April 30, 2013


THE TRIUMPH OF SUBURBIA (Joel Kotkin, 04/29/2013, New Geography)

Ultimately the question of growth revolves around the preferences of consumers. Despite predictions that the rise of singles, an aging population and the changing preferences of millennials will create a glut of 22 million unwanted large-lot homes by 2025, it seems more likely that three critical groups will fuel demand for more suburban housing.

Between 2000 and 2011, there has been a net increase of 9.3 million in the foreign born population, largely from Asia and Latin America, with these newcomers accounting for about two out of every five new residents of the nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas. And these immigrants show a growing preference for more "suburbanized" cities such as Nashville, Charlotte, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. An analysis of census data shows only New York--with nearly four times the population--drew (barely) more foreign-born arrivals over the past decade than sprawling Houston. Overwhelmingly suburban Riverside-San Bernardino expanded its immigrant population by nearly three times as many people as the much larger and denser Los Angeles-Orange County metropolitan area.

Clearly, immigrants aren't looking for the density and crowding of Mexico City, Seoul, Shanghai, or Mumbai. Since 2000, about two-thirds of Hispanic household growth was in detached housing. The share of Asian arrivals in detached housing is up 20 percent over the same span. Nearly half of all Hispanics and Asians now live in single-family homes, even in traditionally urban places like New York City, according to the census's American Community Survey.

Nowhere are these changes more marked than among Asians, who now make up the nation's largest wave of new immigrants. Over the last decade, the Asian population in suburbs grew by about 2.8 million, or 53 percent, while that of core cities grew by 770,000, or 28 percent.

Aging boomers, too, continue to show a preference for space, despite the persistent urban legend that they will migrate back to the core city. Again, the numbers tell a very different story.

A National Association of Realtors survey last year of buyers over 65 found that the vast majority looked for suburban homes. Of the remaining seniors, only one in 10 looked for a place in the city--less than the share that wanted a rural home. When demographer Wendell Cox examined the cohort that was 54 to 65 in 2000 to see where they were a decade later, the share that lived in the suburbs was stable, while many had left the city--the real growth was people moving to the countryside. Within metropolitan areas, more than 99 percent of the increase in population among people aged 65 and over between 2000 and 2010 was in low-density counties with less than 2,500 people per square mile.

With the over-65 population expected to double by 2050, making it by far America's fastest-growing age group, they appear poised to be a significant source of demand for suburban housing.

But arguably the most critical element to future housing demand is the rising millennial generation. It has been widely asserted by retro-urbanists that young people prefer urban living. Urban theorists such as Peter Katz have maintained that millennials (the generation born after 1983) have little interest in "returning to the cul-de-sacs of their teenage years." 

To bolster their assertions, retro-urbanist point to stated-preference research showing that more than three quarters of millennials say they "want to live in urban cores." But looking at where millenials actually live now--and where they see themselves living in the future--shows a very different story. In the nation's major metropolitan areas, only 8 percent of residents aged 20 to 24 (the only millennial adult age group for which census data is available) live in the highest-density counties--and that share has declined from a decade earlier. What's more, 43 percent of millenials describe the suburbs as their "ideal place to live"--a greater share than their older peers--and 82 percent of adult millenials say it's "important" to them to have an opportunity to own their home.

And, of course, as people get older and take on commitments and start families, they tend to look for more settled, and less dense, environments. A 2009 Pew study found that 45 percent of Americans 18 to 34 would like to live in New York City, compared with just 14 percent of those over 35. As about 7 million more millenials--a group the Pew surveys show desire children and place a premium on being good parents--hit their 30s by 2020, expect their remaining attachment to the city to wane.

This family connection has always eluded the retro-urbanists. "Suburbs," Jane Jacobs once wrote, "must be difficult places to raise children." Yet suburbs have served for three generation now as the nation's nurseries. Jacobs's treatment of the old core city--particularly her Greenwich Village in the early 1960s--lovingly portrayed these places as they once were, characterized by class, age, and some ethnic diversity along with strong parental networks, often based on ethnic solidarity.

To say the least, this is not what characterizes Greenwich Village or in Manhattan today. In fact, many of the most vibrant, and high-priced urban cores--including Manhattan, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle--have remarkably few children living there. Certainly, the the 300-square-foot "micro-units" now all the rage among the retro-urbanist set seem unlikely to attract more families, or even married couples.

Posted by at April 30, 2013 7:51 PM

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