Changes in methodology behind Naperville’s move to #16 best place to live in 2022 from #45 in 2021?

Money recently released their 2022 Best Places to Live in the United States. The Chicago suburb of Naperville is #16 in the country. Last year, it was #45. How did it move so much in one year? Is Naperville that much better in one year, other places that much work, or is something else at work? I wonder if the methodology led to this. Here is what went into the 2022 rankings:

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Chief among those changes included introducing new data related to national heritage, languages spoken at home and religious diversity — in addition to the metrics we already gather on racial diversity. We also weighted these factors highly. While seeking places that are diverse in this more traditional sense of the word, we also prioritized places that gave us more regional diversity and strove to include cities of all sizes by lifting the population limit that we often relied on in previous years. This opened up a new tier of larger (and often more diverse) candidates.

With these goals in mind, we first gathered data on places that:

  • Had a population of at least 20,000 people — and no population maximum
  • Had a population that was at least 85% as racially diverse as the state
  • Had a median household income of at least 85% of the state median

Here is what went into the 2021 rankings:

To create Money’s Best Places to Live ranking for 2021-2022, we considered cities and towns with populations ranging from 25,000 up to 500,000. This range allowed us to surface places large enough to have amenities like grocery stores and a nearby hospital, but kept the focus on somewhat lesser known spots around the United States. The largest place on our list this year has over 457,476 residents and the smallest has 25,260.

We also removed places where:

  • the crime risk is more than 1.5x the national average
  • the median income level is lower than its state’s median
  • the population is declining
  • there is effectively no ethnic diversity

In 2021, the top-ranked communities tend to be suburbs. In 2022, there is a mix of big cities and suburbs with Atlanta at the top of the list and one neighborhood of Chicago, Rogers Park, at #5.

So how will this get reported? Did Naperville make a significant leap? Is it only worth highlighting the #16 ranking in 2022 and ignore the previous year’s lower ranking? Even while Naperville has regularly featured in Money‘s list (and in additional rankings as well), #16 can be viewed as an impressive feat.

Measuring the value of a housing investment in “2022’s best real-estate markets”

WalletHub recently looked at the best real-estate markets. Here is how they described their rankings:

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Whether you’re joining the real-estate business or just looking for a place to call home, it’s important to get a handle on the housing markets you’re considering before investing in a property. This year, the housing market is skewed much more toward sellers, with mortgage rates having nearly doubled in the past year and home values having risen nearly 21% on average.

If you aim for long-term growth, equity and profit with your housing purchase, you’ll need to look beyond tangible factors like square footage and style. Those factors certainly drive up property values. From an investor’s standpoint, though, they hold less significance than historical market trends and the economic health of residents.

To determine the best local real-estate markets in the U.S., WalletHub compared 300 cities of varying sizes across 17 key indicators of housing-market attractiveness and economic strength. Our data set ranges from median home-price appreciation to job growth.

This is very different than Money’s best places to live or other rankings that consider communities. This is about rising property values and return on investment. This is about making money by purchasing property. This is about demand and sales.

What would be interesting to consider is where this consideration of return on investment, a growing concern among American homeowners, overlaps with quality of life or desirable communities. Homeowners often have options about which communities or neighborhoods to select, whether they are looking within a metropolitan region where there might be dozens or more options or if the COVID-19 work from home options now mean people do not necessarily have to live near work. Would a return on investment beat out good schools or proximity to work or affordability?

Naperville at #1 on several Niche.com Best Cities lists

Naperville adds to its rankings accolades with the new 2021 Niche.com lists:

Naperville was also ranked #1 for Cities with the Best Public Schools and #3 for Best Cities to Live in America. See previous posts about Naperville’s rankings: “wealthiest city in the Midwest” and “safest city over 100,000 residents.”

This ongoing praise for Naperville makes sense both for knowing the suburb as well as what sorts of communities make it to the top of these kinds of lists. Naperville grew tremendously in the final decades of the twentieth century but it also developed a high quality of life: vibrant downtown, highly-rated schools, local recreation opportunities, wealthy, and safe. The accolades have changed to some degree because the size of the community changed; for example, Naperville is the list of “cities” for Niche.com while the Best Places to Live in America tend to be smaller communities.

If you browse the Niche.com rankings just a little bit, you see wealthy suburbs from certain metro areas in the United States. That the same communities keep popping up on these lists year after year suggests they have an ongoing high quality of life but also it hints at what Americans – and people who make these rankings – think are desirable communities. Is the goal of American life to ascend to one of these well-off communities, most of them relatively white and wealthy suburbs?

Naperville named best place in the US to raise a family

Niche’s 2020 rankings put Naperville at the top of the list of best places to raise a family. Here is how they rated the large suburb:

NicheNapervilleJul2020

This is not an unusual plaudit for Naperville; a variety of publications have rated Naperville highly over the last two decades (previous posts here, here, and here). The community is wealthy, has a lot of amenities, and grew tremendously in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

Still, it is interesting to see what Niche says is better or worse about Naperville. Schools excellent. Housing good – not the cheapest suburb in the Chicago area but Midwestern and Southern home values are cheaper compared to coastal locations. Lots of good things for families. Good nightlife. Good diversity (perhaps for suburbs but not so much among America’s bigger communities).  Crime and safety is the lowest – though still a B- – even as Naperville is one of the safest big communities in the country!

Across rankings of communities, Naperville tends to do well. Whether it can maintain this reputation remains to be seen as city leaders and residents consider possible changes in future decades to a suburb that has little land remaining for single-family homes or low-density housing.

Does being named one of the unhappiest cities lead to more unhappiness in that place?

WalletHub has a new ranking of the happiest cities in the United States. Here are the top ranked and lowest ranked cities:

Fremont, Calif., took the top spot with Plano, Texas; San Jose, Calif.; Irvine, Calif., and Madison, Wis., rounding out the top five…

The unhappiest city on the list? That’d be Detroit, Mich., the report said, followed by Charleston, W. Va.; Toledo, Ohio; Huntington, W. Va., and Cleveland, Ohio.

While it is easy to get bogged down in how the rankings were made – and WalletHub describes their methodology – I have a different question this time. Not all rankings of places include the worst places or less desirable places. What is the purpose or outcome of showing all the locations?

One reason could be simply wanting to share all the data. If you calculate all the rankings, why not publish all the results? To see how the rankings worked out, people might expect to see everything. Contrast this with the approach of Money where they show the top 100 places to live. On this list, many places are left out while only the best are highlighted.

In terms of outcomes, what does this list do the cities at the bottom of the list? Three of the cities are in the Rust Belt and two others are in West Virginia which faces similar issues. I am not sure these rankings would be a surprise to the leaders of these cities but it still could be demoralizing.

Realistically, are there ways that cities toward the bottom of the list could enact changes that would significantly change the rankings over a short period? A rankings list could motivate places, leaders, and residents. Yet, it is difficult to make it up rankings list and turn around reputations that are well established.

I wonder if such lists simply serve to add to the shame or negative reputations of the places at the bottom. The data may be more complete but how does this help Detroit or the others at the bottom?

Surprise! The best suburbs in America are wealthy, educated, and in regions with reasonable costs of living

The Niche 2019 Best Places to Live falls into some of the same patterns of similar lists of highlighting already well-off communities with a high quality of life. Part of the reason is the methodology:

Niche2019BestPlacestoLive

If this is what Niche and Money and other want to look for in terms of data and how it is weighted, they are going to consistently churn out lists of similar kinds of communities. The “best” suburbs and small towns in certain regions, those with higher housing prices, will find it hard to make the list. A certain amount of diversity is acceptable but not too much and it is related to social class. In other words, these are lists that might be intended for middle to upper-class suburbanites who are looking for safe, quiet, and enriching places to live.

So, perhaps instead of calling these the “Best Places to Live,” how about: “Aspirational Places for Middle- to Upper-Class Families?” Or, how about more lists that address hidden gems, communities that wouldn’t make a list like this due to one factor or another but are still great places? Or, how about ones that weight certain factors a lot higher, like “The Best Diverse Suburbs” or “The Best Suburbs for Housing Opportunities.”

Ultimately, these lists tend to reinforce cultural narratives about the places in which Americans most want to live and where the American Dream can be found. No doubt these magazines and sites need to sell copy – there are Americans who want to move to these top suburbs. But, there are also hundreds of other great places to live in the United States that do not always fit the longstanding suburban mold of mostly white, wealthy, educated, and quiet.

If one survey option receives the most votes (18%), can the item with the least votes (2%) be declared the least favorite?

The media can have difficulty interpreting survey results. Here is one recent example involving a YouGov survey that asked about the most attractive regional accents in the United States:

Internet-based data analytics and market research firm YouGov released a study earlier this month that asked 1,216 Americans over the age of 18 about their accent preferences. The firm provided nine options, ranging from regions to well-known dialects in cities. Among other questions, YouGov asked, “Which American region/city do you think has the most attractive accent?”

The winner was clear. The Southeastern accent, bless its heart, took the winning spot, with the dialect receiving 18 percent of the vote from the study’s participants. Texas wasn’t too far behind, nabbing the second-most attractive accent at 12 percent of the vote…

The least attractive? Chicago rolls in dead last, with just 2 percent of “da” vote.

John Kass did not like the results and consulted a linguist:

I called on an expert: the eminent theoretical linguist Jerry Sadock, professor emeritus of linguistics from the University of Chicago…

“The YouGov survey that CBS based this slander on does not support the conclusion. The survey asked only what the most attractive dialect was, the winner being — get this — Texan,” Sadock wrote in an email.

“Louie Gohmert? Really? The fact that very few respondents found the Chicago accent the most attractive, does not mean that it is the least attractive,” said Sadock. “I prefer to think that would have been rated as the second most attractive accent, if the survey had asked for rankings.”

In the original YouGov survey, respondents were asked: “Which American region/city do you think has the most attractive accent?” Respondents could select one option. The Chicago accent did receive the least number of selections.

However, Sadock has a point. Respondents could only select one option. If they had the opportunity to rank them, would the Chicago accent move up as a non-favorite but still-liked accent? It could happen.

Additionally, the responses were fairly diverse across the respondents. The original “winner” Southeastern accent was only selected by 18% of those surveyed. This means that over 80% of the respondents did not select the leading response. Is it fair to call this the favorite accent of Americans when fewer than one-fifth of respondents selected it?

Communicating the nuances of survey results can be difficult. Yet, journalists and other should resist the urge to immediately identify “favorites” and “losers” in such situations where the data does not show an overwhelming favorite respondents did not have the opportunity to rate all of the possible responses.

Five variables to determine “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream”

SmartAsset released their 2018 rankings for “The Best Cities for Living the American Dream.” Here are the top cities and the factors they used to develop the rankings:

Best Cities for Living the American Dream

Diversity score. To create this statistic, we looked at the population percentage of different racial and ethnic groups in each city. A lower number represents more diversity. Data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Economic mobility. This metric looks at generational change in economic position for families. A higher number shows greater mobility. Data comes from The Equality of Opportunity Project.

Homeownership rate. This is the percent of households who own their home. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 2016 1-year American Community Survey.

Home value. This is the median home value in every city. For this study, a lower home value is considered better as we use it as a measure of affordability. Data comes from the Census Bureau’s 1-year American Community Survey.

Unemployment rate. This is the unemployment rate by county. Data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for January 2018.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. The five measures seem to make sense. You could quibble with different aspects, such as measuring the unemployment rate at the county level rather than the city or metropolitan region.
  2. What would make sense to add to this list of five measures? There is no measure of educational achievement on this list and it might be interesting to consider the foreign-born population in each place (particularly since the foreign-born population is at a high in American history). Do lower taxes matter?
  3. The list is skewed away from two areas: (a) the East and West coasts and (b) the biggest American cities. I would imagine the coastal cities have difficulty with home values. However, it is less obvious to me why the biggest cities, particularly those in the South and Midwest, do not make the top of these rankings.
  4. How many Americans would give up where they currently live to move to one of these places that supposedly offers a better chance at finding the American Dream? Some experts suggest Americans should simply go where there are opportunities, whether these are jobs, cheaper housing, or less taxes. Yet, it is not necessarily easy to just pick and go, particularly to places like these that might not be very well known. (And, it could also be the case that a large influx of people to each of these top-ranked locations would influence these places.)

Niche names Naperville 2nd best place to live

This is not an uncommon accolade for Naperville: Niche recently named the suburb the second best place to live in the country.

Niche looked at 228 cities and more than 15,000 towns and based rankings on crime rate, public schools, cost of living, job opportunities and local amenities…

Niche also took into account reviews from residents in the various cities and towns. Out of the 397 reviews, 111 people gave Naperville an “excellent” rating, 187 said it is “very good,” 91 called the city “average,” six said it is a “poor” place to live and two said it is “terrible.”

Naperville got an A+ for both its public schools and being a good city for families, an A in diversity, an A- in housing and a B+ in both nightlife and crime and safety.

Niche ranked Ann Arbor, Mich., the best city to live in America. Rounding out the top five cities to live in America are Arlington, Va.; Columbia, Md. and Berkeley, Calif.

Several quick thoughts:

  1. In Money‘s 2016 rankings of the best places to live, Naperville was #10.
  2. Including reviews from local residents is an interesting twist. Why did a few respondents give Naperville a poor rating? Weather and a few other issues. And the two terrible ratings are both related to the state of Illinois.
  3. Where doesn’t Naperville do well? A C+ for cost of living as well as for weather.
  4. The top five cities are all within major metropolitan areas where they are sizable communities but nowhere near the biggest community. This may be notable until you look at Niche’s list of the “best places to live” and there you find smaller suburbs.

Money’s Best Places to Live are pretty well-off

The top communities on Money‘s Best Places to Live 2015 are not the wealthiest suburbs but they are fairly wealthy compared to national incomes. Only 7 have median household incomes less than $70,000 (the lowest is $57k) and 17 have median household incomes over $100,000. The median household income for the entire United States? $53,046 (data from 2009-2013).

Money’s methodology contributed to having communities with these income levels. Among other factors that went into creating these rankings:

-“[excluded] places with a median family income less than 80% of the state average”

-“Eliminate places with a median family income of more than 210% of the state average or a median home price over $1 million. Rank the rest on factors including job growth, diversity, and ease of living, giving the most weight to economic opportunity, housing affordability, education, and safety.”

In other words, the methods ensured that these communities couldn’t be too poor or too wealthy. Yet, the above-average incomes in these communities are connected to all sorts of other factors: not just jobs but higher-paying jobs (likely white collar), the money available in the tax base, the education level of residents, the kinds of available housing, and so on.

Could the average American live in these communities? Perhaps there would be some cheaper housing (that is a factor in these rankings though it is primarily about cost and not about having apartments and smaller and/or older houses) and the median household income suggests half of residents in these communities are below the figures posted here. However, these rankings are geared toward people of higher social classes.