Cities Stake Claim to Being America’s ‘Best Places to Live’

In a story about the housing downturn, BusinessWeek had some numbers crunched to see where home prices have remained most stable and where they have declined most precipitously:

The results are fascinating. Annual price changes in most of the largest metro areas, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia, followed a similar pattern: Values were most stable within a 10-mile radius of the center of the city, but generally worsened with each successive radius ring as far as 50 miles from the center of the city.

"There’s a pretty clear pattern of neighborhoods close to the urban core holding their values better than neighborhoods in suburban and exurban communities," said Stan Humphries, Zillow’s vice-president of data and analytics. "Where there is a lot of supply and demand changes, there’s a quicker effect on housing prices." 

It may seem obvious by now that rising gas prices are affecting decisions about where to live, but don’t tell that to the editors at Money. As Greater Greater Washington blogger David Alpert points out, the magazine’s latest list of America’s best places to live skews heavily toward the sprawling, suburban side. Of course, Money’s readers can probably absorb a spike in transportation costs without too much hardship, which may explain why they don’t factor it into their rankings.

A completely different picture emerges from Money’s own online series about how people are adapting to more expensive gas. The short profiles read like a public service campaign for living arrangements where cars are not required to make even the most basic trips. Here’s what Carrie Zukoski, 41, a PR director living in St. Louis, has to say:

I ride my bike as much as I can. Rising gas prices hurt much less at the pump for me. Last fill up was 22 days in between. This year I’ll try to bike even more.

In 2007 I commuted by bike about 1,400 miles. Compared to many people, it’s not that much, but for a fair-weather commuter who lives less than five miles from work, it’s not too bad.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Most of these “Places Rated” rankings are entirely subjective. And some of the criteria are really a matter of taste — cultural activities, beachs, or mountains? Good transit or less congested roads.

    Some years ago, a city planner tried to come up with an objective measure. He divided the non-personal aspect of well being into two categories, the economic standard of living and the quality of life, with the latter being the community benefit of being in a particular place.

    The theory was the lower the standard of living people were willing to accept (wages versus the cost of living, particulary housing which varies the most), the higher the compensating quality of life must be. I would add that this assumes people aren’t pouring into or out of an area at an unusual rate.

    At the time Detroit, with low housing prices versus high auto industry wages, ranked low in quality of life. You had to pay people a lot to get them to live there (though the power of the UAW may have had something to do with it). Resort areas such as Apsen ranked high, although housing prices may have been inflated by wealthy non-residents whose income was counted elsewhere. New York City was average.

    I’d much rather see a more sophisticated analysis like that one that what we usually get. The Business Week analysis is much more objective.

  • Jessica Roberts

    You may be interested in a new study called “Driven to the Brink.” Economist Joe Cortright (who previously calculated that Portland residents drive less and therefore put $2.1 billion back into the local economy instead of throwing it away to oil and car companies) found that an increase in gas prices popped the housing bubble in communities across the US.

    His study shows that once gas prices reached a critical point, the value of homes in suburban sprawl, which require lots of driving to fulfill basic needs, plummeted, while the value of homes in urban centers (well-served by transit, walking, and biking facilities) continued to increase. (Oregonian article here.)

    It seems to me that we’re on the brink of redefining how we live and what we value in our living situations. Giant McMansions in exurban sprawl suddenly don’t look so good if it means you’re a slave to volatile gas prices.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Portland residents drive less and therefore put $2.1 billion back into the local economy instead of throwing it away to oil and car companies)”

    Good point. Not only do NY area residents spend less on transportation overall according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey, but more of what they do spend goes to local (well the suburbs) transit workers rather than distant oil and auto producers.

    ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/ce/msa/y0506/norteast.txt

    ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/special.requests/ce/standard/2006/region.txt

    The data in the first table is for the entire MSA. We’d spend even less if car insurance for those with cars was not so expensive here.

  • v

    number 16’s my hometown!

  • Yeah, I bought a rowhouse in downtown Baltimore last year so I could bike everwhere and have the train access. Ever since gas started going up the values of the suburban houses are falling, except the value of my rowhouse is still going up. Funny thing about that. Only problem is that everyone who moves here wants to bring their huge SUV with them, but complains there isn’t enough parking. It’s all anyone ever talks about. I tell them to get a bike.

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