If It’s “Livable,” You Can’t Afford It


North America’s most livable cities are also among the least affordable. At least, that’s my conclusion from the Economist‘s 2023 Livability Index. According to this index, Vancouver BC, which Wendell Cox ranks as the least-affordable housing market in North America, is also the continent’s most livable city.

Other cities that the Economist ranks high on the livability list include Boston, Honolulu, Miami, Montreal, Portland, Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, all of which are rated unaffordable (median home prices are at least five times median household incomes) by Cox. The only city that is truly affordable and, according to the Economist, livable is Pittsburgh, and it’s so livable that its population has been shrinking for 70 years. Admittedly, the Economist also counts Atlanta, Calgary, and Minneapolis as livable, regions that Cox says are marginally affordable (home prices 4 to 5 times incomes).

The Economist bases its livability index on five factors: stability, healthcare, culture & environment, education, and infrastructure. The stability of Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle is pretty questionable at the moment, but the big question is why isn’t housing affordability one of the factors in the Economist‘s livability index.

One possible answer is that the Economist‘s list is made for people who are so rich that they don’t care about housing prices. Another possible answer is that the Economist is influenced by urban planners who believe higher housing prices are a good thing because they lead people to live in denser cities, which they regard (without much justification) as being more livable.

My own livability index doesn’t include any cities — I find living in a town of 3,000 people to be marginal — but if it did, it would emphasize low-density cities that have exciting cultures, are close to attractive outdoor recreation opportunities, and enjoy affordable housing markets. Albuquerque would be at the top of my list followed by San Antonio, and perhaps Tucson. Those are only my personal preferences, but whatever criteria you use, I suspect affordability will be on your list.

This piece first appeared at The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land-use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Photo: courtesy AntiPlanner.