The potential decline of mature, wealthier suburbs

If you are not growing, you are falling behind. Does the principle apply to older suburbs? See the case of several New England suburbs:

This has little to do with the housing market broadly speaking: In cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston, prices are rising and homes are sold within days of listing. Rather, it’s a sign that suburban neighborhoods straight out of Mad Men are no longer as in-demand as they once were. Around Boston, for example, 51 towns and suburbs started the year with price declines while the city’s prices skyrocketed. Indeed, as Blackwood drives me through this picturesque New England town just an hour from New York, we pass dozens of for-sale and for-rent signs outside home set back from the road. These are homes that, one day, might have been on any family’s dream list, back when suburbs were where everyone wanted to live and there were dozens of companies to work for nearby. Median home values in Fairfield County, where New Canaan is located, are down 21 percent from their peak in 2003, according to Zillow; for the state as a whole median home values are down 18 percent from their 2004 peak. By contrast, home values nationwide are down just 5 percent from their 2005 peak. In urban areas, they are up—often substantially; in Boston, Charlotte, Portland, San Francisco, and Seattle, prices this year have set record highs.

Cities are in vogue again, and that’s starting to be a problem for places that are made up mostly of suburbs. Companies like General Electric that were once headquartered here in the suburbs are decamping for city centers, where they say they can more easily find the talent they need. In 2010, Aetna abandoned a giant campus in Middletown, Connecticut; Pfizer recently tore down 750,000 square feet of unused laboratory space in nearby Groton. At the same time, the baby boomers who flooded the suburbs to raise their children are getting older and no longer need big homes, but their children’s generation doesn’t have the desire—nevermind the savings—to buy up the houses, at least not at the prices boomers are looking for.

The Northeast has long been growing more slowly than other, warmer, parts of the country. Now, parts of the region are starting to see net losses in population. Between 2014 and 2015, Connecticut lost nearly 4,000 residents as Florida, a retirement hub, added 366,000. During that same period, the Northeast and Midwest together lost half a million people to the South and West. “Where the real action is is the Sun Belt,” William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, told me.

The losses are exacerbated by the fact that the region’s median age is growing. Connecticut, alongside New England neighbors Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, is one of only a few states to have a median age over 40, which means half of its population is over child-bearing age, according to Peter Francese, a New Hampshire-based demographer. “Connecticut is a basketcase demographically, as are many of the states in New England,” Francese told me.

Several thoughts:

  1. As the article notes, there is both inter-regional competition for residents and businesses as well as intra-regional competition. It would be interesting to know whether these communities have seriously considered changes to attract new people. Of course, doing so might mean altered demographics or character.
  2. The problems here are partly regional but also common across American suburbs. What do communities do when (1) they run out of new greenfield space and (2) stop growing? This stage of development might require large decisions to be made because of a default of not changing much could lead to additional issues – see #3.
  3. I would also add that these suburbs are also competing with other nearby suburbs in addition to cities. There are plenty of suburbs trying denser housing or more cultural events or affordable housing that might just attract some of those residents who are leaving or city residents who want the suburban life.
  4. It would be fascinating to compare suburbs at this mature stage – limited land to develop, aging populations and an older housing stock, population plateau or decline – that differ on social class. The suburbs profiled here are wealthy and it could take some time before outsiders could truly point to noticeable decline. In contrast, suburbs with fewer resources could more quickly decline. And once the “decline” starts, what can stem the tide or reverse it?

Keeping chickens at McMansions

Here is an explanation of recent efforts to allow raising chickens in Stonington, Connecticut, an area known for things like McMansions:

Having chickens in the back yard was fairly common when I was growing up in the ‘50s in Westport, Conn.

We kept a flock and so did our neighbors, who eventually had nine children. At the time, chicken feed came in cloth sacks with calico print patterns and we girls often wore summery skirts my mother made us all from the repurposed material.

Westport has changed a lot. Most people equate it now with movie stars, Martha Stewart and McMansions. What hasn’t altered is its acceptance of backyard chickens…

In Stonington, it takes three acres – to have two chickens. Legally.

Certainly, there are many chickens living under the radar here. But why not make them legal? And why not let more people “share the joys of chicken keeping?”…

Like Westporters – and in a growing number of communities around the country — those who wished could gather the freshest possible eggs from a backyard coop, use the poop for fertilizer, reduce the number of ticks and other insects in their yards, feed their flocks kitchen scraps and add another piece of self-sufficiency to their lives.

This discussion about raising chickens has occurred in numerous American communities in recent years, particularly with more people interested in knowing where their food came from as well as cutting costs in light of the recession. But, can chickens and McMansions go together?

1. McMansions are generally associated with wealth and higher property values. Chickens might eat into the image.

2. McMansions are sometimes associated with big houses on smaller lots. This doesn’t necessarily leave much room for keeping animals or having large gardens or doing much at all with the yard.

3. Allowing chickens might help improve the image of McMansions with critics. One big criticism of the homes is that they are not environmentally friendly. Imagine big homes making space for free range chickens, having green roofs, being powered by solar panels or geothermal sources, or being very energy efficient (passive homes or net zero energy homes). Perhaps chickens (and other livestock?) could help McMansions be more green.

In the end, fighting over allowing homeowners to keep chickens mirrors the debate over McMansions themselves: how much latitude should individual homeowners have with their own property?

Two common issues in affordable housing battles illustrated in Pawcatuck, Connecticut

A fight over affordable housing in Pawcatuck, Connecticut highlights several common issues in these battles:

1. The author suggests the development will ultimately go forward because of Connecticut’s particular zoning laws:

In the event of a denial by the PZC and subsequent appeal of that decision, Connecticut State Law 8-30g puts the burden on the PZC to prove substantial risk to public health and that those “public interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing; and (C) such public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development.”

In other words, the proposed housing complex must pose a threat to the well-being of its neighbors. A mixed-use plan which calls for first floors eventually to be converted to commercial use, the proposal includes three buildings; two-three story buildings of 20 one-bedroom, 20 two-bedroom, four, three-bedroom and one, three-bedroom caretaker detached house, 89 parking spots and a playground.

This regulation about affordable housing sounds like it has more teeth than those in other states. For example,  Illinois tried to impose regulations in 2004 (read some important documents and annual reports here) but as far as I know, major changes have not occurred.

If planning commissions can’t do much about such proposals, how can communities fight back (if they desire)? I assume the typical NIMBY arguments, like traffic, might be thrown out to show the development is a danger to the well-being of the neighbors.

2. There is some mention about who would actually qualify for the affordable housing:

“We’re not dealing with low income housing, but attainable housing, Bates said. He said “civil servants that cannot afford McMansions,” like police officers and teachers.

The affordable housing formula calls for 20 percent of the units to be provided for families whose income is 80 percent of median income, 15 percent must be at 60 percent of median income with the balance at 100 percent of the median income—or market price for rents.

Interestingly, the attorney for the development (Bates) is the one suggesting it is about “attainable housing.” For worried residents, suggesting that the housing is really for teachers and police sounds much better. The subtext is that this really isn’t about bringing lower-class or poor residents into the community. On the other hand, the Connecticut regulations are tied to income. Pawcatuck had a median household income (2009 estimate) of nearly $58,000 so a household at 60% is making $34,800.

In the end, is opposition to the development about the density of housing that might not fit the community, is it about the kind of residents who might move in, or is it about property values?

(Read about another fight over affordable housing in Winnetka, Illinois.)