Photo Illustration by Elena Scotti/Fusion

San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C.: college grads dream of moving to these iconic American cities. They’ve got jobs, bars, public transportation….  but they also cost a fortune to live in.

What if you could get paid to live in a less popular city with some of the same amenities?

Over the last few years, youth-starved cities in the Rust Belt and Great Plains have begun to offer incentives, from student loan reimbursement to rent assistance, to attract millennials and their tax dollars.

But do your homework before booking a U-Haul.

Joe Cortright, an economist who has looked extensively at city demographics, told Fusion, "As my colleague Carol Coletta says, 'You have to deliver an appealing reality.'"


In other words, a rebranding campaign isn't going to cut it. Across the board, cities need some "constants" - things like density, shopping, culture, diversity, walkability, good transit - he said, and then, individually, they need to play up what makes them unique.

There "has to be an alignment between who you're trying to attract and what you're offering as a community," he added. Young people have proven their willingness to be mobile. If they realize a city made false promises, "you're not going to hang on to them."

Still, if you’re looking for an alternative to splitting a $2,500-a-month studio with two nomads you found on Craigslist, have a look at the list below. Not only are these cities affordable — they’re offering to pay young people to move there and keep their economies and culture growing.


1. Niagara Falls, New York

Perfect for: Freelancers, telecommuters, hopeless romantics

Once a honeymoon destination for young lovers, the city is struggling to attract young people as job opportunities upstate have dried up. To attract recent college graduates, the city has offered to repay student loans and help people secure cheap housing downtown. The program doesn't require participants to work in the city, so it's a perfect option for people who can work remotely.


2. Detroit, Michigan

Perfect for: Childless urban adventure-seekers willing to work for The Man

A handful of companies in Motor City, including Blue Cross Blue Shield and Quicken Loans, launched a "Live Downtown" program in 2011 aimed at encouraging employees to live in the city center — funny for an area famous for producing cars to ferry people to suburbs. The program gives first-time home buyers a $20,000 loan that's forgiven as long as certain requirements like continued residence and employment with participating companies are maintained. There are incentives for renters, too. The school system is one of the worst in the nation, though, so this is definitely a move for people without kids.


3. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Perfect for: Quakers, UPenn Quakers, that is.

The city is home to some of the best colleges in the country, but that doesn't do Philly much good if people split as soon as they collect their diplomas. Campus Philly is a program that basically aims to "hook" people while they're students so that they'll look for jobs and housing in the city after graduation. While the organization doesn't cough up cash the way Niagara Falls does, Campus Philly does connect students and graduates with paid internships and jobs, as well as other young people.


4. Baltimore, Maryland

Perfect for: First-time homebuyers with modest incomes

Baltimore and a number of other cities, including Youngstown, Ohio, offer forgivable loans to new homebuyers willing to move into transitioning neighborhoods. Baltimore offers a five-year forgivable loan, meaning your balance is forgiven by 20 percent each year. Baltimore's housing market has heated up over the past couple of years, with people now paying full asking price for the condos and townhomes that dot the city center. While prices are up, so are amenities like bars and restaurants for young people.


5. Kansas

Perfect for: Children of the corn. Seriously, you better love wide-open spaces.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, young people are actually flocking to Kansas City's newly revitalized downtown, leaving rural parts of the state hurting for young people. Enter the Rural Opportunity Zones. Like Niagara Falls, Kansas will reimburse recent graduates' student loan payments if they're willing to live in certain parts of the state. They'll also waive income tax for five years. If you can telecommute or work remotely (really remotely), this might be a good opportunity. Otherwise, finding a job is a bit of a challenge.


Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.