Some cities hit it out of the park with coastal views, sunshine and other quality-of life-measures.
Others outmuscle competition with economic strength.
Still others score high for housing affordability.
A new analysis of the nation’s largest 100 metropolitan areas shows that although it’s not hard for a city to overachieve in two of those three categories, excelling in all three would be akin to a player’s hitting back-to-back-to-back grand slams in one game (pretty unlikely).
But huddle up, Omahans: As it turns out, your metro comes closer than most to pulling off that coveted triple whammy.
“Omaha comes closer to being able to still have housing affordability when having a strong economy and high quality of life than about anywhere in the U.S.,” said demographer David Drozd, who delved deeper into the stats behind the study, which was done by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis.
Of the 100 metro areas, Omaha ranked 16th-best in housing affordability, 24th in jobs or economic strength and 30th in quality of life — which won the city a fourth-place rank overall, said Drozd, a census expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.
Omaha’s standing didn’t surprise the head of the local chamber of commerce, who points out that the area has raked in accolades from several recent studies related to quality of life, housing and jobs.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a real diverse economy,” said David Brown, president of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. “Right now we’re in kind of a prime situation.”
Nor did it faze Brown to hear study author Josh Lehner’s taunt that high-ranking Great Plains cities such as Omaha and Des Moines lack “sizzle” — suggesting they may not be true contenders in a quest for the perfect place to live.
Reversing that fly-over stereotype, after all, was a reason the chamber launched its image-shifting “We Don’t Coast” campaign.
Said Brown: “We are unapologetically in the middle of the country and don’t believe we need to have the sizzle — and associated costs — of either coast to be a great place to live.”
How the study worked:
Lehner, an economist, set out to quantify what he dubs the “housing trilemma”: the premise that a city can achieve success on two of three measures (economic strength, housing affordability and quality of life) but not all three at the same time.
In other words: Is there such a thing as a perfect place to live?
He looked at more specific metrics for each of the categories — factors such as job growth, number of startup firms, share of burdened renters who pay more than a third of their income for rent, days of sunshine, violent crimes per capita, purchasing power and more.
His work confirmed that none of the largest 100 metro areas ranked among the Top 20 in all three categories.
Eight, however, did rank among the top half in all three: Raleigh, North Carolina; Des Moines; Ogden, Utah; Omaha; Oklahoma City; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; and Boise, Idaho.
Enter Lehner’s quip: “Unless you prefer living on the Great Plains, that list of eight metros lacks sizzle.” (Never mind that of that list, only Des Moines, Omaha and Oklahoma City are actually on the Great Plains.)
Lehner said local policies have an impact on a metro’s score. But for the most part, he said, it’s market forces that work against a city’s excelling in all three categories.
He said “cool” places such as Denver, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, are in a way “victims of their own success.” They might have top-notch quality of life or economic strength, but that drives up housing costs as more people flock to that area.
“Their strong regional economy and high quality of life do come at the cost of lower housing affordability,” Lehner said.
Midwest cities such as Omaha and Des Moines stood out, Lehner said, but more for overall scores than a standout performance in any one category that would pull people their way.
More notable attributes of Omaha, he said, were housing affordability and household purchasing power — how far income goes once adjusted for cost of living.
One concerning finding, he said, was Omaha’s lower-than-average housing vacancy rates, which can put a damper on relocation options.
Despite multiple-bid competition for houses that has driven up prices, Andy Alloway, head of the Omaha Area Board of Realtors, said that Omaha’s housing market remains “extremely affordable.”
He said many properties have been undervalued for quite a while. “We have a lot of room to grow in housing affordability.”
Lehner told The World-Herald that he is a Midwestern-born-and-raised guy who hails from Oklahoma and still travels to visit family in Kansas. He’s now working and residing in the Portland area — one of the better performers in the livability category.
The “conventional wisdom” about the Midwest certainly “unsells the region,” he said.
On the upside, he said, “while it’s not coastal California for quality of life, it is still good. And the other dimensions are very apparent in the region as well.”
Drozd said he appreciated and found intriguing Lehner’s trilemma analysis. But Drozd has the home-turf advantage, and he offers a stronger pitch for the local teams.
It’s true, he said, that Great Plains metros will never score high in measures that value mountains and oceans and days of sunshine. Still, he said, Des Moines and Omaha were the only two metros to land in the Top 30 on all of the three categories.
Drozd figures that standout finish takes Omaha — home to the College World Series, U.S. Olympics Swim Trials (three times), a world-class zoo and four Fortune 500 firms — out of any lacks-sizzle squad and puts it squarely in the “sweet spot.”
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Eight metro areas ranked in the top 50 of all three measures:
» Raleigh, North Carolina
» Des Moines
» Ogden, Utah
» Oklahoma City
» Charlotte, North Carolina
» Columbus, Ohio
» Boise, Idaho