To some, Huntsville, Alabama may seem an unlikely metro area to beat 149 others in the US News Best Places to Live ranking. With a population of less than 500,000, it’s smaller than a significant portion of the places on the list and it’s off the beaten path when it comes to vacation destinations or typical places that people consider when moving to a new part of the country.

But this northern Alabama metro area offers the affordability and quality of life people seem to crave after years of a pandemic that has forced them to stay home, opened up opportunities to work from home permanently and urged many people to consider their top priorities in a place to live.

Huntsville ranks first among metropolitan areas in the ranking of the best places to live in the United States in 2022-23, dethroning Boulder, Colorado, after two years at the top. The ranking of the best places to live is determined by considering housing affordability, labor market, net migration, attractiveness and quality of life, which includes crime rate, preparedness for university of high school students, general well-being of residents, average commute time, access to quality health care and air quality. With particularly high scores for housing affordability and quality of life, Huntsville took the top spot.

Whether you’re a resident of Huntsville, thinking of moving to the area, or wondering if you should include Huntsville on your list of potential hometowns, we break down what makes Huntsville the best place to live in 2022-23 , why it beats other places, and the downsides you might have to compromise on.

Paying Huntsville is easy

In a national housing market where home prices are rising rapidly and buyers are often outbid when competing to buy a home, it helps to start at a lower price threshold – and that’s what you find in the Huntsville Market.

Residents of the Huntsville metropolitan area spend 20.12% of the area’s median annual household income on housing costs, including mortgage payments, rent, property taxes and utilities. This makes it the third most affordable place to live among the 150 metropolitan areas in the Best Places to Live ranking.

Homes can be had for less than other parts of the country — especially compared to metro areas on either coast — but that doesn’t mean home values ​​are stagnating in Huntsville. Redfin reports that the median home price in the city of Huntsville in April 2022 was $326,000, which is 14.2% higher than the previous year.

You can expect multiple offers on a home and fierce competition among buyers, says Matt Curtis, a real estate broker whose business, Matt Curtis Real Estate, is based in the Huntsville area. But as fast as housing can be built, Huntsville is moving as fast as it can to meet the growing demand for housing.

While supply chain issues have slowed some construction, “there are as many apartment complexes under construction as there have been in the past two decades,” Curtis says.

Wendy Payne, a travel agent who is founding her agency, Travel With Wendy, in the Huntsville area, says much of the new construction is aimed at residents looking for more walking. “Over the last year or so, they’ve really exploded with apartment and condo complexes, making them accessible and affordable in downtown and near jobs — or even for people who work from home,” explains Payne.

A metropolitan area ruled by aerospace

Major employers in the area tend to pay higher wages, which helps make Huntsville more affordable for many people who live there. Among the 150 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States, Huntsville ranks seventh for its labor market; this ranking takes into account the average annual salary of the metropolitan area as well as the unemployment rate.

For those in the aerospace industry, Huntsville is recognizable for its connection to NASA. The Marshall Space Flight Center is located in Huntsville on the grounds of the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal, and the area has been an important location for NASA since the height of the space race.

The military base guarantees resident rotation, bringing new people to the Huntsville area every few years before sending them to a new post. Curtis says that while many people are moving to the area for professional relocation, he is also seeing people who were previously posted to Huntsville deciding to return after retiring from the military.

Another factor that could bring defense, aerospace and technology jobs to the Huntsville area is the January 2021 announcement that US Space Command would move to Redstone Arsenal, although that decision remains pending. scrutiny by members of Congress. Space Command’s current location is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which incidentally is ranked #2 on the 2022-23 list of best places to live.

In the private sector, Facebook has a data center in Huntsville and announced plans in 2021 to expand the campus. Google is building a data center in Jackson County, Madison County’s neighbor to Huntsville.

Payne says that in previous years she felt bad for young people who moved to Huntsville for work because there didn’t seem to be much to interest them in their free time. But now, as more tech jobs attract more young professionals to the area, she sees local businesses, from microbreweries to fast food and eclectic options, catering to the younger crowd as well. than families in the region.

Air quality comes into play

For the 2022-23 ranking, US News incorporated data from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index for each of the 150 metropolitan areas on the list, measuring air pollution. air and the health problems posed by this pollution. The AQI is measured on a scale of 0 to 500 – the higher the number, the more pollutants there are in the air.

Huntsville ranks 16th on the 150 metropolitan areas in the list of best places to live for air quality, with an average AQI of just 39.8, which means that on average, air pollution does not presents little or no risk to anyone in the area.

There are plenty of opportunities to get outside and enjoy the clean air. The Land Trust of North Alabama maintains eight public nature preserves and more than 70 miles of free public trails, according to its website.

“Huntsville is a great place for outdoor enthusiasts. There’s no shortage of greenways, hiking trails, scenic views, waterfalls, and opportunities to kayak, paddleboard, or fish,” Zenovia wrote. Stephens, founder and CEO of nonprofit Black Kids Adventures Inc., in an email. Stephens lives in Huntsville with his family and frequently takes advantage of the outdoor options the northern Alabama region has to offer. She started Black Kids Adventures with her family when they noticed few black families were taking advantage of the outdoor recreation opportunities in the area and wanted to see that change.

Do people yearn for Huntsville?

Despite all that Huntsville has to offer, there doesn’t seem to be a widespread desire to live in Rocket City among the general public. US News conducts a SurveyMonkey survey each year to determine the desirability of metropolitan areas included in the Best Places to Live rankings. With approximately 3,500 responses from US residents who were asked where they would prefer to live, given the choice, Huntsville ranked No. 81 – ahead of many other places on the list, but in the bottom half.

Huntsville might be a well-known place in the aerospace industry – or if you’ve ever dreamed of going to Space Camp – but it can be overlooked by those unfamiliar with it. In the 2021 US News ranking of the best states, Alabama ranked No. 46 out of 50, placing the state in the bottom half of the rankings for categories such as health care, education, economy , infrastructure, opportunities, natural environment and crime and corrections.

While the rest of the state’s economy and job prospects don’t seem to be booming, those in Huntsville are growing rapidly. Jacque Proctor Reeves, a history and true-crime writer who lives in Huntsville, says this isn’t new to the North Alabama metro area.

“Huntsville has a knack for reinventing itself,” says Reeves, pointing out that Huntsville has always been able to transform itself quite easily to meet modern demands, repeatedly embracing new industries, from factories to military factories to construction. aerospace. Federal investment in Huntsville and national attention to the city during the Space Race also contributed to the desegregation of the city in 1962—the first city in Alabama to do so—which was nonviolent.

Reeves says when she speaks with people from outside the United States who visit Huntsville, the concept of Southern hospitality comes up, but many are quick to notice that Huntsville looks a little different – ​​a common theme when people talk. of Rocket City.

“Huntsville is kind of a different pocket than the rest of Alabama,” Payne says. This narrative is common when talking about Rocket City in relation to the rest of the state in which it is located. Payne attributes it to the international influence that has existed since NASA brought new residents from around the world to Huntsville beginning in the mid-20th century.

Stephens echoes the sentiment: “Huntsville is a melting pot, and I don’t think any other city (in Alabama) can compete with that,” she says.

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