Only Three US Cities Have Good Jobs, Affordable Housing, and High Quality of Life

By Alissa Walker on at

When looking for a place to live, people are generally looking for three things: affordability, a strong economy, and good quality of life. For most Americans that poses a dilemma because a clear majority of US cities can only claim excellence in one of these areas. A dozen cities specialise in two. But for those who truly want it all, there are three choices. And they’re all in the Midwest.

That’s the finding of Josh Lehner at the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, who explored what’s being called the “housing trilemma”, which is the term given to the idea that due to the housing crisis, Americans have to made big tradeoffs in deciding where to live. Lehner looked at the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, comparing them for quality of life, affordability and economic strength across several metrics using Census data and several other indicators.

According to his number-crunching (which you can see here), people wanting to live in a city that excels in all three have just three choices:

  • Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  • Omaha, Nebraska
  • Des Moines, Iowa
Only Three US Cities Have Good Jobs, Affordable Housing, and High Quality of Life

In fact, only 15 cities got high marks in two categories, most of them focused in quality of life. But if it’s most important for a person to live in a place with good quality of life and economic strength, they will have to pay more to live there. In fact, this is usually what eventually drives those cities off this Venn diagram, as Lehner explains. Cities that become too desirable become too expensive:

The reason these tradeoffs exist is mostly, but not entirely, due to market forces. People want to live in cities with a strong economy and high quality of life. Increased demand for housing leads to higher prices and lower affordability. Nice places to live get their housing costs bid up due to strong demand. The opposite is true as well. Regions with underperforming economies and a lower quality of life do have better affordability.

San Francisco, of course, is the quintessential example of a city that has a huge affordability problem, even as it remains a great place to live and its job growth is exploding.

Only Three US Cities Have Good Jobs, Affordable Housing, and High Quality of Life

But look at another place that is slowly edging off this chart: Portland, Oregon, which has been celebrated for its quality of life and strong job growth, but in the last few years the city has become way less affordable. Portland is also a unique case in that it has very, very low vacancy rate, which makes it harder for renters to find affordable places to live.

The solution to move more US cities into that sweet spot with Des Moines, Omaha, and OKC is the same one you’ve been hearing throughout the housing crisis: build more housing. It's a tale as old as time. [Oregon Economic Analysis]