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.
Credit.com 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.
The 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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
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Main image: iStock; inset image courtesy of Elle Adkins