Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professional city planner.
At the end of last year, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission weighed a proposed zoning change that would effectively ban new day-care centers—along with tire stores and car repair shops—in a large chunk of northwest Philadelphia. The bill swiftly encountered fierce resistance, and it now appears dead. But the effort to block additional child-care facilities with a zoning overlay hints at a broader relationship between city planning and the cost of raising children. A growing body of research indicates that restrictive zoning—which often blocks the services and housing that families need—may help to explain why family sizes are shrinking in the United States.
The U.S. birth rate recently sunk to a 30-year low, a trend that’s been blamed on everything from economic anxieties and climate change to the rise of smartphones and the Millennial “sex recession.” Perhaps we should also lay some of the responsibility at the feet of city planning.
As bizarre as an anti-day-care bill may seem, the fear of more children coming into a community is a mainstay at new housing proposal hearings. Particularly in high-cost suburbs along the coasts, the mere inclusion of three-bedroom apartments—the kind of units young families need—can get a project in hot water with elected officials. While the justifications for blocking this kind of housing vary from preserving rural character to preventing (real or imagined) school overcrowding, the result is that more and more municipalities are adopting policies designed to keep out children and the families who care for them.
In the New York suburb of Garwood, New Jersey, city officials adopted a master plan earlier in 2018 that places a total prohibition on units with three or more bedrooms. In Nutley, New Jersey, another New York suburb, a July zoning fight came with assurances that three-bedroom units—and the children that come with them—weren’t part of the plan. In the Garden State more broadly, municipalities increasingly meet their state-mandated fair-share affordable housing requirements by building only senior housing. Affordable housing proposals that include three-bedroom units are rejected out of hand, leaving working families with few options.
The problem is likely much bigger than even these overtly anti-family measures in Philadelphia and New Jersey would suggest. Insomuch as zoning serves to block smaller, more affordable housing, the way we plan cities may be undermining the desire of young couples to start families. A former Massachusetts state senator coined a term for this phenomenon: vasectomy zoning.
In Massachusetts, as in many parts of the country, suburbs increasingly throw up roadblocks to the construction of types of housing that are affordable to working families. In addition to simply limiting the number of development permits they issue, suburbs often forbid large apartments and townhomes altogether, while forcing detached homes to sit on large, prohibitively expensive lots. This shows up in the national data depicted in the chart below. The combined result is that few new starter homes or family-sized rental units are successfully built. Meanwhile, rents and prices for the existing units sail beyond the means of most working families.
Until recently, most of this discussion was speculative. But we can now reliably say based on data that rising housing costs are preventing more and more women from having children. While jokes about avocado toast would have you believe that Millennials could afford homes if they could only change their spendthrift ways, the reality seems to work in reverse: High housing costs are likely forcing many young couples to make difficult lifestyle changes, such as delaying children.
In a recent study for the Institute for Family Studies, Lyman finds that faster-rising rents are associated with lower fertility for women in their 20s and 30s, when most young couples would normally be starting families. The net effect of the high cost of housing is that more women are either putting off having children well past their peak family-formation years, or are simply not having the children they say they would like to have.
This follows on earlier studies in England and the U.S., which found that, in raising housing costs, stricter land-use regulations had an observable role in lowering local birth rates, especially among women in their 20s.
On a basic level, this all makes sense: When housing eats up too much of a young couple’s budget, they reluctantly forgo having children. What looks to older folks like Millennials frivolously spending money on fancy cocktails and exotic vacations is, more simply, Millennials substituting other spending for the money we might have used on the housing we’re locked out of—housing necessary to start a family. Whatever your personal feelings on parenthood, the social costs of putting too many couples in this position could be disastrous for cities as more Americans age out of the workforce and parts of the country experience Japanese-style population decline.
So what’s a policymaker to do? Happily, unlike other causes of declining fertility—such as marriage behavior—there’s a lot that family-friendly policy can do to address this issue. For starters, municipalities shouldn’t block or raise the cost of things that young parents need, like day cares and two-bedroom houses or apartments. A rash of new regulations on childcare is already doing enough to making parenting unaffordable. Cities should avoid adding to the burden.
Beyond that, policymakers should ensure that every municipality allows for an array of new housing, including types of housing that are inherently affordable, from apartments to townhomes to modest single-family houses. And if small towns and suburbs refuse to accommodate their fair share of children and families, policymakers at the federal and state levels can and should step in.