For 69-year-old Jeff Whipple, Bergen County, New Jersey, was about as good a place to grow up as anywhere. “Suburban New Jersey in the ‘50s, in a working-class town—it was like Leave It to Beaver,” he said. “I lived on a block where there were probably 50 other kids. I had four brothers, I married a girl from my hometown … That’s just the way things were in those days.”
Whipple left New Jersey for college, but returned soon after. He estimates that 20 percent of his high-school friends still live within a 20-mile radius of Bogota, the small town in Bergen County where they grew up. But most of those friends’ kids have moved away: “They couldn’t afford it. That’s not a scientific survey, but it’s the scuttlebutt. It’s in the air.”
These days, some Millennials can’t get out of New Jersey fast enough. From 2000 to 2013, the number of 22-to-34-year-olds living in New Jersey fell by 2.3 percent, according to Census data, even while the number of people in this age bracket increased by 6.8 percent nationally during the same timeframe. According to a calculation by Governing using Census estimates, New Jersey ranked 47th out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., for its percentage of Millennials in 2012.
Why are so many young people leaving the Garden State? The smart-growth nonprofit New Jersey Future considered this demographic trend in a report released in September. The report measured New Jersey’s municipalities on three smart growth metrics: walkability and street connectivity; the presence of a mixed-use center; and net activity density (defined as population plus employment, divided by developed square miles).
Unsurprisingly, New Jersey’s Millennials are just like Millennials everywhere else: They gravitate toward dense, mixed-use, walkable areas. Across the 118 places that scored well on all three smart-growth metrics, Millennials are 25 percent more prevalent than they are statewide. Conversely, they are 19 percent less likely than the general New Jersey population to live in the places that scored badly on all three metrics.
The problem is a lack of Millennial-friendly environments. Of the state’s 565 municipalities, only 183 scored well on two or all three smart-growth metrics, and according to the study, only 111 of those places are popular with Millennials. This imbalance may increase competition for housing in the high-scoring municipalities, which prices Millennials out of the neighborhoods where they want to live most.
“I can tell you that Millennials are [moving away], but I can’t tell you why they’re doing it,” said Tim Evans, director of research at New Jersey Future, and the lead author of the report. “My first guess would be because they can’t afford to live here.”
There are a number of indicators that New Jersey’s Millennials are struggling to find affordable housing in their home state. For one, 47 percent of them live with their parents. In fact, New Jersey has the highest rate in the country of 18-to-34-year-olds living with their parents. Nationally, the number is just 33 percent, and in nearby Pennsylvania, it’s 37 percent.
This is largely a product of the type of housing that’s available. According to the report, nearly 54 percent of the housing in New Jersey is made up of single-family detached homes, which tend to be too expensive for young people at the beginning of their careers. In Englewood Cliffs, for example, single-family detached homes make up a full 94 percent of the housing stock, and when they’re available to rent, they’re not cheap—median gross rent exceeds $2,000 a month. In River Edge, where 75 percent of housing fits this description, median monthly rent costs $1,400 per month. Both of these towns are in Bergen County, which is home to the “working-class” neighborhood where Whipple grew up. The county is now one of the richest in the state.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Craigslist ad looking for a third roommate in Paramus,” said Lucas Riccardi, a 23-year-old who grew up in Paramus, New Jersey, but moved to Brooklyn after college. “A shockingly low number of people I know have apartments in New Jersey. I know one guy who lives in Hoboken, and he pays higher rent than me.”
The places that do include the types of housing Millennials desire are, in some cases, pricier than parts of New York City. Hoboken is the most highly concentrated Millennial hotspot in the state, and among the most expensive. A full 45 percent of its population falls into the 22-to-34-year-old age range—making it more Millennial-dense than Boston—and according to Trulia’s real estate data, average monthly rent costs about $2,600. In Jersey City, where nearly 28 percent of the population is between 22 and 34, median monthly rent costs about $2,100. In these cities, the demand for dense, walkable, mixed-use centers outstrips the supply of apartments, which drives up prices and forces young people to seek housing elsewhere.
And they don’t have to look far to find it. Just across the Hudson River, the average cost of monthly rent in Brooklyn is about $2,300. In the Bronx, it’s $1,900. This combination of prices and proximity to a more urban lifestyle is an offer many young Jerseyans can’t refuse.
“I know a lot of people who moved to New York City,” said Carly Avezzano, 23, who grew up in Montvale, New Jersey, and moved to Boston after college for work. “[New Jersey] wasn’t really my thing… You definitely have to take the 45-minute ride into New York City for restaurants, bars, events, things like that.”
In the absence of compact, walkable neighborhoods that young people can afford, many live in the suburbs, or with their parents, and rely on the state’s transit system. New Jersey actually has the largest state-wide transit system in the country, made up of interstate buses and trains, as well as regional lines and informal minibus systems. There’s also PATH, a subway line that runs between New York and New Jersey. But New Jersey residents have made headlines for their long commute times, and it’s not cheap, or convenient, to travel so far from the place where you live to the ones where you work and play.
“If I were in Paramus and going out for a Saturday night in Hoboken, I’d take the train there … but I’d have to leave a car at the train station,” Riccardi said. And if you’re going to New York, he added, “It’s going to cost you $6 to $7 one way. And then you get dropped off in one place, and you have to pay to get somewhere else.”
Perhaps these are the qualities that set the stage for New Jersey’s famously bad reputation as “the armpit of America.” And while many New Jerseyans do have pride for their state—Newark gave us Whitney Houston, after all—young people are absorbing the nation’s sour sentiment, which may be contributing to their desire to leave.
“I think there’s a big cultural understanding that underlies this,” said Riccardi. “I guess it’s like the chicken or the egg. … There are definitely the objective measures of what Millennials are looking for, walkability and density and town centers … but I think there’s also a second element, where in New Jersey, you know that it sucks more than anywhere else just because that’s what you’re told.”
According to June Williamson, an architecture professor at the City College of New York, this reputation isn’t entirely fair.
“I think there’s sort of a mismatch [between] the stereotype of New Jersey as being kind of monolithically middle-class suburban, and the reality that there are some funkier communities in the mix there that don’t get talked about quite as much,” she said. Though there are some places that utilize deliberately exclusionary land use practices, she said, “I think there may be some communities that are more ripe and willing than others to be transformed, to add more affordable housing into the mix.”
While the country as a whole may never tire of poking fun at New Jersey, Evans believes that the state is ripe with untapped potential, which could incentivize coming generations to stay.
“What to do to attract Millennials depends on what kind of place you already are,” he said. “New Jersey has an advantage over other states because … the towns were laid out to make it easy for the people who worked in New York to take the train. So we have a lot to work with in terms of rehabbing things and attracting people back.”
Evans says there are three types of town in New Jersey: Those that already possess the kind of dense, walkable development patterns young people are looking for; sprawling, car-dependent municipalities with large swaths of buildable land; and car-dependent suburban areas that have used up all of their land, never built any sort of town center, and lack convenient access to public transportation.
Towns in the first category, like Newark or Jersey City, can focus on creating more of the development they already have, and building affordable housing to go with it. “You’ve already got the good bones,” Evans said. “You want to find ways of producing more housing of the kind that young people, and others, are looking for.” Jersey City has started to do this already, by turning old industrial properties into lofts.
Towns in the second category can focus on their undeveloped land. “If you still have vacant land but most of the development you do have is car-dependent suburbia, you can build yourself a new town center,” Evans said. In North Jersey, Robbinsville and Plainsboro have built walkable town centers from scratch, and combined new housing with retail space.
Evans’ third category is the most difficult to rehabilitate. “They’ll have to retrofit what they already have,” he said. “They can take advantage of surface parking lots as buildable land.” Somerdale and Voorhees have turned traditional shopping centers into mixed-use centers by building new housing on surface parking lots, as well as adding pedestrian connections and amenities between them. “You’re not going to mistake it for a traditional downtown, but it’s still better than what was there before,” Evans said.
There are parts of New Jersey that will never be mistaken for the archetypal Millennial magnets. But that doesn’t mean the state can’t facilitate the lifestyle that people of all ages have come to crave. In a way, even the New Jersey that Whipple loved as a kid is the same one Millennials seek today.
“When I got out of school in 1959, you went home, changed your clothes, got your baseball mitt, your football, your bike or whatever, and a couple blocks away there were ten buddies,” Whipple said. “No parents drove you to anything. You walked. You took your bike. You grabbed a nickel and you got on the bus.”
Being walking distance from a friend’s house, or biking distance from a handful of activities, is often what smart-growth metrics describe. What’s changed for New Jersey is the affordability of these places, the growing popularity of cities in neighboring states, and the fact that now, it costs a whole lot more than a nickel to take the bus.