The True Cost of Living: Cincinnati


Michelle Nix has lived in a lot of places: Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, Oakland, Calif. But when it came time to start a family, she went home to Cincinnati.

Smart move. The once-battered Midwest city is in the middle of a radical transformation – and it ranks 8th in our recent list of affordable U.S. cities.

“It’s a great Midwestern city. It has almost anything you could want,” Nix said.

Nix and husband Stephen spend only about a quarter of their income on mortgage payments for their three-story brick shotgun-style home on the city’s north side, where they are raising Theo, 2, and Fritz, who’s 6 months old.

“(Cincinnati) has some delicious restaurants, dive bars, fancy bars, breweries, beautiful parks, two decent sports teams, college basketball, great niche neighborhoods and really nice, good-hearted people,” Nix said.

Cincinnati’s strategic location on the Ohio River made it a boomtown in the 1800s, thanks to steamboats, which helped connect the frontier of the fledging U.S. with the Port of New Orleans and the rest of the world. Some historians say it’s the first major city formed after the American Revolution, making it the first distinctly American city, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the Cincinnati Reds were the first professional baseball team.

The city also borders Kentucky and the slave states of the South, which made it a crossroads for racial tension during the Civil War era.

michele nixLike most Rust Belt cities, it suffered mightily as manufacturing declined and well-off residents fled to the suburbs during the second half of the 20th century.

But the city is undergoing a major urban renewal, highlighted by an ambitious project known as The Banks – mixed-use housing and commercial development along the river, bookended by baseball and football stadiums.

The renewal has paid off. General Electric recently announced it was moving its Global Operations center to the city, creating nearly 2,000 jobs. A low cost of living for employees and a new streetcar transportation option helped the city win over GE. Cincinnati is also home to corporate headquarters for Kroger, Procter and Gamble, and Macy’s. And it enjoyed 2.5% growth last year, the highest in the Midwest and among the highest in the country.

While the city itself has a modest population of 300,000, down almost half from its heyday in the 1950s, the surrounding metropolitan area (including parts of Kentucky and Indiana) includes 2.2 million, making it a top 25 market in the nation.

Its central location helps make up for what some residents might be missing living in the Midwest, Nix said.

“I think Cincinnati doesn’t have the same cultural events and activities like some bigger cities. Also, the music scene and theater are here, but we miss some bigger names to other cities,” she said. “We’re a 2-hour-or-less drive from Indy, Louisville and Columbus.”

On the other hand, with a median home sales price of $133,000, and a median household income of $56,000, many Cincinnati residents can meet their financial goals and still afford a trip or two to catch a Broadway show. Or in Nix’s case, a trip to Brooklyn to visit friend and author Caroline Zancan, and to marvel at real estate prices in one of America’s most expensive cities.

“I don’t see how they afford it some time,” she said.

Cincinnati by the Numbers:

  • Affordable Cities Ranking: 8th
  • Housing Poor Residents: 30.4%
  • Median Home Sales Price: $132,500, per Trulia
  • Median household income: $55,729 per Fact Finder

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: iStock; Inset image courtesy of Michelle Nix

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The True Cost of Living in America: Oklahoma City


Elle Adkins has lived in Oklahoma City all her adult life, so she has a different perspective on the once-sleepy, dusty capital city that’s become a boomtown. “It used to be dreadful, and now we have all this new and exciting stuff,” she said. recently wrote about the top 10 most affordable U.S. cities, defined by the percentage of owners and renters who would be considered “housing poor.” Oklahoma City was second on the list; only Pittsburgh, the subject of next week’s story, ranked higher.

Oklahoma City’s story isn’t that different from North Dakota or Texas: While the rest of the country was reeling from the recession, oil-rich, fracking-friendly parts of the country were thriving — and attracting outsiders. The Oklahoma City metro area, now home to 1.2 million, is consistently among the top 10 fastest-growing cities in the country.

Elle Adkins OKThe move of the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team to Oklahoma City in 2008 — the team was renamed the “Thunder” — seemed to surprise outsiders.  Why would anyone leave the Pacific Northwest for Oklahoma? But savvy observers knew the transformation of the old Dust Bowl state was well under way, and the city landing its first Big Four pro sports team was more a culmination of this trend than a coming out party.

Oklahoma City has a distinct advantage over other oil-boom places like North Dakota for obvious reasons. For starters, it’s a capital city, so it also enjoys the spoils of state government spending and the culture a capital brings. 

Perhaps not so obvious is that the city also began an aggressive urban renewal project back in the early 1990s, among the first of its kind, which has been a huge success at drawing a new generation of urban dwellers. At the same time, the Oklahoma City bombing tragedy of 1995 seemed to galvanize pride and development Downtown.

While population growth has slowed a bit in the past couple of years — and it’s an open question how Oklahoma will react to the oil bust — the most recent data suggest the changes are paying off for residents. Median family income has risen from $56,500 in 2010 to $64,600 in 2014, according to the U.S. Census.

But while jobs and affordable housing are plentiful in Oklahoma City, natives like Adkins will tell you it’s not perfect. “It depends on where you want to live,” she said. “There are areas that are less expensive. I just happen to live in the ‘best’ school district and that comes with a price.”

Ironically, one place Adkins dreams of moving to is the old home of the Thunder: Seattle. She longs for the region’s no-AC-required summers, “where you can do things outside without fear or getting heat stroke,” she jokes. Both her grandmother and aunt live in Emerald City suburbs. She visits often, but she’s aware of Seattle’s high housing costs, and knows a move there would be tricky.

Adkins and her husband are separated, and the couple used to have a $1,500 monthly mortgage payment. Even with two incomes, that was a struggle, she said. “Before we divided up our finances, we were having trouble making ends meet. So I guess it’s all relative,” she said.

She moved from the Downtown area to a suburb within city boundaries so her son could attend better schools, but she’s rethinking that now. Rent for two-bedroom apartments in Adkins’ neighborhood costs $900 per month, which sounds affordable to coastal ears but in reality makes things tight. Adkins works for a local university in accounting and earns about $41,000 a year — but takes home about $2,000 per month after taxes and insurance costs for her son. “I’m willing to move, though, and perhaps I will soon … to someplace more economical,” she said.

Do you live in other top 10 cities like Louisville, Minneapolis, Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbus or Cincinnati? We’d like to hear from you. (Write to

Oklahoma City by the numbers:

Affordable Cities Ranking: Second

Housing Poor Residents: 28.4%

Median Home Sales Price: $157,175, per Zillow

Median household income: $64,611, per Fact Finder

More Money-Saving Reads:

Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy of Elle Adkins

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