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Living (but not being) Cheap

I constantly joke about Journey’s early ’80s song, “Don’t Stop Believing,” being a new release here; it follows me from the City Diner to Solar Roast and beyond. In many ways, it’s still 1982 here – the year the mill tanked – but that can also be a liberating thing. My painter neighbor, for example, can afford a house on one salary. The structurally poor can at least afford some comfortable place to relax, the Riverwalk for exercise, and affordable tasty Mexican food.

Our low cost of living is even a selling point for the local economic development folks and – in a deep recession with all things being equal – you might as well find an inexpensive harbor to ride out the storm. But cheap cities are double-edged swords. If you’re like me, when you see bold sale signs that proclaim “cheap,” your emotions are a mix of excitement and trepidation, so much so that stores rarely advertise their “cheap” goods because of the stigma that goes with the word. Perhaps “great value” would be a better selling point for a city. Cheap cities are like expensive cities: it’s all in how you use them, and both take skill, finesse and some mental gymnastics.

Edward Glaser in the Triumph of the City warns that cheap housing generally begets more cheap housing and attracts the poor, creating a downward spiral of property poverty that currently handicaps cities like Detroit and Cleveland. This is certainly true in some neighborhoods of Pueblo, where houses can be had for $10,000-$20,000. My friends in the Mesa Junction were mortified when a nice historic home sold for $32,000 at auction last month. Cheap is great if it’s stable, but it’s generally part of a trend.

New restaurants and retail chains are not looking for the cheapest places in America to open, but manufacturers might be, and small businesses certainly are, especially in the internet age and if what they are selling is not tied to the place. A local appraiser told me every market is made of sub-markets: some stable, some declining, some rising. Overall, we’re incredibly stable, with housing prices maintaining a steady average around $100,000, while Boulder’s are closer to $400,000. While Boulder recently ranked number one in the Nation Gallup Well Being survey of metropolitan areas, most of us would trade a number one ranking for an affordable house or apartment when we can always socially commute or retail commute to Denver/Boulder.

We have a low “price of entry,” which allows for experimentation, as was noted in an article in the Economist about the low housing costs in Detroit. Young innovative entrepreneurs are flocking to sections of Detroit now based mainly on the unique opportunity and incredibly affordable housing. The birth of so many small businesses on Union recently is a testament to this trend.

The key to cheap housing is to not let it force you to live poorly. Here is where we eclipse all the other cheap cities on the Kiplinger index. Despite the recent news, we have a good school system, 30 miles of river trails, an ice arena, multiple vibrant arts organizations, the Nature Center, pools, good parks, music and culture in spades, and enough characters to fill out a couple of additional seasons of Seinfeld. We are near the Rocky Mountain fly-fishing hubs, rock climbing, skiing, and mountain parks that offer free hiking. What doesn’t go toward rent can go toward creating life value.

As a planner, I run into people looking for a safe harbor. They move here because it’s cheap, they’ve had a problem, they need a second chance. I call them “economic refugees,” since I was one of them, fleeing mid-aughts high prices in Denver. The key is to find ways to engage these new people and stimulate the existing ones, and not let them – or us – live poor, think poor, or act poor.

Everything we do as citizens and cities should be toward creating value in any way we measure it. Building family, friendships, and community is dirt-cheap. The older I get, the more I realize that life is what you make of it. Cheap living allows a lot of flexibility and creativity to live richly but also a good excuse to live and think poorly. Let’s try to not allow anyone the opportunity to do the later.

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