Opinion

Melissa Massello | Messages for Boston

Gen Xers can live larger in Lone Star State

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Last summer, when my husband and I announced we were moving to Austin, our friends were shocked. The two of us had been among the Boston area’s biggest cheerleaders. We’d been involved in everything from Boston World Partnerships and Somerville Local First to Kickstarter campaigns for improving life on our block. So the last thing we ever thought we’d do is pack up and leave for Texas.

Then, we got priced out.

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When Andrew got a great job offer, we did the math: In Austin, we could pay less than $400,000 for a two-bedroom home near public transportation less than four miles from downtown, yet we’d still live in a progressive, tech-oriented, culturally vibrant community. Plus, we could reduce our expenses for everything from organic groceries to gas by 45 percent, and we would no longer pay state income tax.

But we were heartbroken to leave the Hub — about leaving Somerville in particular, where we’d been renting for more than a decade and where my family had been part of the community since 1898. My great-grandfather Guglielmo Massello came to America from Benevento, Italy, as a stowaway in search of a better life in Boston. He and his brother built the family home in Winter Hill board by board, and he worked as an engineer on the Sumner Tunnel. My grampa Eddie worked in the tannery at a Brickbottom slaughterhouse until he won a scholarship to Harvard from Somerville High in 1927. My husband’s family has similarly deep roots in Arlington. Boston is in our bones. We hoped to start a family in Somerville and fully expected to scrimp and save for a fixer-upper, but we didn’t expect to be outpaced by the market as quickly as we were.

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From 2003 to 2013, our rent for a two-bedroom unit doubled, from $1,050 a month to $2,000 — even with a $400-a-month friends-and-family discount on the latter. Our circle, mainly young Gen Xers like ourselves and older millennials, had stuck it out through the aftermath of Sept. 11. At my five-year Lexington High School reunion in 2001, where or whether you’d gone to college didn’t seem to matter; you scraped by in a temp job, and you lived with your parents or shacked up with friends in rat-hole apartments. In those years, we hustled and took any jobs we could find — mine included babysitting, helping a family friend who was a shut-in, working as a warehouse assistant and as a receptionist at a staffing firm. Somehow, though, we got ourselves back on track.

Then the mortgage crisis and Great Recession hit just as we were getting ready to buy one of those fixer-uppers and settle down. Though both of us had decent jobs in the local innovation economy, we struggled to get ahead. Between rent, student loans, credit card debt (see the tumultuous timeline I mentioned above), and other standard expenses, we couldn’t catch a break financially. Every time we went to an open house for a modest listing in our neighborhood, we got wind that there had been multiple offers, that the unit, inevitably listed at upwards of $425,000, would go above asking price, no contingencies, all cash.

As Gen Xers, we accepted the “dream of the ’90s” — urbanism, collaboration, environmentalism, and social responsibility. Leaving for the outer suburbs was a non-starter. Instead, we got more deeply involved with the place we loved, in City Council meetings and forums and panels and networking events, and through petitions and dialogue on social media. We made our voices heard, and volunteered our talents. Of course, we wanted to reap the rewards.

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Cities are at least working to retain single millennials, who are being recruited to work in areas like Boston’s Innovation District. But the latest affordable-housing initiatives, like micro-apartments in the Seaport District, cater to singles in the younger generation — in particular, to single men under 25. No importance has been placed on retaining 30- to 40-year-old, dual-income couples and young families.

Maybe if we’d left in our 20s for a smaller, cheaper area, as many or our friends from high school and college did, we could have socked away more savings. Or if we’d moved to a bigger city, we could have found the same jobs at higher salaries — and might have been able to afford a $400,000 apartment in a prime location. But we did neither of those things — out of love for Boston, whose potential we believed in, and whose coming of age we wanted to see firsthand.

In the end, though, there’s no reward for loyalty in a free market — not even for those of us who’d helped Boston grow. In fact, we’d sort of shot ourselves in the foot. So we chose the ability to own a home over staying in the only home we’d known. We moved to South Austin, which is like the Somerville of Texas, and scored that unicorn of a two-bed-two-bath in a good location at a reasonable price. It’s probably the most pragmatic decision we’ve ever made.

But our hearts are divided between two places. We hope we’ll be back in the real Somerville someday, and not just to visit. In the meantime, we hope officials in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville will start to care more about losing people like us. Every day, more than 100 people move to Austin from every major metro in the country. Maybe Boston, and cities like it, should start paying more attention to why.

Melissa Massello, a former newspaper journalist and startup executive, is the founder of ShoestringMag.com.
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