Hidden Gems: 19 Cities Where You Can Find Great Jobs and Affordable Homes

Katy Byrom's Photo
By Katy Byrom Updated March 29, 2023


People love to rank cities. The most livable, the fastest-growing, and even the top places for food trucks.

But as affordability becomes an increasing concern for first-time home buyers, how about the places that best combine good-paying jobs with affordable homes?

While not an easy combination to find these days, we combed through a list of more than 400 U.S. cities to pick out the hidden gems.

Here are the best-performing cities where you can still afford to buy a house.

👉 JUMP: Large city rankings | Small city rankings

About the city rankings

Earlier this year, the Milken Institute published its perennial list of Best-Performing Cities in the U.S. The rankings look at economic "performance" indicators like job growth, wage growth, and high-tech job concentration, as well as "opportunity" indicators like broadband access and housing affordability.

Well-known tech hubs like Austin, San Jose, and Seattle predictably rank within the top tier for economic performance. However, their out-of-this-world housing costs put homeownership out of reach for the average earner. So, we scoured the rankings for lesser-known cities offering a rare combination of economic vitality and affordability.

Among the 400 cities included in the report, we found seven large cities and 12 small cities that scored within the top 50 for overall economic performance, while also ranking in the top 100 for housing affordability within their size category.

In addition to the data provided by the Milken Institute, which shows wage growth and housing affordability rankings ending in 2020, we turned to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics(BLS) to find the most recent year's wage information. We also pulled from Zillow's Home Value Index to display the current typical home price for each area, as of August 2022.

Finally, we pored over dozens of resources and data points to find out what makes these 19 cities great places to live and work.

Large Cities

1. Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers, AR-MO

Fayetteville, AK

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 8 (+7 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 9
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 18
  • Housing affordability ranking: 94
  • Average weekly wages: $997
  • Typical home price: $312,863

Our top city is Fayetteville, which best combines economic vitality, good jobs and housing affordability. The Milken study ranked seven cities ahead of it, but they didn't make our list due to their home prices. Known as the birthplace of Walmart, this quiet city has experienced a tremendous transformation over the past several years — and that growth is expected to continue through the next several decades.

Fayetteville's rising prestige is owed in part to strong performances across wage, job, and tech growth. However, the home of the University of Arkansas also has great amenities — including a lively arts, festival, and food scene. Nestled in the Ozarks, Fayetteville is a natural fit for outdoor enthusiasts who can take advantage of an abundance of state parks, green spaces, and walking trails. With a little something for everyone, Fayetteville currently ranks 7th among U.S. News' Best Place to Live.

2. Huntsville, AL

Huntsville, AL

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 12 (-2 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 21
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 28
  • Housing affordability ranking: 56
  • Average weekly wages: $1,413
  • Typical home price: $308,218

After leaping 49 spots on the Milken list to achieve a top-tier ranking in 2021, Huntsville, AL, dropped two spots to settle into 12th place in 2022. The drop in ranking was partly driven by poor job growth during the second year of the pandemic. However, the city still ranks near the top for 5-year job and wage growth, making it one of the 20 fastest-growing cities in the U.S.

With those factors in mind, we put Huntsville second on our list of hidden gems.

With 40% of the adult population holding a bachelor's degree or higher, Huntsville boasts the highest percentage of college graduates in its state. It's also a well-known aerospace hub. Major employers include the Redstone Arsenal (i.e., "the Pentagon of the South"), Boeing, and Northrop Grumman.

Among top-performing large cities, Huntsville is by far the most affordable for housing, ranking 56 out of 200. The city's typical home price of $308,218 is well below the national median, while weekly wages are fairly on par with the national average of $1,418. The city also has a growing list of amenities, including a great restaurant and craft brewery scene. As of 2022, Huntsville stands in the top spot among U.S. News' Best Places to Live.

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3. McAllen, TX

McAllen, TX

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 18 (+85 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 34
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 82
  • Housing affordability ranking: 18
  • Average weekly wages: $1,117
  • Typical home price: $273,957

Coming in third on our list is fast-growing McAllen, Texas. It made the second-largest leap of any large city on the Milken list, advancing 85 slots from 2021 to 2022. The city — which ranked particularly well for short- and long-term job growth (25th and 34th, respectively) — was bested only by Lubbock, TX, which rose 91 slots in 2022.

While McAllen is known primarily as a border town, the vibrant bicultural city has a lot to offer. Located approximately 70 miles from the Gulf coast along the U.S./Mexico border, the city is popular for both water sports and bird watching. McAllen's shopping scene also draws visitors from both sides of the border to winter there every year. To top off its list of charms, McAllen currently ranks #138 among U.S. News' Best Places to Live.

4. Lincoln, NE

Lincoln, NE

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 26 (+54 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 99
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 83
  • Housing affordability ranking: 52
  • Average weekly wages: $1,117
  • Typical home price: $273,957

Lincoln's strong economy and reasonable home prices put it at No. 4 on our list. In 2022, it climbed 54 positions to nab the 26th spot on Milken Institute's list of best-performing cities. Home to both the University of Nebraska and Nebraska Wesleyan University, this thriving college town ranks 4th among large cities for broadband access. It also boasts high marks for short-term wage growth (up 6% in 2021) and a rising share of high-tech GDP.

Apart from a strong economy, Lincoln's generous park space, cool eateries, and hip art scene offer the city's notably friendly residents a great quality of life. In fact, Livability ranks Lincoln the 54th best place to live in the U.S.

5. Fort Worth-Arlington, TX

Fort Worth, TX

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 40 (-5 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth: 33
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 77
  • Housing affordability ranking: 78
  • Average weekly wages: $1,483
  • Typical home price: $329,047

Fifth on our list is Fort Worth-Arlington, TX, which ranks 40th for overall economic performance but also has a surprisingly affordable cost of living for a city of its size. While an easy distance from the hustle and bustle of nearby Dallas, the typical home in Fort Worth-Arlington costs more than $60,000 less.

And, the Fort Worth-Arlington area has plenty to offer in its own right. The area is home to several universities, including the University of Texas at Arlington and Texas A&M University School of Law. It also houses multiple museums and art galleries, the Texas Rangers, the Dallas Cowboys, and — for the intelligentsia among us — Mensa International.

6. Lubbock, TX

Lubbock, TX

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 45 (+91 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth: 66
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 73
  • Housing affordability ranking: 28
  • Average weekly wages: $1,022
  • Typical home price: $207,472

Lubbock, TX, places 6th on our list of hidden gems. Home to Texas Tech, Lubbock boasts a young, talented workforce that draws plenty of employers to the city. Milken Institute ranked the city #45 on its list of best-performing cities in 2022, a jump of 91 spots from last year's ranking.

In addition to ranking 3rd among all large cities for broadband access, Lubbock has also made strides in short-term job and wage growth (placing 27th and 39th in those categories, respectively). The city's diverse economy holds job opportunities in education, healthcare, manufacturing, agriculture, and trade.

Drawing a growing number of millennials, Lubbock offers an array of affordable homes for first-time buyers. Typical home prices in the city range right around $207,000.

7. Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA

Atlanta, GA skyline

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 47 (-26 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 47
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 59
  • Housing affordability ranking: 91
  • Average weekly wages: $1,436
  • Typical home price: $383,153

Coming in at 7th on our list is the sprawling city of Atlanta. Even after dropping 26 spots in Milken Institute's performance rankings this year, Atlanta remains well within the top 50 for both 5-year job growth and short-term wage growth. Average weekly pay in the city grew an impressive 7% in 2021, and the city also ranks 35th for high-tech job concentration.

While the typical home price in Atlanta is slightly higher than the national median of $356,026, wages are also above the national mean — keeping homes relatively affordable.

Atlanta's stable job market has attracted a growing number of millennials, which now make up 25% of the city's population. The city is perennially on the list of the country's fastest-growing metros. Ranked the 95th best place to live in the U.S., Atlanta also has a world-class food scene, great hiking and biking along the beltline, attractions like a world-famous aquarium and Botanical Gardens, and plenty of destinations for shopping, arts, culture, and entertainment.

Top small cities

1. Champaign-Urbana, IL

Champaign-Urbana, IL

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 9 (+97 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 60
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 77
  • Housing affordability ranking: 27
  • Average weekly wages: $1,110
  • Typical home price $185,891

With a typical home price of just $185,891, Champaign-Urbana is by far the most affordable for housing to make into the Milken Institute's top 10. After climbing a staggering 97 spots in 2022, the city finds itself joining the ranks of much pricier locales like Logan, UT, Coeur d'Alene, ID, and Bend, OR. That places it in our top spot among small cities for affordable hidden gems.

Home to one of the largest public research universities in the nation, Champaign-Urbana has strong ties to the tech industry. The university, which serves as the area's largest employer, is also home to 60 active startups.

While typical weekly wages in Champaign-Urbana fall short of the national average, the city's affordable housing market makes buying a home there attainable. As an added perk to the city's strong economy, Livability placed Champaign-Urbana among the 100 Best Places to Live in America in both 2020 and 2021.

2. Bloomington, IN

Bloomington, IN

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 18 (+20 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 73
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 21
  • Housing affordability ranking: 63
  • Average weekly wages: $1,029
  • Typical home price: $282,523

Home to the well-regarded Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, climbed 20 spots in 2022 to rank 18th overall among the Milken Institute's list of best-performing small cities.

Bloomington ranks particularly well in high-tech concentration (4th among small cities) and annual wage growth (up 7.7% in 2021). With more than 30% of the 85,000-person population having a master's degree or higher, the city's highly educated workforce finds ample employment in education and health care.

However, life in Bloomington also includes a healthy amount of leisure and play. With a charming urban/suburban feel — and plenty of lakes, forests, and parks surrounding the city center — Bloomington ranks 92nd on Livability's top 100 best places to live in 2022.

3. Amarillo, TX

Amarillo, TX

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 24 (+87 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 77
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 65
  • Housing affordability ranking: 88
  • Average weekly wages: $1,140
  • Typical home price: $202,075

Located along the Texas panhandle, Amarillo, TX, is a stone's throw from the popular Palo Duro Canyon State Park, aptly nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of Texas." If you're looking for a job here, you're likely to find one. The city's 3.1% unemployment rate is well below the 3.7% national average.

While Amarillo ranks 24th overall on Milken Institute's list of best-performing small cities, it ranks particularly well for affordability. The typical home price is just over $200,000. For the sake of comparison, Missoula, MT, the next highest-performing small city on Milken Institute's list, has a typical home price of $592,180. Wages in Amarillo are also growing at a faster-than-average annual rate of 7.1%, as of Q4 2021. The average earner takes home $1,140 a week.

While the vibe in Amarillo is definitely up-and-coming, for now, the city's relative lack of amenities and higher-than-average crime rate keep it off most lists of best places to live.

4. Jonesboro, AR

Jonesboro, AR

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 26 (-12 since 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 12
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 14
  • Housing affordability ranking: 87
  • Average weekly wages: $977
  • Typical home price: $183,121

Located about 70 miles northwest of Memphis, TN, Jonesboro, AR, is a lively college town anchored by Arkansas State University. A quickly growing economy coupled with stable home prices place it 4th on our list of smaller-sized hidden gems.

While average wages in Jonesboro grew at a rate of 7% in 2021, home prices have remained well below the national median. The typical home in Jonesboro costs just $183,121.

Placing near the bottom for high-tech jobs on Milken Institute's list, Jonesboro still ranks an impressive 12th among small cities for 5-year job growth and 14th for 5-year wage growth. ASU serves as the city's 2nd largest employer, and many residents also find employment in healthcare and education.

Outside of work, Jonesboro locals can enjoy a football game at ASU's Centennial Bank Stadium or explore more than 650 acres of gorgeous scenery along the hiking/biking trails at Craighead Forest Park. Residents also have easy access to Memphis's food and culture scene, including famed tourist attractions like the National Civil Rights Museum and Graceland.

5. Rapid City, SD

Rapid City, SD

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 28 (+82 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 69
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 34
  • Housing affordability ranking: 97
  • Average weekly wages: $1,043
  • Typical home price: $202,075

Situated between Badlands National Park and Black Hills National Forest, Rapid City, SD, has both amazing outdoor amenities and a healthy job market. Ranking 5th on our list for affordability, the city rose 82 slots in the Milken Institute's economic performance rankings in 2022. Among small cities, the scenic locale placed 34th for 5-year wage growth and 69th for 5-year job growth.

With a population of 76,500, Rapid City has more than 5,000 residents employed by its excellent healthcare system. Rapid City also has a strong military presence, with Ellsworth Airforce Base and the National Guard ranking among its top employers.

While the Milken Institute puts Rapid City in the 97th slot for housing affordability, the typical home price of $202,097 is still well below the national median. Average wages for Rapid City residents currently sit at $1,0423 per week, after rising 5.9% in 2021 — higher than the national median of 4.5%.

6. Valdosta, GA

Valdosta, GA

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 29 (+24 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 72
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 45
  • Housing affordability ranking: 99
  • Average weekly wages: $887
  • Typical home price: $181,786

Sixth on our list of the most affordable, top-performing cities is Valdosta, GA. Rising 24 spots in the Milken Institute's rankings since 2021, Valdosta currently ranks 45th for long-term wage growth and 72nd for long-term job growth.

Known as Azalea City for the colorful blooms that thrive there during the spring, Valdosta is home to the picturesque Valdosta State University. The quiet college town also houses Moody's Air Force Base, which is by far its largest employer. The base and university combined employ about a fifth of the city's 56,000 residents.

While not known for its culture or nightlife, Valdosta does have its fair share of restaurants, coffee shops, and historic charm. Many residents say Valdosta's quiet vibe and low cost of living make it a good place to raise a family. While wages are lower than other cities on our list, the average home there costs just $181,786.

7. Kankakee, IL

Kankakee River

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 34 (+2 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 86
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 97
  • Housing affordability ranking: 37
  • Average weekly wages: $1,033
  • Typical home price: $190,597

Located about 60 miles south of Chicago, is Kankakee, IL, which ranks 7th on our list for affordability and 34th among small cities for economic performance. The small city earned particularly high marks from the Milken Institute for its growing tech sector, placing in the top 20 for high-tech job concentration, as well as short- and long-term high-tech GDP growth.

While overall job and wage growth haven't quite kept pace with other cities on this list, Kankakee's low home prices keep it affordable. A typical home in the area costs $190,597, and its suburbs — including Bradley, Bourbonnais, and Manteno — are known as great areas to raise a family.

Top industries in Kankakee include healthcare, education, and manufacturing. The city also has a robust number of manufacturing jobs. And when you're ready to leave work behind and have some fun, you're less than an hour's drive from the big-city amenities on offer in Chicago.

8. Ames, IA

Ames, IA autumn scenery

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 38 (+71 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 118
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 63
  • Housing affordability ranking: 54
  • Average weekly wages: $1,196
  • Typical home price: $236,343

Coming in at 8th on our list, Ames, IA is the quintessential college town. Iowa State University is both the city's largest employer and a center of community activity, drawing residents to stroll along the scenic campus and cheer on its celebrated football team. Not surprisingly, Livability ranks Ames as the 2nd best college town in the U.S.

With the typical home in Ames costing $236,343, and average weekly wages sitting at just under $1,200, Ames ranks 54th for housing affordability and 34th for economic performance overall. The town's friendly feel and quaint historic district — boasting great food and live music — puts it among the nation's best places.

9. Greenville, NC

Greenville, NC

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 40 (+14 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 63
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 81
  • Housing affordability ranking: 98
  • Average weekly wages: $1,106
  • Typical home price: $307,550

Greenville, NC, is yet another college town rounding out our list. The Milken Institute places Greenville's economic performance at 40th among small cities. With major employers including Vidant Medical Center, East Carolina University, Thermo-Fisher Scientific, and DSM Pharmaceuticals, the city also ranks in the top 20 for both high-tech job concentration and high-tech GDP.

With a price tag of $307,550, the typical home in Greenville is slightly more expensive than in other small cities on our list. However, the local schools also tend to be above average. And while Greenville hasn't yet made it to the ranks of the country's best places to live, it still has plenty to offer. Locals frequently shout out Greenville's walking trails, local restaurants, and live college sports as highlights of living there.

10. Elkhart-Goshen, IN

Elkhart County courthouse

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 41 (+88 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 55
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 37
  • Housing affordability ranking: 44
  • Average weekly wages: $1,319
  • Typical home price: $236,538

Situated along the Michigan border, Elkhart-Goshen, IN, is a small city experiencing massive job growth. In terms of job creation, only eight other small cities outperformed Elkhart-Goshen in 2021. Bolstered by equally strong wage growth (weekly wages increased 8.2% between 2020 and 2021), this town of 52,000 rose 88 spots on Milken Institute's list of best-performing small cities in 2022.

Many jobs in Elkhart-Goshen revolve around manufacturing, agriculture, and biomedical technology. Its business-friendly climate has made it the home base of three of the top five RV manufacturers in the nation.

With the typical home price sitting at $236,536, the city ranks 44th in terms of housing affordability. Better yet, its overall cost of living is nearly 20% below the national average, with future job growth projected at 53.70%, compared to 22.51% for the country overall.

11. Jefferson City, MO

Jefferson City, MO riverfront

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 47 (+20 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 61
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 84
  • Housing affordability ranking: 40
  • Average weekly wages: $976
  • Typical home price: $218,917

Coming in at 11th on our list is Jefferson City, MO. Ranked 40th among small cities for housing affordability, the typical home in Jefferson city costs $218,917. The state capital of Missouri, "Jeff City" boasts an unemployment rate of just 3.3%. Many of the city's jobs are within the state government, which serves as the area's largest employer. While job growth has slowed somewhat over the past 12 months, the city ranked among the top 20 for job growth in the year leading up to the pandemic. Top industries in Jefferson City include government, education, and healthcare.

Residents of Jefferson City praise the town's schools, restaurants, walking trails, and historic downtown. The city also gives off a friendly vibe, with several community events and festivals held throughout the year.

12. Rochester, MN

aerial view of Rochester, MN riverfront

  • Best-performing cities ranking: 50 (+6 from 2021)
  • 5-year job growth ranking: 52
  • 5-year wage growth ranking: 59
  • Housing affordability ranking: 11
  • Average weekly wages: $1,400
  • Typical home price: $306,526

Number 12 on our list of affordable high-performing cities is Rochester, MN. For a city of just over 117,000, it has a surprisingly high concentration of high-tech jobs, ranking 24th in this category out of 200 small cities on Milken Institute's list.

Major employers in Rochester include the Mayo Clinic, Rochester Public Schools, and IBM. With employers across a variety of industries providing a steady stream of decent jobs, Rochester ranks well for both long-term job and wage growth.

It's also a great place to live! The scenic midwestern city has inviting outdoor spaces, as well as a thriving foodie scene complete with restaurants, breweries, farmer's markets, and wineries. Residents can drink in the city's culture at multiple theaters, museums, and art galleries or attend a full calendar of concerts and sporting events held at the Mayo Civic Center each year. With all that Rochester has going for it, Livability ranked this hidden gem the 3rd best place to live in U.S.

Which cities didn't make the list?

While our list focuses on affordability, the Milken Institute gauges a wider range of factors — including broadband access and the number of high-tech industries in the region — to produce its annual rankings. Notable cities that ranked at the top economically but didn't make it onto our list due to affordability include the following.

Large Cities Small Cities
1. Provo-Orem, UT
2. Austin-Round Rock, TX
3. Salt Lake City, UT
4. Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale, AZ
5. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL
6. Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, WA
7. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA
8. Colorado Springs, AR-MO
9. Dallas-Plano-Irving, TX
10. Durham-Chapel Hill, NC
1. Logan, UT
2. St. George, UT
3. Coeur d'Alene, ID
4. Redding, CA
5. Idaho Falls, ID
6. Walla Walla, WA
7. Sioux Falls, SD
8. Gainesville, GA
9. Bend-Redmond, OR
10. Abilene, TX
Show more

You can find a complete list of the Milken Institute's Best-Performing Cities here.

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