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Of Course the Suburbs Aren't Dying—They're Not All the Same

What recent stories about where Americans want to live get wrong.

Highly walkable Pasadena, California, a "suburb" of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

The end of this week saw a mini-flurry of weirdly misleading news about where Americans are living now and where they say they want to be living in the future. "Generation Y Prefers Suburban Home Over City Condo" was the Wall Street Journal's take on some interesting but nevertheless flawed new survey results compiled by the National Association of Home Builders. And over at Vox.com, Matt Yglesias looks at the latest numbers from Trulia's Jed Kolko and declares that "The death of the suburbs turns out to be a total myth."

This is all pretty silly stuff. It's true that demographers and urban theorists have been keeping an eye on whether America's "suburbs" or "cities" are growing faster (answer: in the biggest metros, what the Census Bureau has classified as "urban" areas were indeed growing faster than the "suburbs" in recent years, but the numbers have flattened out since then). But this scoreboard approach isn't a very helpful way to think about and measure housing type and community style preferences.

As Columbia University's David King has noted, the very idea of there being some clearly delineated "cities vs. suburbs" divide just doesn't really work. So-called "suburban" areas across the U.S. are far from homogenous. Some suburbs are dense, and some aren't. Some have been trying to create more walkable, "urban-style" communities through targeted investment in public transit and main street redevelopment projects, and some haven't.

Which brings us back to that National Association of Home Builders survey and subsequent Wall Street Journal story. The survey, as Kris Hudson reports, polled 1,506 people born since 1977 (in other words, Americans in their 20s and 30s), and found that 66 percent of them said they want to live in single-family homes "outside of the urban center" in the near future, even if they now reside in the city center. But the piece itself points out (if a bit weakly) that the methodology of this particular survey has real problems (emphasis mine):

The survey results, though, could be skewed because they included only millennials who first answered that they bought a home within the past three years or intended to do so in the next three years. That excluded young people who intend to rent for many more years, which is a large and growing group, in part because of hefty student debt and the tight mortgage-lending standards of recent years.

The homeownership rate among heads of household 35 years of age or younger was at 36% in last year’s third quarter, the most recent data available. That is the lowest figure since the Commerce Department started tracking the data on a quarterly basis in 1994 and well short of the recent high of 43.1% in the third quarter of 2004.

So maybe we shouldn't rely on the industry trade group that represents companies that build single-family homes for the most reliable data on what sorts of homes Americans want to buy. Still, I'm perfectly willing to believe that these numbers do in fact point to the existence of a sizable proportion of millennials who think they might like to own single-family homes in the near future. Of course they would—a lot of them are starting to have children, and thanks to more than half a century of perversely incentivized development patterns, the suburbs are where most of the larger housing units exist in most major U.S. metros.

What's especially funny about this Wall Street Journal story are the anecdotes from actual millennials that support trends from other (and better) recent surveys: millennials want to live in walkable neighborhoods, or at the very least, be able to access dense, urban-style areas easily:

When Karla Kingsley, a 32-year-old transportation consultant, and her fiancé bought a single-family home last month in Portland, Ore., for $375,000, she said the couple’s top priorities were finding a home close to restaurants, shops and their workplaces downtown.

“That was most important to us, to be able to walk to things from our house and to bike to work,” she said.

Kent Piacenti, a 33-year-old commercial litigation lawyer and his partner, took a similar approach when they bought a three-bedroom home less than four miles from downtown Dallas this month. The couple, who previously rented an apartment downtown, wanted more space for their two dogs and a pool.

“My absolute preference is to be as close to the city center as possible to be near work and near friends,” Mr. Piacenti said. “Our entire work and social network is in the city center.”

All of this exposes flaws in the idea of some fictional "battle" between cities and suburbs, where the suburbs are now staging a comeback or were never "losing" in the first place. Rather, in a lot of metros across the U.S., there are suburbs that were either already close to becoming or have been adapting into the "urban burbs" that Leigh Gallagher has written about extensively.

So while the overall share of Americans living in "urban" areas may well have decreased a bit over the past several years, that tells you exactly nothing about what sorts of "non-urban" areas people are moving to, or would like to move to, for that matter. It's not a "myth" that "the suburbs" were dying because "the suburbs" were never all one thing to begin with, and that's even less the case today than it was five or ten years ago. To jump to the conclusion that Americans prefer to live in car-dependent sprawl out of surveys and data of this sort—ones that fail to identify crucial differences in the development patterns of communities that lie outside major downtowns—is to take a risky leap.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis
    Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. She writes about the intersection of technology and consumer habits, and lives in Washington, D.C.