The Value of a Place

I was surprised–and unnerved–to read in the Boston Globe that Boston is the most expensive metro area in the country, at least according to one study.

The article lists some starting statistics from the report:  

  • "The report found that last year, a family of four living in the Boston area needed $64,656 to cover its basic needs. This was $6,000 more than in New York City, and about $7,000 more than in San Francisco. Living expenses, which include healthcare, child care, and other basic needs, were $44,000 or less in Austin, Texas; Chicago; Miami; and Raleigh, N.C."
  • "In 2004, the median price of a single-family home in Greater Boston was $376,000, up 9.5 percent from 2003, the report says. The median price of a condo was $282,000, up 9.3 percent."
  • "In 2004, there were only 27 Boston-area communities in which a household whose members made the median income could afford the median-priced home in that city or town."

I didn’t set out to live in the most expensive city, honestly. It just happened. It makes it hard to imagine actually being able to buy a house here, but I guess normal people do make it happen somehow.

It makes me thankful for the house I’m able to rent for an affordable price. Sure, it has its problems, like the blocked main sewer pipe we wrestled with most of last week, with rather nasty consequences. And the wildlife that often shares the house with us–well, we won’t get into that. But it also has many benefits–convenient location, lots of space, free parking, cheap broadband, big rooms, good housemates.

I’m still shocked that as of last week I’ve lived in this same room for 6 years. While I’ve wrestled with issues of place and mobility in my academic work and in my blogging ever since I moved to Boston, the reality is that I’ve stayed put for much longer than many of my friends.

And now it looks like I may be stay in Boston for a few years more, depending on how the job search shapes up in the next few months. I think I’ve made my peace with this possibility–I’d rather stay put until have a have a compelling reason to be somewhere else. 

When I moved to Boston, I could imagine all the gains of mobility, but I miscalculated the costs of moving—the personal price I would pay. Now, after seven years I can both recognize what I’ve gained from being here and the continuing cost of living far from friends and family.  

But while Boston might be most expensive place to live by one set of criteria, there are many other ways to assess the costs that places are having on people. Certainly, New Orleans would have to be at the top of the list now, if we factor in all the ripple effects this disaster is having, even beyond the immediate human misery it’s caused. But what scares me is that this disaster is a symptom of bigger problems, hinting at all the hidden costs we’ve been ignoring for so long. My small attempts to weight the costs of moving or staying are overshadowed by the larger sense that we as a country are just beginning to pay the price for our unsustainable ways of being in the world. The bills are coming due, and too often the poorest and most vulnerable bear the brunt of other people’s shortsighted and selfish decisions. With wars abroad and disasters at home, it’s hard not to feel like our future has already been spent and the ones in power are having a harder time covering up the obvious.

I’m no economist and math has never been my strength, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that things aren’t adding up and we’re paying for our poor investments. Clearly we can’t trust the authorities to tell us how much our places are worth; we all have to check the ledgers and ask hard questions about how money, resources, the environment, and our future is being spent. Fortunately, more people are doing this now, from the local level to the national level, so perhaps together we’ll begin finding better ways to count the cost.

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