Welcome to the third installment of How We Live Now, our interview series documenting the complexities of modern housing through the eyes of folks on the ground. You’ll see stories about people living in unusual spaces; stories about changing neighborhoods and rising rents; and stories that explore what home can look like in the 21st century.
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It’s an all-too-familiar modern dilemma: how to pay rent and save enough for the down payment on a house? After struggling to do just that, former Austinite Marni Jade Evans, a LEED specialist, decided that her solution was to bid Austin’s expensive zip codes farewell and start over in San Antonio, where the cost of living is 20% lower. We visited her new San Antonio digs to talk about post-relocation life, the future of the “American Dream,” and how it feels to move 15 times in seven years.
Tell us a little about who you are and how you ended up in San Antonio.
My name is Marni Evans. I’m turning 41 in two days. My background is in architecture. I did urban infill design in Seattle and about two years in I realized how much energy, materials, and water my designs were creating so I went back to school to learn about sustainable architecture. I ended up working on the first LEED projects in the country and in the world.
So, I’ve been working on sustainability issues, urban design, and housing initiatives since 2000. And this is so near and dear to my heart because when I moved to Austin in 2010—fleeing Seattle for what was, at the time, a $200,000 difference in median home price—I thought I was moving to a less expensive economy. I really thought I was coming to a place where I’d be able to afford something and that there would be some cool housing stock. I had this vision of what Austin housing was like and it was probably closer to what San Antonio is now.
That must have been frustrating—moving somewhere for a lower cost of living only to find yourself faced with the same struggle. What has your housing experience in Austin been like?
In the last seven years—including my move from Seattle to Austin and this move from Austin to San Antonio—I have moved a total of 15 times. I’ve lived in different parts of the city. I’ve lived in different price points. I’ve lived with roommates. I’ve lived by myself. I’ve lived downtown. I’ve lived on a 100-acre property. I have spent so much time and money moving in Austin. It’s insane. And I have to preface all this with the nine years of still and calm where I lived in my idyllic Seattle neighborhood with a walk score of 95, you know, in the same house, totally stable.
Wow! 15 moves in seven years! That’s marathon moving. Are you hoping for more stability in San Antonio? You mentioned buying a house.
When I moved out of my place [in Austin] I said: “I’m tired of paying other people’s mortgages. I’m never doing it again.” Because the reality is, I make good money. I could rent anywhere I want in Austin. I lived downtown. But I can’t rent and save enough to get the down payment, which you’ve heard a million times.
My divorce left me bankrupt in 2010 and I moved to a new city and started my own company with very few contacts. So that’s where this income instability comes from. For me to get a mortgage is a little more challenging. I’ve been to a lender and everything, but I still don’t have enough for a down payment.
Would you say that moving here was a conscious economic decision for you?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. Basically getting out of the pattern of being a renter.
I know from friends that one of the places I rented on West 7th [in Austin] went from $1500 to $2000. I left there in 2013. So that’s a $500 increase in three years. God, we need some rent control. Prices have gone up. It’s super competitive to find something. People are being outbid, especially on rentals where people are negotiating their leases and the highest bidder wins. That’s messed up.
I found a cost of living comparison tool online and as of today, it was 20% less to live, dine, and buy groceries in San Antonio than it was in Austin. For everything.
So you ended up renting this house, even though you were hoping not to rent anymore.
Yeah, I was lamenting about my situation to a couple of my girlfriends and Celia, who is an architect in San Antonio, told me about this place. She was like, “Yeah I have this house, it’s over 100 years old, I pulled out the popcorn ceiling and it’s got this beautiful, warm, worn look and it’s available right now.” And I was just like: done. Shook her hand on the spot and that was that. I rented it sight unseen.
So, I said, okay, I make an exception to this idea of not paying anyone else’s mortgage. I would love to pay Celia’s mortgage because I love Celia and she’s so cool and she does have a good sense of design and she does want to do right. In this case I am okay doing it. But I still…I still don’t have that down payment I need! Dang it.
But that’s how I came to be here. And all expenses paid I’m at $1000. That includes my utilities, my internet. $1000.
Does that number allow you to start saving?
Mhmm. I can save pretty rapidly. It’s great because I can finally see the light.
I think so many people are in some variation of your position. I’m in your position! I make enough to pay my bills and have a little bit left over. I’m not in the red, but I have no money for savings. I’m almost 30 and I can’t even think about buying a home right now or anytime soon. Those traditional adult rites of passage are delayed indefinitely.
They don’t exist anymore. Or not in the way they once did. I think in this lifetime the whole system will transform, because it’s something like 75% of the population will live in cities by 2050. That’s going to change absolutely everything.
Do you see yourself putting down roots here in San Antonio?
I would say that my PO box is in Austin and my heart is in downtown Austin, but I could definitely see myself putting down roots here. When I first moved to Austin I knew six people and moving to San Antonio I know six people. There’s something about that number for me.
I found it harder to put down roots in Austin because everywhere I went, no one was from Austin. And again, I moved a lot of times, but historically in Seattle I was in every neighborhood association, I was on the garden committee, the green home tour committee and the farmer’s market. We helped build a farmers market. We did tree plantings.
Big time community.
BIG TIME! And that was just in my local neighborhood. And I’ve been reflecting on that too. Because when you have a stable home and a stable income it’s like the Maslow’s hierarchy. It frees you up to be in your community. I’m telling you.
See what Marni is up to over at her website!