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Money: Atlanta Is the Best Place to Live in the U.S.

Originally posted on Forbes by Kristen Bahler, September 29, 2022.

 

 

Money’s Best Places to Live list has been around for 35 years and counting. And if you’ve come across it in any one of those years, you know that Atlanta is very different from the kinds of places that usually make the cut. Especially at the very top.

This is no accident. At a time when people are becoming much more introspective about their role in society (see: the rise of “quiet quitting,” union organizing and the recent wave of teacher, nurse, and railroad worker strikes), our goal this year was to name a number one where anyone can feel like they belong.

And for that, Atlanta is hard to beat.

Atlanta isn’t a massive city. Population-wise, it hovers right below 500,000, on par with Kansas City and Omaha. But both culturally and economically, the Georgia capital punches way above its weight.

It’s the fourth-largest Black-majority city in the U.S., and the proud hometown of Martin Luther King Jr. It has some of the best universities in the country, including Georgia Tech — which ranked 6th on Money’s 2022 list of Best Colleges — and a culinary scene that champions steakhouses and greasy spoon diners in equal measure. It has America’s largest puppetry museum, and America’s only trap music museum. It has professional baseball, and it has drag shows. (Sometimes, it even has baseball-themed drag shows).

No matter what kind of person you are, Atlanta is a place where you can feel at home. And, just as important, it’s also a place where you can find a job.

Our data and reporting show that Atlanta’s labor market — the number of jobs available in a range of different occupations — is exceptionally strong. It’s still a job seeker’s market no matter where in the U.S. you happen to live, but Atlanta’s unemployment rate is lower than the national average. Better yet, the city’s job growth has been consistently outpacing the U.S. for more than a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tech jobs are driving much of that growth: Atlanta also has a flourishing startup ecosystem, fueled by a growing number of tech incubators and venture capital firms stationed there. Silicon Valley behemoths like Apple, Microsoft and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have all recently opened up shop in Atlanta, as have new, popular startups, like the inclusivity-centric marketing platform We Are Rosie and the meeting scheduling app Calendly.

“Over the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of being able to scale a company here,” says Aaron Hurst, founding director of Endeavor Atlanta, a startup accelerator that caters to entrepreneurs in underserved markets. “Now, people are starting to view Atlanta as a good place to launch their career.”

Like every place on this list, Atlanta is not perfect. Rising prices have had an outsized impact on the city’s most vulnerable residents, and have made it increasingly hard for legacy Black families to afford to live comfortably. An incoming wave of new residents—the 11 counties that make up the city’s commutable area are expected to gain 2.5 million people by 2040, bringing it to a total of 8 million—stands to exacerbate the problem.

Still, Atlanta stands out not because of its shortcomings (these are issues facing every major city in the U.S.), but what it’s doing to solve them.

 

‘A Deep-Seated Recognition’

Crystal Thomas knows how to hustle.

For nearly 10 years, the professional event planner climbed the ranks of Atlanta’s social scene, decorating parties and designing sets for a seemingly endless stream of photo shoots throughout the city. Until early 2020, when — well, you know what happened next.

As COVID-19 snaked through the country, Thomas started to experience the same quarantine claustrophobia as the rest of us, amplified by the anxiety of no longer having an income. So she decided to start offloading what she had in abundance: one hell of a houseplant collection.

What started as an impromptu, card-table-in-a-parking-lot sort of operation turned into an indoor popup shop, which led to a bunch of Instagram followers, and custom online orders, and then another popup.

Eventually, Thomas landed where she’s at today: a brick-and-mortar store on Atlanta’s Westside. Tropical Express, her dual plant shop-event space, is open every Wednesday through Saturday.

Thomas is no stranger to the small business grind — and all the handshaking/email swapping/happy hour networking that comes with it. But Atlanta came through for her in a big way, she says. Neighbors offered her temporary spots in their bars, offices and art galleries — and her sudden, surprisingly devoted customers followed her to all of them.

“Atlanta is a space where everyone is uplifting each other,” she says. “People had their arms open.”

Small, community-centered economies have long been a part of what makes Atlanta Atlanta — this is a city that helped catalyze the Civil Rights Movement, after all. But in 2022, as the city draws in flocks of tourists, wealthy real estate developers and expats from more expensive cities, there’s an undercurrent of shared responsibility that feels very of-the-moment.

Atlanta has cooperatively owned food manufacturersbuildings and bike shops. It has a seven-acre food forest that gives free fruit, vegetables and herbs to all its volunteers. There are 21 farmers markets in Atlanta proper, the vast majority of which accept food stamps as payment, and at least one “pay what you can” grocery store.

Thomas’ new plant store is on Jefferson St. NW, an industrial stretch that’s a perfect microcosm of the city’s many competing loyalties: a Greyhound bus depot and rival bail bond companies neighbor a new bike path, a froufrou wedding space and an art gallery that was once a Baptist church. The building is owned by the Westside Future Fund (WFF), a nonprofit that partners with the city to provide low cost office and retail space to small businesses battling ever-rising commercial rents. (WFF does a lot of other things too, like paying the annual property tax increases of legacy homeowners, and providing Black-owned businesses with favorable term loans, to name a few. )

It belongs to a growing network of grassroots and government efforts — and often a combination of the two — working to ensure that when corporations like Microsoft roll into the city, and buy up entire blocks worth of(historic) real estate, or when the construction of a $1.6 billion football stadium creates new demand for chain restaurants and hotels, there are still pockets of opportunity for moms and pops … and stores like Tropical Express. Nearby, there are groups that help place seniors in affordable homes, and those that help low-income residents build credit, manage a budget and save for a down payment on a home.

This is a line Atlanta has been toeing since the 1990s; an economic boom time for the city that started, by most accounts, when it was chosen to host the 1996 Olympics. The Dot Com bubble of the early 2000s followed, with a wave of new tech talent that poured into the city, driving up prices, and pushing thousands of Black residents to Atlanta’s outskirts.

Today, though, Atlanta is armed with lessons learned, and two consecutive mayors that have made affordability the city’s top legislative concern.

Over the last two years, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of commerce (MAC) has started to implement a series of strategic, city-wide policies purposefully designed to keep history from repeating itself. At the ground level, that means investing in Black-owned businesses, aggressively retooling corporate diversity standards and creating “strategic partnerships” with companies relocating to Atlanta that go beyond a press release pat on the back.

It’s a work in progress, but it has led to measurable results.

WFF, for one, gets a large portion of its operating budget from the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, a charity founded by the billionaire who owns the Atlanta Falcons — the NFL team that plays at the Westside football stadium WFF was created, in part, to offset the ramifications of.

“We have not been perfect in this city,” says Katie Kirkpatrick, president and CEO of MAC. But against the backdrop of its history, and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, its leaders are eager to “address the systemic issues that are deeply held here.”

“We’re a unique community in Atlanta,” she says. “There’s a deep-seated recognition that if we can’t get this right, then who can?”

 

‘The Perfect Blend of Culture’

From a cultural standpoint, Atlanta isn’t all that different from the other places that made our list this year.

It’s got ample greenspace (Denver, Colo.; Salt Lake City, Utah) historical relevance (Milton, Mass.; Alexandria, Va.), a food and music scene with global influences (Rogers Park, Chicago; Columbia, Md.) and an ever-expanding network of bike and walking trails (Carmel, Indiana; South Burlington, Vermont).

The thing about Atlanta, though, is that it has all of this in spades. Lots of places have tree-lined streets, but Atlanta has a canopy of trees so dense it’s been nicknamed the “city in a forest.” Most cities have an airport, but Atlanta has — if you believe the hype — “the most efficient airport in the U.S.”

Entertainment-wise, the city has more “things to do” than even the most social of butterflies could ever find time for.

For gamers, there’s Battle & Brew. Fans of rare, Black-authored books have For Keeps. There’s opera, street art and — for the discerning toddler — a playground designed by Isamu Noguchi. There are four professional sports teams, an underground ping pong league and a LGBTQ+ water polo team.

“I went to the symphony the other day, and they were playing Beyonce music,” says Crystal Thomas of Tropical Express. “We have the perfect blend of culture … it just bleeds through Atlanta.”

The city is getting more expensive (that’s the case for basically everywhere in the U.S. right now), but compared to other fast-growing metros like Austin, Texas — where the cost of living is higher, and the salaries are lower — Atlanta is far more frugal. (ChooseAtl, a website designed to entice millennial job seekers, has a literal “choose your own adventure” interactive for comparing living expenses in Atlanta to cities like Austin, New York and Chicago. Spoiler: Atlanta wins.)

The current median sales price for a home in the area is $395,000, according to ATTOM housing data, which is less than the median of all the places that qualified for our ranking this year ($425,000). All told, housing costs in the Atlanta metro are lower than more than half of the places to make Money’s 2022-2023 list.

Looking forward, one of the biggest priorities for Atlanta’s city planners is turning it into a place that can handle an influx of the millions of people expected to move there. That means rolling out a host of infrastructure development projects (especially as it pertains to traffic and mass transit, two perennial punching bags) and making sure there are enough workers — everyone from engineers to electricians — to get the job done.

Georgia got a massive grant from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, and some of the funds are specifically earmarked to make this plan come to fruition. Atlanta, for its part, is “hyper-focused” on building out the workforce that will support the city’s growth, says Anna Roach, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Roach is an Atlanta transplant herself. Born in the Caribbean, and raised in New York, Roach says she first set foot in the city in 2005, while visiting a friend who lived there. She was a young lawyer with a new husband (and baby) at the time, and says she fell so deeply in love with Atlanta that her family picked up and relocated to the city less than a year later.

“I immediately felt a sense of thriving among Black, middle-class individuals who have made a life for themselves in Atlanta,” she says. “I felt like I was part of the fabric of the community because people all around me that were successful looked just like me. It was the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Today, Roach heads the Atlanta agency tasked with maintaining the Atlanta metro’s prosperity across all of its industries — and for all its residents. It’s a tall order, but the entire city — politicians, business leaders and community members alike — are working in tandem to see it through.

“We are very focused on the tremendous opportunity … in almost every sector,” she says. “We are also very sensitive to the needs of the community, and preserving its fabric while we embrace this progress.”