With the pending arrival of a second child, a friend recently stated interest in relocating from NYC to a variety of metro areas, one of which was Asheville. I moved to western NC in 2002 and Asheville in 2008 and am amazed at how long the area has been popular. It seems like every year, we top another travel list - from Lonely Planet's top U.S. destination of the year in 2017 to the latest installation of the New York Times' perfect 36 hours here (2007, 2010, 2016). I shouldn't be so surprised though - the Vanderbilts weren't the first, but certainly were among the most influential Yankees to move here. Make no mistake: I am not complaining. I moved here too and wouldn't have been able to stay if it weren't for the outdoor and camp industries. I am a summer camp kid who never left and worked in tourism for over 5 years here as a kayak instructor and raft guide at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, but I expected the recent popularity of this southern gem to decline. It clearly hasn't and I have spent time thinking about why. Following are my thoughts on why Asheville has remained popular from the perspective of a biologist and geographer: proximity, climate, the housing market, and quality of life.
The first ingredient in the recipe for municipal popularity is proximity. People must be able to reach you, otherwise Joseph, OR would be more popular than Asheville (don't tell anyone I told you - Joseph is Portland, Oregon's secret vacay spot). Asheville, on the other hand, is about a days drive from just about anywhere in the eastern US. The map below shows the catchment area for an 11 hour drive time from Asheville, which includes Chicago, New Orleans, the NYC metro area and south nearly to Miami. And if it is mountains you seek (perhaps for a break from the heat), we are the closest mountains for a large portion of the area.
Map made very quickly using https://www.marketmaps.com/drive-time-area-maps/
The second ingredient in making amazing vacation-town pie is nice weather and climate. The winters here aren't too bad compared to the northeast and midwest and in the summer, Asheville has a 2,200 ft. advantage in elevation over the beach, making the nights here relatively cool. Global warming is still happening up here, but we will be afforded a bit of a cushion in several climate change related areas, notably, nighttime temperatures. The figures below, from the National Climate Assessment, shows how much less our area will be impacted by rising nighttime temperatures. Other areas where we have an advantage include lower daytime temperatures and reduced mosquito habitat. Check out your area in the climate document linked above - there is a summary chapter on each region of the US and the figures are excellent.
The third reason people are still moving to Asheville is the real estate market. For those of you who live in Asheville or anywhere in western NC, you might be thinking, "Prices have gone up sooooo much! Why would anyone move here for the real estate market?" I am one of those people, but a quick glance at the national real estate data makes me realize I have had my blinders on. Thanks, Zillow!
Zillow uses sales data and other public records to estimate the value of homes and makes a surprisingly large amount of data available on their website. I chose to look at cost per square foot for sales data in multiple metropolitan areas to see how Asheville stacked up. While square footage of any house has some error associated with it and their Zestimate formula is proprietary, they have been improving their calculations in creative ways - including a $1 million contest. The data are found at the bottom of the Zillow homepage by clicking Research then Data. Or you can click here. The graph below shows median cost per square foot of home sales from 1996 to about September of 2019.
Each city has a unique shape and trajectory for its housing cost curve. Cities peaked at different times and bottomed out at slightly different times. Some have recovered, while others have not. NYC and LA are the blue and orange ones at the top and clearly much more expensive than the other metro areas. Chicago in grey hasn't recovered from the recession, nor has Las Vegas in light blue. Denver (black) has had a meteoric ascent and Asheville (green) took a small hit in the recession, but has easily surpassed the 2007 bubble. What sticks out the most to me though is how much cheaper Asheville still is compared to other cities shown. It's no surprise we have been getting folks moving from more expensive housing markets.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, quality of life here is excellent, but don't take my word for it. In his 2013 book Happy City, Charles Montgomery argues that streetcar suburbs offer the best of urban living, and although he didn't mention Asheville by name, he accurately describes myriad benefits of Asheville's largest streetcar suburb, West Asheville. West Asheville has received an influx of new folks yet still is one of the most affordable zip codes. The luxuries include yards big enough for gardening, a grid-based street network with enough alternate routes to repel traffic jams, urban density high enough to support quality restaurants and bars, urban density low enough to still make the real estate somewhat affordable, and on and on. Asheville excels in the restaurants and bar areas catching the eye of Bon Appetit for doughnuts and collards. And I am not even going to talk about beer.
The first two factors - location of the city and the climate - won't change anytime soon. But the real estate market is changing daily and if you are looking to move here, it looks like the housing market is cooling off nationally. I threw in the national home ownership rate from the St. Louis Fed. at the bottom, just for good measure. Assuming you can move here before the economy tanks and half of the restaurants close and with low interest rates, it's a good time to get into any market. That's if your employment is stable and if there isn't another housing bubble. Sigh...
Please let me know your thoughts!
I finished my Ph.D. and got my diploma in December, 2018.
I started a full time job in March, 2019 with the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources.
Our daughter, Mia, was born in May, 2019.
Susan and I celebrated 5 years married in August, 2019.
Phew. I feel better that we are all caught up!
I wrote this summary of last weekend for the UUCA newsletter.
Last weekend, our family of four and an additional 135 members from UUCA spent the weekend at The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center in Highlands, NC situated atop Little Scaly Mountain (elevation 4,200’). The weekend was highlighted by wonderful music, workshops, delicious meals, and a healthy dose of humor at the talent show. People ask me how I came to live in Asheville and I simply tell them I am a summer camp kid that never left and The Mountain was the biggest part.
The Mountain started in 1979 as a UU camp and conference center and has held summer camps continuously since then. Growing up in Lancaster, PA, we lived about half-way between Star Island UU Camp in NH and The Mountain, but young members of our church went south to attend camps at The Mountain instead going north. My first impressions of The Mountain in 1993 are still accurate descriptors today: inclusive, open, loving, and breathtaking. It was the first place I experienced total lack of judgments as youth of all kinds gathered for intentional shared experiences. I knew how great The Mountain could be, but would my wife, Susan, fall in love with it the way I did? Our first trip to UUCA’s Gathering at The Mountain 4 years ago didn’t go so well: Susan worked a 12-hour day on Friday so we only came for one night, but I had a terrible cold and completely lost my voice. We tried the short Chinquapin hike, but turned back due to rain and low visibility. We were unable to enjoy the scenery and I couldn’t sing some of my favorite songs and get to know folks better.
With that less-than-ideal experience fresh in our minds, Susan and I were nervous about how the weekend would go with two kids. Would our 2 ½ year-old toddler Simon eat the meals? Would the baby sleep well in her cardboard box? Would we feel comfortable socially with so many people we didn’t know very well?
The answer to all of these questions was a resounding YES! The meals were fantastic and 5-month old baby Mia slept for 10 hours in a row! Everywhere we went, people loved Mia and wanted to hold her. She made a great centerpiece on our dining table and had attracted a troupe of groupees by the end of the weekend. Simon loved singing and playing his cardboard banjo and hiking to Chinquapin (pictured below). We attended some of the activities, but appreciated the flexibility of the a la carte schedule, which perfectly suited the needs of our family.
Our family made more connections with members of the congregation at The Mountain in a single weekend than we had in all of 2019. Susan and I were overwhelmed by the love and support of the people we already knew and new friends we met there. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is certainly accurate, but I am so happy to have found our village at UUCA. Thank you all for sharing your gifts of music, humor, and love for raising kids.
Of interest to me and hopefully at least one other person