmopolitan as it is affordable, coming in fifth on U.S. News & World Report’s recent list of best places to live in the country. Health care companies, banks, and insurance generate most of the city’s economy, too, bucking stereotypes of Iowa as a predominantly agricultural state.
It’s ironic if anyone refers to Kansas as a “flyover state” because aviation was essentially born there 100 years ago with the advent of commercial airplane manufacturing. As author David Freed wrote, “Airplanes are to Wichita what cars are to Detroit.” The Wichita of 2020 is still a place where planes are made, but the energy and health care industries also have a sizable presence in Kansas’s largest city, which means there are jobs to be had if you move and can’t take yours with you. The Airplane Capital of the World is also a hub for culture, with an increasingly diverse population, a 115,00-square foot art museum, and a surprising number of Lebanese restaurants. So don’t fly over Kansas, fly to Kansas — perhaps for good.