Can Houstonians still afford to buy houses?

Image: Troy Fields

Ever since its founding more than 150 years ago, people have been drawn to Houston, the swampy, muddy spot on the twisting edges of Buffalo Bayou, as a place where a person could live cheap, work hard, and, with a little luck, rise in the world.

For years this city's cost of living—the combination of what people have to pay in housing, groceries, bills, and other basic life needs paired with the average incomes in the area—has been fairly low, making it an enticing destination despite its clogged highways, flood-prone streets, and that infamous lack of physical beauty. But is Houston still the same affordable metroplex?

“Historically Houston has provided a combination of job growth and relatively inexpensive housing,” Bill Gilmer, the director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the Bauer College of Business at UH, says. “We provide a lot more opportunities when the economy is going well here. On average we have a very good amount of growth. The problem is, we don’t really tend to have those average years. It’s either very good or very bad.”

About those averages: Houstonians pull in salaries of about $53,000 per year, 6.32 percent higher than the national average, and pay about 8 percent less for general housing expenses than people living in other large U.S. cities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those factors are counterbalanced by other realities. Car-loving burg that Houston is, traversing the sprawl of this city is a necessity, and a pricy one at that. We spend more than $12,000 a year to drive here, an annual expense that clocks in at 23 percent higher on average than what residents of other large cities pay for transportation.

In March of last year Forbes acknowledged Houston as one of the best Southern cities to live in thanks to high pay and a relatively low cost of living. Yet by October Houston had landed on the magazine’s list of 20 U.S. cities with the fastest-growing cost-of-living increases, with the amount of money needed to live comfortably here increasing by a whopping 23.45 percent from 2017 to 2018. Where it had taken about $56,000 to pull off a good life in the Bayou City in 2017, it now requires a little more than $69,000, per Forbes.

The main reason? In the past year housing costs have skyrocketed, driven up by factors including population growth, which has increased demand for solidly middle-income housing options. Harvey has left its mark, too, putting more demand on the areas that didn’t flood during the record-shattering storm, and spiking Houston’s housing costs across the board.

When the cost of living rises quickly, the effects ripple through the rest of the economy, Gilmer explains. High living expenses can discourage lower-income families from moving into a region, which translates to a smaller potential labor pool. Wealth inequality and gentrification increase, and people invest less.

But things could be worse—way worse. Did you know that the median home price in Seattle is $761,800, pricier than ours by more than half a million dollars? Houston is still a great place to make your way and raise a family, especially if you make smart, informed decisions.

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