fb-pixelLeaving Boston for the Midwest to find affordable housing Skip to main content
PERSPECTIVE | MAGAZINE

Boston is too expensive, everyone agrees. So what’s keeping you here?

It’s time to state the obvious: Go West, young person. At least, Midwest.

.Adobe Stock

For months, we’ve seen story after story of young Bostonians with decent jobs living in their cars or paying absurd percentages of their income to live in miserable apartments. It’s time to state the obvious: Go someplace else. Go West, young person. At least, Midwest. What do you really gain by living here — telling your future children about what it was like experiencing Netflix and instant ramen?

True, the Boston area has plenty of things to do and see, and the ocean views are nice. But can you actually enjoy these things when paying your rent feels like passing a kidney stone?

Advertisement



Other places that cost less also have things to do and see. Think you’ll miss being near a large body of water? Here’s a tip: The Great Lakes look a lot like the ocean. You can even surf them for part of the year. They’re too big to see across and they can get massive storms, such as the Huron hurricane of 1913. Plus, the beaches are lovely, and they don’t have sharks. (They do have muskellunge, but those rarely attack humans.)

And guess what single-family homes cost in the Midwestern states that border on the Great Lakes — Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin? All of them have median single-family home prices that fall between $200,000 and $325,000. A new report from City Lab finds the Midwest might be the last region in the United States homeowners can realistically afford.

I’ve been exploring this because my sons bemoan how long it’s going to be before they can move out. Meanwhile, I’ve been cleaning out my late father’s house in the little city where I grew up in Michigan, about 90 miles west of Detroit. Dad’s house is a 2,000-square-foot, 4 bedroom, two bath fixer-upper with Victorian flourishes and a big yard. Put it pretty much anyplace in the Boston area and it’s almost certainly a million-dollar house, even though it needs a fair amount of work. It is where it is, however, and the real estate agent thinks I’d be lucky to get $120,000 for it. Boys, are you sure it would be so terrible to spend a few years renting from Dad?

Advertisement



The rental market is tight where I grew up, people tell me — vacancy rates are about 18 percent (reminder: Boston’s vacancy rate is below 1 percent). In June, there were 28 houses on the market in my hometown, starting at $41,000 for a 1,048-square-foot, two bedroom, one bath home. Granted, the agent noted that one “needs sprucing up,” but it did sell, for about $35,000.

I’ve lived on both US coasts, so I know right about now some of you are sneering cheap for a reason. Yes, I get it, these are all states New Englanders like to mock — the buckle of the Rust Belt. Out here there are pity parties for people from places such as Cleveland or Milwaukee or Detroit. While you’ll do best financially if you’re able to work remotely, all the Great Lakes states have unemployment rates below 5 percent, with most below 4 percent.

It’s true that aside from Illinois, the Great Lakes states are not as progressive as Massachusetts. But most of them are at least decent on several measures of social tolerance (though maybe Indiana has more in common with Alabama). All the cities I mentioned have metro areas with at least a million people. They have excellent museums, cultural institutions, and recreational options, along with vibrant neighborhoods. Plus, collegiate sports in the Midwest aren’t stuck reminiscing about a certain Hail Mary in 1984, and as a region it has one less pro sports championship than Boston has had since 2000 (more, if you count Pennsylvania’s). Chicago is, of course, a great city. I would move back there in a heartbeat if I could talk my wife into it.

Advertisement



And yes, it’s also true that some of the Great Lakes states have enough Republicans living in them to shade purple or even red (looking at you, Indianabama). Just think of it as a different kind of diversity, like New Hampshire but friendlier. Remember, these states also tend to have big labor union membership. If you’re red or blue, you’ll find your people.

Because here’s the thing: Boston isn’t going to get more affordable any time soon. Daryl Fairweather, the chief economist for Redfin, says the main issue here in Boston, as with nearly all American cities, is that “the supply of housing is restricted.” Supply can’t meet demand, in other words. And as the Globe has detailed again and again, it isn’t going to for years to come.

Another reason prices are so high here could be that they’re driven by future expectations. Forthcoming work by Itzhak Ben-David, a finance professor at The Ohio State University, and two coauthors found that during the housing boom of 1996 to 2006, prices were higher in some places partly because people expected them to be. The Great Lakes states had lower prices than Boston in part because there’s an expectation in the market that economic opportunity, and thus rents, will continue to be higher in Boston than in, say, Detroit or Erie, Pennsylvania. Of course, the factors that influence pricing are also complex and vary by place. “Real estate is not a commodity that is easy to transport from one place to another,” Ben-David told me in an email interview.

Advertisement



Right now, Boston prices are high in part because people expect them to be. Expectations can be dashed, as happened in 2006, when the housing bubble burst. But why wait?

Economist Fairweather moved from Seattle to a smallish city in Wisconsin in a resort area for Chicagoans. She moved in part because her husband’s family is in the region, and in part because cost analysis showed that despite her deep ties to the Seattle area, it was time for her and her family to move someplace with a lower cost of living, and one where livability wasn’t trending downward. She says she’s been in Wisconsin for three years now, and “it’s getting better in terms of amenities.”

That’s what places will do when people move to them — they develop more reasons to enjoy living there. It takes time and patience. Remember that Massachusetts wasn’t as progressive just a few decades ago. States don’t stay static, as we’re seeing with Arizona, Georgia, and New Mexico. It might be awkward for a while before you start to feel like you’re in Jamaica Plain West. But if you’ve already contemplated living in your car to afford staying in Boston, maybe a little social discomfort isn’t going to faze you.

Advertisement



Don’t wait too long, though — even my Michigan hometown is in what Rocket Homes says is a seller’s market, because prices are rising. Median pricing could hit the $130s sometime soon.


Michael Fitzgerald is editor in chief of Harvard Public Health and a former editor at Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.