When Bershawn and Cheena Bunch decided to return to the South in 2016 after nearly two decades in the Midwest, they looked for a home where they could find new jobs, affordable rent, and top-rated schools for their three kids.
They settled on Evans, Georgia, just 10 minutes northwest of Augusta. While the Bunches weren’t sure what to expect, almost immediately Cheena landed a position at a payment processing company. A year later they owned a five-bedroom house in a neighborhood with a community pool, basketball and tennis courts.
“I don’t think it could possibly have worked out any better,” says Bershawn, who became a realtor in 2018.
He loves the safe and friendly atmosphere, with the kids’ schools less than five miles away, and weekend family bike rides in the sprawling park at the center of town.
The Bunches’ experience isn’t unusual, according to others in Evans. A city of 36,000 perched on the Savannah River (which also forms Georgia’s border with South Carolina), Evans has been fast attracting new arrivals with plenty of good-paying jobs in healthcare, administration and the military nearby. But it’s the town’s particularly diverse and welcoming atmosphere amid its traditional suburban Southern charm that persuades so many new families to make it home.
The city’s 17-acre Evans Towne Center Park, where the Bunches like to ride their bikes, boasts a playground and splash pad, a large dog park, and a bandshell. The stage regularly welcomes the Augusta Symphony and has featured artists like Zac Brown Band and Hootie and the Blowfish. Two blocks away, behind the Columbia County Library, there’s a second park with a playground and a 1,000-person amphitheatre.
On a typical Saturday morning, Sheila’s Baking Co. serves up handcrafted donuts and coffee from a food truck that parks nearby: Her Facebook page details where and when. Just a few miles east is an eight-mile hiking and jogging trail along the historic 1845 Augusta Canal, and kayaking and fishing in the lush, slowly-winding Savannah River.
“It’s quiet. It’s beautiful,” says Cheena Bunch of Evan’s relaxing vibe. “We’ve had family come to visit, and everyone wants to move here.”
Why Evans wins
Each year, Money examines thousands of U.S. cities and analyzes hundreds of data points for each one — from sunny days to doctors per capita — in order to create our list of the best places to live. (You can see our full methodology here). Our main emphasis, however, is always on what it costs to live there. Of all the U.S. towns and cities we looked at this year, Evans had the lowest cost of living of any place with similarly high income levels. Those generous salaries are due in part to proximity to Augusta — a city locals often refer interchangeably with Evans — which is brimming with good jobs.
Augusta has 11 hospitals and the only public medical school in Georgia, which is why one in every 90 residents in the area is a doctor. But the biggest employer in the area is the U.S. Army’s Fort Gordon, which employs about 30,000 and growing: The U.S. Army Cyber Command relocated here from Washington D.C. earlier this year.
The upshot is that, in the past five years, Evans enjoyed a 17% increase in its employed population, according to Moody’s Analytics. And that number is expected to jump another 9% in the next five years. Despite the pandemic, unemployment in the area was just 5.2% in June, which was below the 7.6% average for Georgia and less than half the national average of 11.1%.
Evans also scored extremely high on Money’s diversity scale — another advantage local residents attribute in part to the strong military presence. Of the nearly 2,000 places Money assessed, Evans ranked second overall in this regard. Our diversity score doesn’t just look at demographics, but is also designed to measure segregation, by looking at race and income data block-by-block.
Evans’ strong marks weren’t just on paper. When George Floyd’s death led to nationwide protests this past summer, Demetric Hillman — a longtime resident and an active member of Evans High School’s parent-teacher-student association — didn’t know what to expect. But the county held a protest in the park, and she was pleasantly surprised by local leaders’ willingness to listen and further the conversation.
“I just saw a level of community involvement I’ve never seen before,” says Hillman, who’s Black and a mother of two. “Those are the things that draw more diversity and great families [who] just want that place for their kids to grow up.”
Great Schools, Affordable Homes
Family friendliness — especially top schools and affordable homes — is another big draw for Evans residents, who often choose it over the larger Augusta. And it’s a key reason it rises to the top in our rankings.
“I have people who come from out of state, and they do their research, and they’re like ‘find me a house in the Columbia County School District,’” says real estate agent Venus Morris Griffin. “Which is Evans, of course.”
Dorcas Powell, principal of Lakeside High School, herself a transplant from two decades ago, did extensive research on school districts in both Georgia and South Carolina before settling on Evans. But she says, with a 92% high-school graduation rate and testing scores that are consistently well above state average, it was ultimately an easy choice.
With new families arriving all the time, residential construction in Evans is barely keeping up with demand. Historically the local real estate market has had roughly a seven-month supply of homes for sale. Right now, it’s down to just two months’, according to Griffin. “When something comes on the market, it’s gone,” she says.
Still, while demand is pushing up prices, homes remain attainable for most middle-class families with a median price of $241,000 in the first quarter – well below the national median $266,000.
Augusta’s probably most famous for one thing: the Masters Golf Tournament. Many Evans homeowners have found themselves a surprising perk when it comes time every year to anoint someone with the Green Jacket: Renting houses to some of the 250,000 tourists who flock to the area every April, a move that can bring in $10,000 or more in tax-free income.
At home on the river
In addition to shops in nearby Augusta, Evans is currently expanding its own downtown, with a 50-acre mixed-use development that will include retail, housing, and restaurants that the city hopes to complete by 2025, located near the bandshell and a planned performing arts center.
Atlanta, about two hours west down I-20, is slightly farther afield. But it offers big-city amenities like the Falcons and Hartsfield-Jackson International, the world’s largest airport by passenger traffic last year. Classic southern weekend getaway spots like the historic cities of Savannah and Charleston, S.C., are about three hours in the other direction.
Of course, Evans residents also find plenty to do close to home. On nice days they can be found along the bends of the Savannah River, which reaches half a mile at its widest point. For $50 plus the price of a single or tandem kayak rental, Cole Watkins Tours will guide you down the river, lined with water oaks and sycamores, past turtles sunbathing on logs and red-tail hawks drifting above.
As far as the Bunches are concerned, there’s nowhere else they would rather be. “It’s really a nice place to raise a family,” says Cheena. “Everything you need is right here.”
(An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated Demetric Hillman was a member of the Lakeside High School parent-teacher-student association.)