Mariela Munguía was idly browsing TikTok when something piqued her attention, prompting her to double back mid-scroll: a video about a two-bedroom house for sale in Peoria, Ill., for less than $50,000.
“The idea of a $50,000 house was not anywhere on my radar. It was not something that I knew could even exist,” said Ms. Munguía, 30. “I showed my partner and was like, ‘hey, would you ever consider moving somewhere else?’”
It was 2020, and Ms. Munguía and her partner were living in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Wash. Life felt like a slog — the rent for their 800-square-foot apartment was $2,000 a month, and the thought of ever owning a home seemed implausible.
After doing more research online, Ms. Munguía applied to jobs in Peoria, and the two moved into a short-term rental there. In April 2021, they decided to make the move permanent and began to tour houses for sale. The couple bought a three-bedroom colonial for $195,000, and their monthly mortgage payments are $748, less than half of what they were paying for rent in Washington.
And though it may seem like the couple found Peoria through a moment of social media serendipity, it was no accident. The TikTok video that Ms. Munguía stumbled upon was made by Angie Ostaszewski, an unofficial Peoria ambassador, welcoming committee and city guide.
Ms. Ostaszewski, a 32-year-old energy efficiency consultant, has accumulated a modest following of more than 36,000 TikTok followers for her posts about affordable houses and things to do in Peoria.
She first moved to Peoria from Bloomington, Ill. about a decade ago to be with her partner. She purchased her first home for $33,000 in 2017, when she was 27. “I didn’t know if I would ever achieve homeownership, let alone before I turned 30,” Ms. Ostaszewski said.
Then she started to wave other people in: her brother, her sister and an estimated 300 strangers from across the country.
“I’m trying to show people that they can move here and actually have a reasonable mortgage, while building on the progressive community that is here,” Ms. Ostaszewski said.
Her pitch is attracting people who didn’t believe they could ever own property. “For a lot of people of color and queer people, there is this generational poverty that continues to get passed down. They don’t have family that can pass down housing or other assets,” said Ms. Ostaszewski, who is of Filipino and Polish descent. “I’m bisexual, and I’m a woman of color. I’ve been able to find a lot of community here through both of those aspects of my identity.”
Last year, the National Association of Realtors found that home buyers in America were whiter, older and richer than any time in recent years. Mortgage rates also hit a two-decade high, and the median home price was over $400,000 for the first time. In a housing market that’s so fraught, perhaps it isn’t surprising that people who feel acutely dispirited about their prospects of ever owning are looking outside of the usual New York and Los Angeles to build a life.
The worry, though, is that smaller cities won’t be as welcoming. What’s novel about Ms. Ostaszewski’s posts is not that she’s highlighting a midsize, Midwestern city as an affordable place to live, but also as a place where a diverse, inclusive community can be formed.
“When looking for a place to move, we intentionally asked, are we going to be accepted as a queer women of color here? Are we going to be able to find a community?” said Ms. Munguía, a project director for a children’s mental health nonprofit. “Ultimately, the answer was yes.”
TikTok Tours and Welcome Parties
Located halfway between Chicago and St. Louis, Peoria is situated along the Illinois River, giving it a picturesque backdrop. In its heyday, Peoria was the whiskey capital of the country, a title upended by Prohibition. It later became a major manufacturing hub. For nearly a century, Caterpillar Inc., the construction equipment behemoth, was based there. The announcement of its departure in 2017 was “a kick in the gut,” as the mayor at the time put it.
The loss of industry has resulted in a diminishing population. Since 1970, Peoria has lost more than 15,000 people and in 2021 was named one of the fastest-shrinking midsize cities.
For 2021, the Census Bureau estimated the population of Peoria to be nearly 111,700. Black people represent about 27 percent, Asian people 6.5 percent, Hispanic or Latino people 7 percent, mixed race people 6 percent and Indigenous people less than .5 percent, while white people make up the majority at 59 percent.
Peoria’s poverty rate, according to census data, is relatively high at about 20 percent, compared to nearly 12 percent nationwide.
“We’ve been on a decline for a number of decades, associated with the decline in manufacturing,” said Mayor Rita Ali, a Democrat.
But that decline has led to at least one thing that some people now find appealing: low home prices, which is what Ms. Ostaszewski is hoping to spread the word about on TikTok. According to data provided by Zillow, in February, the typical home value in the Peoria metro area was about $128,100, compared to $328,600 nationwide.
Ms. Ostaszewski has made posts about an $85,000, three-bedroom Victorian home, a $99,900, five-bedroom fixer-upper, as well as a $61,900 condo. She typically begins each post with a disclaimer: “I’m not a real estate agent, but I live in a super affordable place, and I want you to live here, too.”
She also shares information about local elections, business openings and social gatherings. While some lifetime Peorians don’t agree with the vision — “Peoria is scary lol stay away,” one person commented — people from other parts of the country respond more enthusiastically, with comments like “almost 2,800 sq ft for 105k?!?! excuse me while I pack my life up.”
For Ms. Ostaszewski, the journey was about expanding her life: She paid off her starter home and moved into a larger one. After she convinced her siblings to relocate to Peoria from Louisville and Atlanta, allowing them all to live in the same city together as adults for the first time, “Then I was like, ‘Oh, I should get everyone here,’” Ms. Ostaszewski said.
In 2020, she started up her TikTok to work toward that mission.
But she hasn’t stopped there. Ms. Ostaszewski throws “transplant parties” for all the new people who come to Peoria after seeing her TikTok — she’s rented out a yoga studio for a Beyoncé dance night, and hosted a vegan brunch with drag performances.
Local businesses have felt the impact. “Business has just skyrocketed for me,” said Jessica Stephenson, the owner of Lit. on Fire Books. Ms. Stephenson first opened the bookstore, which focuses on selling works by marginalized authors, in 2015, and now, it’s become a popular spot for new Peorians to mingle and make friends.
‘Will It Play in Peoria?’
The transplants are settling in and shaping Peoria into home.
After seeing Ms. Ostaszewski’s TikTok, Rae Lowe moved to Peoria with her husband from Birmingham in March 2022. With the help of the city’s first-time homeowners grant — which now gives buyers up to $5,000 for homes in certain neighborhoods, under the condition they live there for at least two years — they purchased a three-bedroom house for $160,000. They had to tour the house over Zoom, but its canning cellar and Dutch doors helped seal the deal.
In December 2021, Yvonne Damon was living out of her car after her rent increased in Raleigh. She wasn’t sure where to go next. She decided to give Peoria a shot after watching Ms. Ostaszewski’s videos and made the 14-hour drive there in her Prius.
Ms. Damon now lives in a two-bedroom rental apartment, for which she pays $830 a month. Her goal of one day owning a home feels within arm’s reach. “I’m working toward having my own place in two years,” Ms. Damon said. “I would have said five years if I was anywhere else.”
At first, Ms. Damon worried about acceptance. “Being Black and queer, I’m very wary about places that I go, because you just never know if you’re going to be welcome or not,” said Ms. Damon, a project coordinator.
But she was pleasantly surprised by the progressive community she found. “They’re very big on making sure people feel included, making sure queer people and people of color have their spaces,” Ms. Damon said.
Similarly, Ms. Lowe said that she’s more comfortable being open about her family’s immigrant background in Peoria. “I’m part Thai and part Irish. Both of my parents are from outside of the U.S. I don’t get as many inappropriate questions about where I come from, and I’m able to really be passionate about my heritage,” said Ms. Lowe, 28, an operations specialist.
The transplants have the potential to shape Peoria’s political landscape, too. Ms. Ali became the city’s first female and first Black mayor, after winning her election by just 43 votes in 2021.
Historically, Peoria has had a reputation for being middle-of-the-road place, in many aspects. The phrase “Will it play in Peoria?” thought to be popularized by Groucho Marx, essentially means, “If something sells in Peoria, it can sell in most places in the country.”
That sentiment is felt in Peoria’s politics too, where elections are often close. In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden, the Democrat, carried 52 percent of the county’s vote, while Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, carried 46 percent. In neighboring counties, Mr. Trump won a majority of votes with much higher margins.
While some conservatives may be concerned that the balance is shifting with this influx of left-leaning folks, others are simply happy to see more investment in the community.
“I don’t care what side people are leaning to. If they’re going to come in and help rebuild neighborhoods and be good neighbors, I think that’s great,” said Jim Montelongo, a fiscal conservative who ran against Ms. Ali in the mayoral election and has served on the City Council for over a decade.
State Representative Ryan Spain, a Republican, said he doesn’t think this wave of transplants will drastically change Peoria’s political composition. “I think Peoria is an attractive place, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, a conservative or progressive,” he said, adding, “I’m not anticipating an imbalance or rebalancing of Peoria, and really an ideal community is one that you would have people of diverse views.”
Despite its reputation for moderation, Peoria hasn’t been immune to the widening political divide the country as a whole has been experiencing. In January, after the Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, approved legal measures protecting abortion, a Planned Parenthood clinic in Peoria was firebombed in an attack. “Senseless acts of vandalism have been on the rise across the country and Illinois has become a target as extreme and divisive rhetoric increases,” Jennifer Welch, the president of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said in a statement.
‘Ending Generational Curses’
The draw to Peoria, however, is the price. But low house prices can have a downside, too.
Because Peoria’s housing stock is fairly old — nearly a quarter of the homes were built before 1930, according to data shared by the city — many houses are in need of renovations. Those updates don’t always increase the value of the homes like they might in other cities.
“Rehabbing an existing building costs the same in Peoria as it would in Chicago, but with such an affordable market, you’re not seeing the drastic increase in price when you make that investment,” said Joe Dulin, the city’s community development director.
Mr. Dulin is also concerned about low prices attracting “the wrong type of investment.” A few years back, online auctions led to people from other states buying cheap properties in Peoria with no intent of moving there.
Still, for some, Peoria is turning into exactly what they’re looking for.
Alexander Martin, a 30-year-old artist and founding member of the Peoria Guild of Black Artists, had been living there since 2014. She was thinking of leaving, unsure of her job prospects in central Illinois.
Then, Ms. Martin re-evaluated. “Seeing folks starting to move to Peoria and buy houses was inspiring. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, like these are people my age,’” she said. “It made me really appreciate the city, and I changed my plans.”
In August 2022, Ms. Martin purchased her first home — a 1920s Sears catalog house for $75,000. She loves her finished basement, which she’s turned into a studio space and has painted a mural.
“I come from generational poverty. I’m Black and trans. I’m an artist. Owning a house was not top of mind,” Ms. Martin said. “It feels like I’m ending generational curses.”