high on the hog: how lower cost of living equals better quality of life

It's not a great leap to posit that a person earning $100,000 a year in New York City likely would be able to stretch those dollars further if they were drawing the same salary in Cleveland.
The real test, then, is the quality-of-life boost one gains from that cost-of-living savings. Recent transplants to Cleveland arriving from so-called "big-ticket" metropolitan markets say that depending on the metric (for example, housing, transportation, entertainment, food) they are experiencing appreciable cost savings. More importantly, while Cleveland doesn't have the density of goods and services of a New York, Chicago or San Francisco, the city measures up nicely in terms of "bang for the buck."
John Owens, 40, moved this summer to Cleveland after living and working for eight years in Manhattan. Owens came to Cleveland for a senior executive position with KeyBank, and now rents an apartment at Uptown in University Circle.
At $2,100 a month, Owen's high-end, modern apartment is one of the most expensive rentals in Cleveland. And why not? It is decked out and just steps from the city's finest cultural institutions. Still, compared to the $3,500 per month that he was shelling out for an older townhouse apartment in midtown Manhattan, the place is a steal.
"Something like Uptown would go for $7,000 to $8,000 a month in Manhattan, and would probably sell for $2 million," says Owens.
(In raw numbers, cost of housing is the stand-out difference between Cleveland and larger markets. According to the cost-of-living calculator on the CNN website, housing costs 78 percent less in Cleveland than it does in Manhattan, 68 percent less as compared to San Francisco, and 32 percent less as compared to Chicago.)
Hitting the town in Cleveland also nets big savings despite no apparent lack in quality, notes Owens. During his six months in town, the Nashville native has visited such local arts and culture landmarks as Severance Hall, PlayhouseSquare and The Cleveland Museum of Art. Total expenditures are a fraction of what Owens used to pay in Manhattan -- and the Cleveland Orchestra isn't exactly a B-List band.
"I can see the symphony in a stunning building for $25," explains Owens. "That would get me nosebleed seats behind a concrete pillar" in New York City.
The Northeast Ohio housing market has been a boon for Julie A. McAlindon and her family. McAlindon, vice president of marketing for PolyOne Corporation, lives in Greater Cleveland with husband Mike and 9-year-old daughter Bronwyn. She relocated to town in 2010 from suburban Philadelphia, where a typical 2,500-square-foot home would cost anywhere between $600,000 and $800,000. The McAlindons paid about half that amount here, while also enjoying significantly lower property taxes.
"Any kind of living arrangement you enjoy -- city, country, waterfront -- you can find within your target budget here," says the Toronto-born McAlindon. "Cleveland is really accessible from that perspective."
Saving on housing results in more disposable income to enjoy meals out on the town, another sector where Cleveland shines in both quantity and quality. While McAlindon hasn't noticed a big difference in the cost of dining out at high-end establishments like Fahrenheit or Crop, she does point out that getting to and from them is a whole lot easier than on the East Coast.
Meanwhile, "extracurricular activities" for McAlindon's daughter are noticeably less expensive, as well. With hobbies like piano lessons and other cultural experiences costing as much as 20 to 25 percent less, the family can enjoy more of the city's eclectic opportunities.
"We can give our daughter different experiences because they're affordable and easy to get to," McAlindon says.
Nick Fedor is not new to Cleveland; he's a classic "boomerang" professional who left home only to return to raise a family. Along the way, Fedor lived in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston -- all pricey haunts to work and play.
Now living in his native Cleveland Heights and expecting his first child with wife Barbara, Fedor says he's thrilled to rent a home in the bustling Cedar-Lee District as opposed to a shoebox condo in the South End neighborhood of Boston.
"We're paying half of what we did" for housing, says Fedor, 32, who currently works as economic development director at Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization.
One area in which Fedor's new-old city comes up short is transportation, he notes. Returning to Cleveland has necessitated the purchase of a second car. In Boston, Fedor walked to work, while his wife took public transportation. Even so, Fedor is within easy walking distance to Cedar-Lee's restaurants, art galleries, retail and movie theater.
"Cleveland has the urban neighborhoods that people value in New York and Chicago; it's just on a smaller scale," he says. "There are a lot of hidden gems here getting more attention and investment."
Global Cleveland is an organization focused on economic development through connecting newcomers to the economic and social advantages of Greater Cleveland. Incoming president Joy Roller is a former television producer who's lived on both coasts as well as high-priced points in between. Roller's last stop before Cleveland was the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where "it costs just to breathe," she quips.
Cost-of-living is a major selling point for Cleveland, Roller says. When people learn that a $38,000 salary in Cleveland is equivalent to a $50,000 salary in Los Angeles, that is something that can turn heads toward the North Coast.
"The goal is to communicate to the world that Cleveland is more than a city sitting in the former Rust Belt," says Roller. "It's a place where arts, culture, creativity and innovation flourish at affordable prices."
Roller knows how much fun the bright lights of a big city can be as she's basked in their glow for much of her career. However, paying $4,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in which the bathtub is in the kitchen can quickly dim those bright lights.
"It's great visiting these cities, but people often don't know what they're getting into until they move there," Roller says. "People move to places primarily through word-of-mouth. We have to be the connectors to say, 'This is what you can get by living in Cleveland.'"

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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