Getting priced out of the walkable life

A 1920s-era high rise, the 320 South Boston Building, reflected on a more modern glass tower. The contrast of old-style art deco and modern architecture is beautiful.

A 1920s-era high rise, the 320 South Boston Building, reflected on a more modern glass tower. The contrast of old-style art deco and modern architecture in downtown Tulsa is beautiful.

Imagine this little scene:

You’re standing at the corner of a moderately busy street. People are all around, walking or biking to wherever it is they need to go that day, sunglasses on, phones in hand, and otherwise preoccupied while darting from one place to the next. Bike couriers zip by, carrying packages or fast-food deliveries. There are a couple of beggars roaming around, but they’re pretty harmless.

In any direction, you’re within a 10-minute walk from work, your favorite restaurants, a performing arts center and a convenience store. Also within a few hundred feet from your doorstep are destinations like your gym, neighborhood bars, pizza joints and all sorts of street-level businesses selling anything from jewelry to photocopies.

Once the work day ends,things quiet down, but life doesn’t stop entirely. Many of the buildings that once housed offices have been converted into apartments, evidence of which is seen by the mix of dog walkers mingling with kids skateboarding emptied sidewalks and lovers taking photographs by a colorfully lit fountain or a rustic brick wall.

Looming overhead are office towers: some modern, some boasting 1920s and 1930s-era Art Deco stone fixtures that are distinct to my home city.

This is my neighborhood, or it least it was. I moved here more than four years ago, taking a new job and a radically new tack toward how my daily life would look, snagging a reasonably priced apartment tucked away under the shadows of nearby high-rises.

For more than 15 years, I joined tens of millions of you who hop into metal boxes on wheels and while away hours every week to go to work, burning time and gas while fighting increasingly crowded highways and decreasingly patient fellow travelers. It was an expensive endeavor that went anywhere from 70 to 100 miles a day, depending on which job I had at the time.

In my new home, things were different. I took advantage of a new trend here in Midwest, one in which developers turned empty spaces in downtown districts into living quarters. My 90-mile-a-day driving habit turned into a two-minute walking commute.

I learned more about Tulsa when I moved downtown. You get to know your community so much better on foot than you do behind the wheel. All those places you breeze by while driving are much more vibrant when you stroll by, unencumbered by the barrier of metal, glass and rubber. Walking or running, this fit into what I hoped life would become — more active, more outdoors, more connected. I grew to love it.

And so did a lot of other people. So much so that there are 13 other downtown residential projects underway right now, with almost every existing apartment in downtown Tulsa occupied, and a year-long waiting list for some of the more sought-after addresses.

Property owners, being the savvy entrepreneurs that they are, see the potential for making profits. One area where I run by often, called East Village, has a number of apartments and townhouses going up. Those townhouses have a starting price of $875,000. We’re not talking Denver, Chicago or even Houston here. This is Tulsa, of all places.

I have a hard time believing that someone would pay that much for a house here, but I should have also realized that someone smarter than me sees something I don’t. And I should also have seen what signs like this would mean for me.

All these people seeking what I sought — a walkable neighborhood, surrounded by all the good stuff to which suburbanites have to drive — would do what I did. They’d downsize, leave the ‘burbs and head to the city’s urban heart.

I’m a middle class guy. Not rich, not poor. A few bills, but nothing big. No extravagant habits and no car payments. But like most folks, I live paycheck to paycheck while putting back a a few dollars here and there. Saving some money on driving far less (I drive maybe once or twice a week) was one of the appeals to living here, mostly because I used to drop $250 or more on fuel every month. There were added costs — monthly parking fees, for example — but for awhile, it was a wash. Having 90 minutes of my life back was worth it.

But then it happened. And by it, I mean capitalism. Supply and demand. More people wanted to live here than could be housed. You know how this story ends.

In this case, it concludes with rent hikes (four in a year) and increased parking fees, as well as a few other ways that we all get nickel-and-dimed to death. With half a month’s salary disappearing into that cozy 650-square-foot pad on the 10th floor, it was time to go.

I won’t lie, it was sad. I came downtown to live in a place that had been, residentially speaking, forsaken for decades. White flight and the boom of the suburbs had robbed downtown areas across the country of people, and reclaiming that became a trendy, and in my mind, positive thing to do. A lot of us loved the idea of fleeing the sameness of the suburbs and opting out of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses lifestyle that permeates the white-picket world. We wanted to own less stuff and live a little more. Walk more, and burn fewer dinosaur bones.

I should have known a lot of us would eventually get priced out. It would be a wicked irony if people like me, hoping to save a buck by being able to walk to work, would get beaten back into suburbia by high rents and an arsenal of other rising costs.

Fortunately, the new home is about a mile from the job. I could walk it if I chose, or bike it. So I won’t get sucked into the suburban maw just yet.

But I hope that the dream of living in a walkable community here in the heartland isn’t dead for people like me. I don’t begrudge the well-heeled for wanting to live where I lived. It’s a healthy, interesting an engaging way to do life. But if that life is reserved for the higher levels of the middle class and up, it would certainly feel like a loss.

Bob Doucette

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3 thoughts on “Getting priced out of the walkable life

  1. The cost of living just keeps going up, up, up. Sorry this happened to you. I’m hopeful (optimistic? ignorant?) that this is a bubble of sorts, and rent for studio and 1 bedrooms in walkable neighborhoods will come back down soon.

    • Hard to say. I think what needs to happen is developers finding some incentive (where that comes from, I don’t know) to build/manage housing developments that are geared to middle-class incomes. There are options out there, but they get snapped up quick. Other than that, at least in this town, you’re going to need a decent-sized income to afford downtown housing. I know it’s much worse in hotter markets like Denver, or in various cities on the West Coast.

  2. Pingback: Six things I learned about being a bike commuter | proactiveoutside

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