Kennedy: Not everyone wants to live in the burbs

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Here’s something that may surprise you about the suburbs: Since 2000, they’ve lost a bit of their luster.

While they continue to gain in population, the additions are coming at the younger and older ends of the demographic spectrum, which means demand for services such as schools and senior centers are increasing while those making the demands – “dependents” under the age of 18 and older than 65 – aren’t contributing much to the suburban tax base.

Household income and housing values also didn’t appreciate as much in the suburbs as in the central cities between 2000 and 2018, with homeowners’ self-reported assessments of their property much higher in the cities than in the suburbs, particularly in the Northeast and West.

Meantime, the prime working-age group – adults between the ages of 25 and 44 – have been choosing city living over the burbs.

The data are from Richard Fry, senior economist at the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think-tank in Washington, D.C. He published a paper with the findings in July, and last week offered them in a webinar hosted by the National Press Foundation on what will become of the suburbs post-Covid-19.

While much has been written about residents fleeing cities to get away from congestion and contagion, that’s all anecdotal, Fry said, since the first post-pandemic population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau aren’t expected until next summer.

“Now, having said that, clearly, if you follow housing markets, and what you hear among the nation’s Realtors is in terms of both foot traffic as well as sales, there may be indeed some evidence of this shift of professionals from the urban core to suburbia,” he said. “But, again, I still consider that preliminary evidence, not hard and fast.”

However, he did allow that higher housing costs in cities might begin to make the suburbs more attractive to folks in the 25-to-44 age bracket. 

Another speaker, June Williamson, picked up that thread to suggest that new transplants might “bring their social life and desires with them and may attempt to remake the suburbs” in the image of the urban neighborhoods they left behind.

Williamson, an architect, urban designer and educator who chairs the Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York, has co-authored three books on the suburbs.

While “retrofitting” them has been going on for decades, she said the pandemic “seems to be accelerating and intensifying” some of the long-running trends that lead to suburban change, such as retail plazas or office parks emptied by business downsizing or bankruptcy.

While the vacant spaces can be economically painful immediately, they also can be “places of opportunity” when adapted for new living and working patterns. “It’s a process,” Williamson told me this week in describing suburban change. However, she added, COVID might be a “precipitant” that sparks it. 

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

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