As places to retire go, Pittsburgh is often near the top

Sam and Gracie Harris moved in retirement in their early 60s from Michigan to Pittsburgh without knowing anyone here but their son and his family.

That was four years ago. Now they can’t imagine ever leaving.

There’s too much for active older adults to do here, they say. The people are too friendly. The Downtown living is too convenient. The walkability is too healthy and scenery too attractive.

All that — plus their two granddaughters, of course — makes the city an unregretted, unquestioned choice for the Harrises’ retirement years, past, present and future. The couple explained this while relaxing one afternoon in the 11th-floor condo unit they rent at 151 First Side. They had already been on their standard four-mile morning walk to the Strip District and back from Fort Pitt Boulevard.

“It’s not a short list,” Mr. Harris, a former newspaper executive in Flint, said when asked what the couple like about being here. In the unit that looks down upon glassy PPG Place from one window and the Mon River from another, he then ticked off some of the items on that list: theaters, museums, sports, restaurants, bike trails, mass transit, the compactness that makes walking to the doctor or dentist a breeze for them.

Some of those are the same features that place Pittsburgh high in many national rankings of the best cities in which to retire.

In 2016 alone, U.S. News and World Report identified the city as one of “10 Places to Retire on a Social Security Budget”; WalletHub ranked Pittsburgh 25th of 150 cities for retirement livability; and it was the only Northeastern city Forbes found worthy of a list of best retirement destinations.

Pittsburgh doesn’t top every such list. When such rankings make weather a big factor, the city naturally might suffer and slide somewhat (though it’s not a detriment for already hardened Northerners like the Harrises). Offsetting that, the city gets credit for affordability in housing and other costs, especially when compared with most cities its size or larger.

“That’s a major reason Pittsburgh shows up on these lists,” said Emily Brandon, who compiles the rankings for U.S. News, including a prior list in 2012 that called it one of the 10 best places to retire. “You have relatively low housing costs for the number of amenities in the city.”

Her October 2016 report that highlighted 10 affordable and attractive retirement locations reported a typical rent of $617 and mortgage cost of $1,069 in Pittsburgh, which was similar to much smaller cities on the list, such as Grand Rapids, Mich.; Dayton, Ohio; and Boise, Idaho.

At the same time, Pittsburgh can offer much more to still-active retirees than those cities can, with its broad range of cultural attractions, professional sports teams and large universities that provide stimulating opportunities. Rankings of retirement destinations often favor medium-sized college towns, where affordability and education can intersect.

“The desire for education does a lot for any community,” said Carol Visser, 82, a native New Englander who is happy to be retired in this area with her husband, Dick. “[The universities] bring in people that are productive and sharp and that kind of thing.” 

Many of those compiling lists also note the city’s status as a major health care center, all the more important to seniors thinking of the future, even if they’re not big medical consumers now.

The Vissers, like former San Antonio residents Mike and Mickey Tehan, live in Providence Point, a continuing care retirement community in Scott. Residents of such communities pay an upfront fee and monthly costs, starting out in independent-living townhouses or apartments and stepping down to units where they receive personal care or nursing help as health issues arise.

“We’re still upright and able, and what’s important to us after our working careers is to have many things to really enjoy — active things, as much as we can and for as long as we can,” said Mr. Tehan, who said the couple finds plenty to do at Providence Point and in Pittsburgh at large.

Like the Harrises, the Tehans’ initial hook to come to a region they didn’t know was that one of their children had settled here to raise a family. In their case, it was a daughter in Peters. In the process, they also found a place meeting most or all of their retirement goals.

Mr. Tehan, 76, had traveled the country extensively as a businessman, and although he had plenty of positives to say about San Antonio and its people, he noted, “There’s a sense of friendship and willingness and courtesy here that’s peculiar to the Midwest, and that’s not the same, say, as getting off the elevator at 61st Street and Sixth Avenue in New York.”

Friendliness can be a hard thing to measure and get credit for in rankings. When the Milken Institute, a California-based think tank, dropped Pittsburgh this year to 44th among 100 large metro areas as a site for “successful aging” (its last list had us 21st in 2014) it wasn’t because we grew any more ornery as a populace. The institute uses more than 80 measures in compiling its ranking, spanning various factors affecting older adults that are related to education, transportation, employment, community engagement, health care, wellness and financial security.

“We want to commend Pittsburgh. The good news is it’s rich in education, transportation, community engagement and employment,” though it didn’t score as well in 2017 as 2014 on some other issues, said Caroline Servat, a research associate for Milken.

One thing such rankings often fail to measure is the boost older Pennsylvanians get from having the only state lottery in the nation dedicated to assisting them. Though some of its benefits are limited to those meeting income criteria, the lottery revenue can provide help with prescription drug costs, mass transit rides, rent and property tax rebates, and more.

Living Downtown, the Harrises don’t often need those free mass transit rides, but they appreciate having them available when they want them, such as for a trip to an Oakland museum.

They often have friends from Michigan their age who visit and are wowed by the city, easily erased of any skepticism of why the Harrises uprooted themselves from their longtime home to move here. If the active couple had any doubts of their own, they shed them long ago.

“If you’re bored in Pittsburgh, you’re not working very hard,” Mr. Harris pronounced.

Pi+ttsburgh's track record on retirement lists

Pittsburgh often — though not always — places highly on national lists of cities well-suited to retirement living, including the following distinctions:


• Milken Institute ranked it 44th best city for successful aging among 100 large metropolitan areas (down from 21st in 2014).


• U.S. News and World Report designated it one of 10 best places to “retire on a Social Security budget.”

• placed Pittsburgh 25th among 150 best cities to retire.

• It was the only Northeastern city mentioned on the Forbes list of best retirement places.


• Forbes listed Pittsburgh one of the nation’s best retirement places.

• It was the biggest city mentioned on Money magazine’s “Best Places to Retire 2011” list.

• U.S. News and World Report recommended it as one of 10 best places to retire.


• The book “Retire in Style,” by Warren Bland, placed Pittsburgh tied for seventh among best retirement places in the U.S. and Canada.

Gary Rotstein: or 412-263-1255.


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