The Urban Senior Puzzle

More seniors are moving to metropolitan areas, but are they settling in central cities or suburbs?

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REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In communities across the country, the senior citizen population is growing rapidly. Between 2010 and 2020, it is projected to grow by 55 percent, almost three times the rate of the past decade. But this growth has not been evenly distributed. Certain urban areas have seen their senior populations grow disproportionately.

Not surprisingly, southern and western cities gained the most seniors over the past decade. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the population of seniors grew an amazing 60 percent. Other high-growth areas include Charlotte, North Carolina (over 30 percent); Las Vegas, Nevada (over 27 percent), Austin, Texas (over 27 percent), and San Jose, California (over 24 percent).

Not all cities in the South and West saw their senior populations grow. In New Orleans, the senior population declined 34 percent. As in so many other aspects, New Orleans is a special case; seniors had to leave due to Hurricane Katrina, many may well not have had the resources to return.

Birmingham, Alabama (-19 percent); Richmond, Virginia (-13 percent); and Tampa, Florida (-8 percent) also saw their populations decline. In the West, Salt Lake City’s senior population declined by 12 percent, and Seattle’s dropped 1 percent.

Senior populations are also unevenly distributed within cities. Much has been written about the growing number of seniors who have moved from the suburbs to the cities. The "empty-nester phenomenon" - the couple who sells their suburban home after the kids have moved out and buys a condo in the city - is real, though it's hard to quantify.

It is also hard to quantify how many seniors have moved into one of the growing number of suburban town centers developing around the country. Urban living is no longer confined to the central city. These "boutique cities" have become increasingly significant population centers for people of all ages and incorporate retail and commercial development as well as housing.

This is reflected in the most recent numbers. Regions are growing faster than central cities in almost every case. With the exception of San Jose and Raleigh, every metropolitan region saw a faster rate of growth in seniors than the central city. For example, the city of Atlanta’s senior population grew by only 2 percent while that of the region grew by 44 percent.

In the cities where the senior population declined, the metro population generally grew, sometimes quite rapidly as in the case of Salt Lake City, where the senior population fell by 12 percent yet grew in the region by 25 percent. The exceptions to this were Pittsburgh, Buffalo and New Orleans, where seniors left both the city and the metro region, though they left the region at a much slower rate.

A final word of warning - the housing bust has trapped many seniors in large suburban homes whose values have fallen below what seniors are willing to sell them for. Even those seniors willing and able to sell their homes are likely to be more conservative and less willing to head off to new horizons in the face of today’s ongoing economic uncertainty. As housing markets and the economy are likely to be mixed and uncertain for much of the current decade, the trends shown by the 2010 U.S. Census may not be continuing now, leaving the movement of the rapidly growing senior population uncertain and hard to predict.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from Urban Land, the online publication of the Urban Land Institute; copyright 2012 by the Urban Land Institute.

About the Author

  • John K. McIlwain is the Senior Resident Fellow and J. Ronald Terwilliger Chair for Housing at the Urban Land Institute. An author, speaker and former lawyer, McIlwain brings more than 35 years of experience in the fields of housing.