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Chicago resident Joe Walsh got married in 2001. Later that year he and his wife packed their belongings and moved 15 miles to the suburb of Niles, Ill., to start a family. The village, noted for having an old water tower that now stands as a half-size replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, has nice parks. "But the biggest thing was that we could afford a house," says Walsh, now the father of children aged six and two.
In the years since Walsh bought his Niles home, lifestyle expectations have changed in the U.S. Data from every state show that fewer young adults have married in comparison to a decade ago, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Fewer families are buying property. Despite these changes, which are driven partly by such problems as unemployment, the link between raising children and owning a home remains strong for most Americans. In a survey conducted by Fannie Mae in August and September, three-fourths of respondents cited children as a prime reason to buy a home. Owning, they said, provides lifestyle advantages.
Even in such difficult times as these, owning a home remains a long-term aspiration for many families. The question has always been: Where?
In Businessweek.com's fifth annual ranking of the best places in America to raise kids, such towns as Niles—with a low cost of living, good schools, and a low crime rate—scored high. Unlike our previous reports which included some large urban areas, the 2011 ranking focuses on small cities, towns, and villages with populations larger than the median for the state but no greater than 50,000.
In keeping with the survey's focus on middle-income communities, we've considered only places where the median family income was within 20 percent of the state median, culling affluent and low-income locales. In the U.S., median family income in 2009 was $61,082, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Using 2010 data from Onboard Informatics, a New York-based real estate data company that specializes in residential demographic and lifestyle information, Bloomberg and Businessweek.com evaluated 5,418 places in the U.S. We emphasized a community's number of schools, school performance, cost of living, and crime statistics. We also accounted for factors such as job growth, air quality, ethnic diversity, and access to the surrounding county's parks, zoos, theaters, and other recreational facilities.
In addition to Niles, other high-scorers in our results include Rowland Heights, Calif., 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles, and North College Hill, Ohio, 10 miles from downtown Cincinnati. Both offer housing affordable to middle-income families, proximity to employment hubs, good public schools, and low crime rates.
In addition to jobs in nearby cities, some of the communities selected also offer local employment opportunities. While many Niles residents commute to Chicago for work, the village of 29,207 has a strong commercial and industrial base, says Katie Schneider, executive director of the Niles Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Area industrial facilities include a Coca-Cola (KO) bottling plant. At 7.8 percent, the unemployment rate in Niles was down in October from 9.6 percent a year earlier, according to the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
Nile hosts several shopping centers such as the Golf Mill Shopping Center, as well as a number of Korean food markets and stores that cater to the village's growing Korean population, says Walsh. Significant revenue from sales taxes helps keep property taxes in Niles low, says George R. Van Geem, village manager since 2005. In his district, the property tax rate is $5.80 for every $100 of assessed value, he says. A district in nearby Mount Prospect carries a rate of $6.596, according to a release from the Cook County Clerk's office.
While low taxes are attractive, schools are the paramount concern for many young families. Rowland High School in California was ranked as one of the country's top high schools, according to the school district's website. Schools in Niles, which belong to several school districts, outperform the Illinois average; in 2007 the fine arts program at Niles Township High School District 219 was recognized by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
Quality of life issues also play a role in persuading families to make a move. Many communities in Businessweek.com's ranking offer services for families. Niles, for example, provides free local bus service from 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and maintains a well-regarded teen center that provides homework assistance and organizes social activities.
Ohio's North College Hill, a city of 9,778, will open a community center in an old school building early next year for intergenerational and family activities, says Mayor Dan Brooks. "It's an older neighborhood that is getting younger" as more families have moved in the last four years, says Brooks, who is developing new city programs for the demographic.
As values evolve, will large numbers of families continue to settle in such places for homes, schools, and public services? The Population Reference Bureau's study shows that from 2000 through 2009, the nation's married share of people aged 25 to 34 plunged to 45 percent, from 55 percent. And while Fannie Mae's survey found that having children has traditionally increased the likelihood that someone will buy a house, the proportion of households with children has been declining just as many families choose to rent because of financial constraints.
For those who still want to raise children in quiet communities, options abound around the country. Click here to see the best places to raise your kids, state-by-state.