Why people do not flock to the American cities that keep showing up in the most affordable places to live

I recently saw another list of the most and least affordable metropolitan areas in the United States with a key metric of how many families in the region could purchase a home at the median price. Here are the five most affordable places:

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Home prices and incomes vary widely, and there are oases of affordability, mainly in the Rust Belt and Midwest. The top five most affordable places among metro areas with population of 500,000 or more:

Lansing, Michigan: As a result of modest home prices, 90.6 percent of all new and existing homes sold in the fall months were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $79,100. The median home price was $155,000 in the fourth quarter of 2021, the builders’ index says.

Scranton-Wilkes Barre-Hazleton, Pennsylvania: Wages here are below national levels, but so are home prices — the median sale price was $150,000 in the fourth quarter. As a result of rock-bottom prices, 88.5 percent of all new and existing homes sold in October, November and December of 2021 were affordable to families earning the area’s median income of $70,600.

Pittsburgh: This metro area has a median family income of $84,800 and a median home price of just $166,000. As a result, 88.4 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Indianapolis. This metro area has a median family income of $81,600 and a median home price of $215,000. As a result, 87.6 percent of homes were affordable for typical earners.

Akron, Ohio: With a median family income of $83,300 and a median home price of $165,000, fully 86.5 percent of homes were in reach of median-income families in the state capital.

Two features quickly stand out: the homes in these regions really are cheap (particularly when compared to local earnings) and they are all in the Midwest/Rust Belt.

Still, I have seen some version of this list many times now and I am not sure what to make of them. Why aren’t people moving to these locations?

The most obvious answers to me: it is not necessarily easy to move and these cities are perceived to have a lack of opportunities (economic, cultural, housing, etc.). American geographic mobility as a whole is down but do people actually move just for cheaper housing? What this list does is highlights that median income families can access median level housing in these five places. Get a decent job and owning a house is possible.

There are other possible answers that get more complicated:

  1. People just do not think of the Midwest/Rust Belt when thinking of places to live. Lack of opportunities, the weather, the middle of the country, a Midwestern blah-ness, etc.
  2. It is not just about a lack of opportunity; these are places seen as on the decline. Even if they are cheaper, who wants to live in a place that has already seen its best days when “growth is good” is a key marker of communities?
  3. These communities are lacking incentive campaigns to try to attract new residents.
  4. These communities may not want too many people to move in because it could drive up prices and bring in outsiders. (Yet, growth is good and many declining communities would do a lot to become a destination again.)

In sum: some American metropolitan areas are much cheaper than others, they have common characteristics, and there are a number of compelling reasons why people do not move to the places with cheaper housing.

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