The Power of Beer and Cheap Houses

Usually I try to limit my reviews to books, but every once in awhile I’ll find an excellent real estate nugget inside a long-form article that I can’t help but share. That happened this week while reading the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic. In it, one of the magazine’s national correspondents, James Fallows, described what he learned about resilience after spending the last three years visiting small towns and modest cities around the United States in a single-engine plane.

Wil Stewart, 2015 | Unsplash

Wil Stewart, 2015 | Unsplash

In the dark days that lead up to a presidential election—wherein candidates inevitably benefit from pointing out all the ways in which our country is failing—it can be tough to see the path to better times. That’s not the case for Fallows, however. He says that while many ordinary Americans he met were similarly pessimistic about the country at large, they generally felt their particular communities could claim a bright future ahead.

So why, at a moment when Americans are feeling rather low, are small towns and cities thriving? In the course of his 54,000-mile journey, Fallows compiled an impressive list of traits that marked successful places, or at least areas that were on the mend from some pretty difficult circumstances. I encourage you to read the whole piece, as many of the patterns he picked out are both surprising and encouraging. But for our purposes, let’s look at just two of my favorites, shall we?

The first, perhaps unsurprisingly, is real estate. Specifically, homes that are in the affordable range. Here’s what Fallows has to say about the effect that has on a community:

A great, underappreciated advantage of “everywhere else” in America: The real estate is cheap. In New York, San Francisco, in a half dozen other cities, everything about life is slave to hyper-expensive real estate. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota; in Allentown, Pennsylvania; in inland California; across the south, costs are comparatively low. This has an effect—on how much you have to work, on what you think you need, on the risks you can take. Every calculation—the cash flow you must maintain, the life balance you can work toward—is different when a very nice family house costs a few hundred thousand dollars rather than a few million.

…In Fresno, Heather Parish, the publicity director of a successful arts festival called the Rogue, said that cheap real estate would be the basis for the city’s artistic future. “Fresno is the bohemia of California,” she told us when we visited. “That’s because you can afford to live here!

Of course, this revelation is nothing new for the real estate industry. But coming from a publication that has established itself as a deep thinker on the future of cities, I take it as a good sign. Perhaps it will give some permission to tone down worries over slow home price appreciation in their individual communities and appreciate the silver lining of affordable homes.

And how about the gold lining I promised in my headline? Yes, the very last—and perhaps most certain, if you read it closely—of Fallows’ “11 signs a city will succeed” is related to beer. And as a homebrewing author myself, I couldn’t let that pass without note:

One final marker, perhaps the most reliable: A city on the way back will have one or more craft breweries, and probably some small distilleries too… A town that has craft breweries also has a certain kind of entrepreneur, and a critical mass of mainly young (except for me) customers. You may think I’m joking, but just try to find an exception.

OK, I can drink to that.

Meg White

Meg White is the managing editor for REALTOR® Magazine and administrator of the magazine's Weekly Book Scan blog. Contact her at mwhite[at]

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