If Americans moved less in 2020, the stories of people moving from places were specific to particular locations

One consistent pandemic story was that people fled urban neighborhoods for less dense locales. This narrative held for New York City and San Francisco, among other places. But, in light of mobility data from 2020 that showed just under 8.5% of Americans changed addresses, what really happened?

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Two recent stories help make sense of the patterns. Story number one:

“Millennials living in New York City do not make up the world,” joked Thomas Cooke, a demographic consultant in Connecticut. “My millennial daughter’s friends living in Williamsburg, dozens of them came home. It felt like the world had suddenly moved, but in reality, this is not surprising at all.”…

Demographic expert Andrew Beveridge used change-of-address data to show that while people moved out of New York, particularly in well-heeled neighborhoods, at the height of the pandemic, those neighborhoods recouped their numbers just months later. Regarding the nation as a whole, Beveridge said he’s not surprised migration declined.

Put together the attention New York City and millennials receive and that residents may have left for a while but not permanently, the population did not change dramatically.

Story number two:

Lake Forest has seen a dramatic uptick in the number of people relocating to the northern suburb during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had over a thousand new families move to Lake Forest in the last 18 to 24 months,” said Mayor George Pandaleon.

He attributes the surge to four things: space, schools, safety and savings…

The mayor also noted the suburb’s real estate market was soft, meaning there was a large inventory that made it relatively easy for people to find a place to live.

This relatively small and wealthy suburb – around 20,000 residents, median household income of over $172,000 – grew as it had multiple factors in its favor.

Put these two stories together and other data and what do we have of the great COVID-19 migration of 2020? Here is my guess:

-The media and the public were very interested in what might happen because of COVID-19. It seems plausible that COVID-19 might prompt people to move given fears about transmission through the air.

-Certain people in certain locations could afford to move: those with resources to buy homes and those with flexible work arrangements. Those with fewer opportunities could not. The same residential segregation and uneven development present at normal times affected COVID times as well.

-Millennials seem to get a lot of news coverage as the next generation as well as one supposedly holding different values than previous generations.

All of this did not add up to significant mobility across the United States or across many groups in the United States.

Use better social science categories than “generations”

Millennials, Boomers, the Silent Generation, Gen Y, etc. are all categories that people generally think describe real phenomena. But, are they useful categories for describing patterns within American society?

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This supposition requires leaps of faith. For one thing, there is no empirical basis for claiming that differences within a generation are smaller than differences between generations. (Do you have less in common with your parents than with people you have never met who happen to have been born a few years before or after you?) The theory also seems to require that a person born in 1965, the first year of Generation X, must have different values, tastes, and life experiences from a person born in 1964, the last year of the baby-boom generation (1946-64). And that someone born in the last birth year of Gen X, 1980, has more in common with someone born in 1965 or 1970 than with someone born in 1981 or 1990.

Everyone realizes that precision dating of this kind is silly, but although we know that chronological boundaries can blur a bit, we still imagine generational differences to be bright-line distinctions. People talk as though there were a unique DNA for Gen X—what in the nineteenth century was called a generational “entelechy”—even though the difference between a baby boomer and a Gen X-er is about as meaningful as the difference between a Leo and a Virgo…

In any case, “explaining” people by asking them what they think and then repeating their answers is not sociology. Contemporary college students did not invent new ways of thinking about identity and community. Those were already rooted in the institutional culture of higher education. From Day One, college students are instructed about the importance of diversity, inclusion, honesty, collaboration—all the virtuous things that the authors of “Gen Z, Explained” attribute to the new generation. Students can say (and some do say) to their teachers and their institutions, “You’re not living up to those values.” But the values are shared values…

In other words, if you are basing your characterization of a generation on what people say when they are young, you are doing astrology. You are ascribing to birth dates what is really the result of changing conditions.

As this piece notes, popular discourse often treats generations as monolithic blocks. Everyone in a particular generation has similar experiences, outlooks, values. Is this actually true? Or, are other social forces at work including changing conditions, lifecourse changes, social markers like race, class, and gender, and more?

I remember seeing earlier this year an open letter from social scientists to Pew Research asking them to discontinue using generation categories. This is one way that change could occur: researchers working in this area can replace less helpful categories with more helpful ones. This could be scientific progress: as our understanding of social phenomena develops, we can better conceptualize and operationalize these. With sustained effort and keeping up with changes in society, we could see a shift in how we talk about differences between people born at different times.

Yet, this also takes a lot of work. The generations labels are popular. They are a convenient shorthand. People in the United States are used to understanding themselves and others with these categories. Sociological categories are not always easy to bring to the public nor do they always find acceptance.

At the least, perhaps we can hope for fewer articles and opinions that broadly smear whole generations. Making hasty or less than accurate generalizations is not helpful.

More young adults pooling resources to purchase homes

Limited in pursuing the American Dream of homeownership by college debt, economic conditions, and high housing prices? More young adults are buying homes with other people:

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For millennials, many of whom are getting married later in life, swimming in student-loan debt and facing soaring home prices, homeownership can feel more like a fantasy than an achievable goal. So, some first-time home buyers are taking a more creative route to make it happen—by pooling their finances with partners, friends or roommates.

Since 2014, when millennials became the largest share of home buyers in the U.S., the number of home and condo sales across the country by co-buyers has soared. The number of co-buyers with different last names increased by 771% between 2014 and 2021, according to data from real-estate analytics firm Attom Data Solution.

The pandemic added fuel to that trend, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. Among all age groups during the early pandemic months—April to June 2020—11% of buyers purchased as an unmarried couple and 3% as “other” (essentially, roommates). Those numbers were up from 9% and 2%, respectively, in the previous year.

This is an interesting situation: Americans continue to want to purchase homes. However, this is not within the reach of many unless they have ways to draw on additional resources.

I do wonder how this is connected to broader changes in households and the formation of families. How does this all work with more Americans living alone, changes in marriage rates, and extended emerging adulthood?

I have heard many warnings over the years about co-signing loans, even among family. Some of these arrangements could present complications in the long run:

Legal experts advise buyers to consult a real-estate attorney to help write a co-ownership agreement that covers every possible scenario, from job loss to marriage to personal fallouts. For example, who will hire the handyman if there is a plumbing issue? Who is in charge of collecting and making the mortgage payments? If one co-owner moves away, will the other co-owners have an option to buy them out or will there be a forced sale of the home?

While this is still a small minority of homeowners, it is worth paying attention to with high housing prices and economic anxiety.

A growing shortage of starter homes

Those looking for smaller homes to purchase are facing a limited supply:

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The first rung on the homeownership ladder has long been an affordable “starter home.” These houses, with their smaller footprints and selling prices, allowed young homeowners to build wealth and upsize as they started their families…

Supply of “entry-level housing”—which Freddie Mac defines as homes under 1,400 square feet—is at a five-decade low.

Surging prices and stiff competition mean there aren’t enough smaller, more affordable starter homes to go around in many regions. The pandemic and subsequent recession, along with the student debt crisis and delayed family formation, contributed to frustration and despair among younger house hunters…

Lately, data from the National Association of Home Builders shows new construction is again giving priority to higher square footage for single-family homes, a trend likely spurred by the widespread shift to working from home and house hunters’ need for more space.

This has been building for years now with the factors cited above (and more – and it may not be the fault of millennials). Builders prioritized larger homes as they can profit more from each units and buyers wanted more features and/or larger homes.

I wonder about the role of local governments. How many urban neighborhoods and suburban communities allow for or encourage the construction of smaller homes. It might take some extra work for a community to work with a developer who is willing to construct smaller and cheaper homes. At the same time, some of the existing members of the community might not be happy about the change as smaller homes are often interpreted as dragging down values and the character of the community. At the least, wealthier communities are unlikely to encourage such homes unless they are at a higher price point – and then it is no longer a starter home.

The article also mentions the financial ramifications of not getting into a house earlier: on average, this lowers the amount of house wealth generated decades later. Might then then shift the emphasis of recent decades away from seeing homeownership as a financial nest egg or requiring a necessary return on investment?

Out with vacation McMansions but keep going with pricey, exclusive, luxurious homes

An article about a popular new development in Park City, Utah suggests millennials do not want McMansions but the rest of the text suggests they are not giving up on having nice homes:

https://www.benlochranch.com/

What Benloch Ranch represents is a collision of trends in real estate and demographics. Millennials of homebuying age are rejecting the sizes of their parents’ homes, so-called cookie-cutter McMansions. And the second-home market, hastened by COVID and the same millennial-buying population, is booming. The pandemic has forced buyers to value outdoor spaces and activities more than ever before. Benloch Ranch currently has a waitlist of 175 for its single-family lots…

The development’s amenities include more than 20 miles of trails, a ski hill, a skeet shooting range, an ice skating pond and 900 acres of open space…

A lot of millenials don’t want these big houses anymore. We’re redefining the size and scale of the house and altering the price point so it’s more affordable.”

According to data released by the Park City Board of REALTORS, the median price  single-family home rose roughly 26% year-over-year to $2.5 million. Benloch Ranch offers single-family homes starting at $695,000.

The pitch is an attractive one: lean into the terrain and the idea of sustainability, feature interesting architecture, provide amenities, be close to an exciting scene and in at the start of a new development. This is a shift to new preferences of millennial buyers. The vacation homes of today and the future may look different and there is money to be made.

At the same time, this is about vacation homes in a wealthy community. This development has potential because millennials with resources can afford a vacation home starting at $700k. Sure, there are no more McMansions with all of that wasted space and tacky design but this kind of life is only available to those who can buy into it. The price for these homes would be beyond the reach of many residents of the Salt Lake City region, let alone many residents of the United States.

Does this mean the McMansion vacation homes of an older generation will not find buyers? This will be worth watching, both for vacation homes and regular homes. If McMansions go out of style, this could be reflected in lower prices or modifications – imagine multiple units – or even redevelopment.

Are suburbs now cool or are they just an attractive option at the moment?

An analysis of why the suburbs are currently attractive to millennials starts with a headline about the suburbs being cool but mainly discusses practical life issues:

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Changing attitudes about commutes.

Credit analyst Kailyn Hart was living in a 1,300-square-foot apartment in bustling Mid-City, Los Angeles with her fiancé, Dominic Wilson, and their 1-year-old son when the pandemic forced her to begin working from home. Being able to work remotely gave Hart—who had been watching mortgage rates for a good buying opportunity since 2017 —the kick she needed to purchase a 4-bedroom, 2,300 square-foot house with a backyard in Fontana, Calif, a 47-mile drive from L.A. “My boss told me that I’ll at least be working remote until December, and after that I may only be going into the office just once or twice a week,” says Hart, 32…

A need for more space…

“We’ve seen a surge of buyers who want to leave downtown for the suburbs,” says Nicole Fabiano-Oertel, a real estate agent at Compass in Chicago. “The most common reason is they want more space, whether that’s indoor space or outdoor space, or both.”…

Why pay city prices, when you can’t live the city life?…

Corey Jones, a real estate agent with Better Real Estate in Plainfield, N.J., says affordability is a driving factor for a lot of urban residents who are decamping to the suburbs. “What we’re hearing from clients more and more now is: why rent and pay city prices when you’re working from home?”…

Good public schools.

Generally, public school systems in the suburbs outperform schools in urban areas with respect to test scores, graduation rates, and college placement. Suburban schools also usually have more outdoor space for sports and other recreation. And, a number of parents who send their kids to expensive urban private schools have expressed that they’re less willing to keep paying if the schools go remote this year.

None of these reasons sound particularly cool. They sounds more like calculated decisions given the current circumstances: Americans tend to like larger private spaces, they have a lot of stuff, and they think certain places are better for raising children. These are all part of the ongoing appeal of the suburbs.

Going further, I wonder when suburbs were cool. Even as Americans moved to suburbs in large numbers in the twentieth century, were they ever the place to be? All during this period, critics of the suburbs pounded away at the problems: exclusion, conformity, soulless, mass produced, overreliance on driving, and on and on. Even as millions adopted a suburban lifestyle, it was not always portrayed in media products as the exciting or hip or sophisticated choice. Suburbs may have more entertainment centers than ever but they do not compare to the vibrant cultural centers and neighborhoods of big cities.

Perhaps the connection here is that millennials may be more interested in suburbs right at this moment. As relatively young adults, they have a higher cool factor and are not as locked into life paths. Just moving to the suburbs suggests younger Americans think the suburbs are a viable option…and this may be as cool as the suburbs get.

Millennials looking for “hipsturbia”?

An article about millennials settling in the suburbs of Colorado includes this summary of what millennials are looking for:

Essentially, millennials want the best of both worlds — the more affordable and spacious housing and better school districts found in the suburbs and the walkability and bustle of activity that older city neighborhoods offer.

The Urban Land Institute and accounting firm PwC, in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate report for 2020, have coined a term for the crossbreeding that is taking place — hipsturbia.

“Many of these ‘cool’ suburbs are associated with metro areas having vibrant downtowns, illustrating the falsity of a dichotomy that pits central cities against ring communities,” according to the report.

Sounds like the “surban” place described in the Chicago Tribune: single-family homes with more community amenities within walking distance. And you say the supposed battle between cities and suburbs is not necessary?

From the beginning in the United States, suburbs offered a middle ground between city and country. The early suburbs of the mid-1800s offered single-family homes surrounded by nature and some early suburbs were designed in ways to play up the connection to nature. Also from the beginning, some suburbs were closer to urban life than others and offered homes in denser settings. Some of these suburbs would later become known as inner-ring suburbs. More recently, pockets of suburbia have emphasized higher densities that might have grown around traditional downtowns or around new mixed-use developments. All that say, suburbs can be viewed as occupying a middle ground between different locations and hipsturbia continues that trend with offering features of both suburban and city life.

On a related note, it would be interesting to see if any suburbs come to have a mass of millennials. Just as urban neighborhoods can be ranked by the proportion of their millennial population, so might suburbs. If there is a critical mass, would this significantly change suburban social life?

Six suburbs for Generation Z

Homes.com surveyed Generation Z, found their preferences for where they want to live, and then matched those preferences with six suburbs:

In deciding where to buy a first home, each generation has likes and dislikes that reflect its values and priorities. Recently Homes.com surveyed more than 1,000 members of Generation Z to find out more about their home-buying plans, including what kind of neighborhood they prefer.

The survey found preferences centered around four characteristics:

Diversity. More than half prefer neighborhoods and communities that are racially and ethnically diverse;

Accessibility. Three out of four want a location that is accessible to work as well as to friends and family;

Safety. This is a priority when Generation Z-ers evaluate neighborhoods

Affordability. Generation Z is very aware of rising home prices that have kept millions of millennials from becoming homeowner.

And the six suburbs:

-Lilburn, Georgia (outside Atlanta)

-Florin, California (outside Sacramento)

-Shaker Heights, Ohio (outside Cleveland)

-Glendale Heights, Illinois (outside Chicago)

-Valley Stream, New York (outside New York City)

-Stafford, Texas (outside Houston)

Given these four traits and these six suburbs, there is limited representation from some notable big coastal cities including Los Angeles, San Francisco and the Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Presumably, these metropolitan are too pricey to meet the priority of affordability.

Additionally, it is interesting to not see on the list cultural opportunities or an exciting location. All big cities have hip locations or neighborhoods that might fit the bill or some of this could be rolled into other factors above. Yet, the list also does not include places like Austin and Denver which have a reputation for being cool.

Finally, I do not know the longer histories of these suburbs. Right now, they are quite diverse (at least in comparison to the image of white and wealthy suburbs) but they might not always have been that way and may not have the same composition in the future. If a lot of Generation Z buyers move to these communities, how would they shape the demographics and character of each suburb?

Black homeownership rates similar to before 1968 Fair Housing Act

An article about homeownership among black millennials includes this statistic:

Homeownership levels for blacks reached 42.7% in the third quarter of 2019 (compared with 64.8% for the overall population), a near-record low that has virtually erased all of the gains made since the passage of the Fair Housing ACt in 1968, landmark legislation outlawing housing discrimination, census data show.

“African Americans are already being left out of the housing market and that’s exacerbating levels of inequality in this country,” says Lawrence Yun, chief economist and senior vice president of research at the National Association of Realtors. “There’s a kind of urgency now within the housing community to bring younger African American buyers into real estate.”

Despite a decade of economic growth in the United States, including record low unemployment and higher wages for black workers, millennials of color make up only a small portion of the overall market for real estate, data show.

This cannot be good. Even as other economic figures might be good, owning a home offers a key way for Americans to build wealth over time. Going further, not having a home means being at the whim of landlords, perhaps more instability regarding having housing, and limited access to wealthier communities where a majority of residents own homes. Furthermore, this data suggests not much has changed in 50 years; does this hint that the gap between groups in the United States remains relatively unchanged?

If the next generation of young adults is struggling to purchase homes, that suggests the problem will continue for at least another 10-20 years. If there are politicians serious about fighting inequality, wouldn’t this be a good issue to take up, particularly given the persistent gaps between black and Latino homeownership and white homeownership?

Looking for stories of millennials and young adults who want to and enjoy living in suburban homes

The suburbs are indeed changing – such is the premise of Curbed‘s “The Suburbs Issue.” And the lead story seems to fit into this argument: the suburbs are changing in that millennials are not so sure about buying a large suburban home. Here is the conclusion from that story:

Scocca concludes that the dream of having a big house built just for you was “never a very good dream anyway,” and that might be true, and maybe it’s not even a revelation. Houses have always been a location where we can project our hopes, dreams, and fears. No matter how much we try to rationalize the process of owning a house, the relationship is always a bit foggy, tinted by human emotion. It doesn’t seem possible to live somewhere for any meaningful length of time without imbuing it with your own nebulous ego. Over the past few months, I kept returning to this quote from novelist Helen Oyeyemi: “I think that houses, or at least the home part of them, are so much constructed that they’re simultaneously magical and haunted anyway.” Houses are not homes, and homes are not necessarily houses. Perhaps the real American dream is to find a sense of stability, safety, and acceptance. Maybe this is a downsized version of our parents’ American dream, or perhaps it’s just more honest, taking into account all the different stories we’re fed from the outside, and all the private stories we tell ourselves behind closed doors.

There is much truth here: homeownership in the suburbs is not such an obvious path for many young Americans due to financial insecurity, watching what happened to older generations, and different priorities about what they want to get out of life. Just because Americans prioritized suburban homeownership in the last one hundred years (and propped it up through policies and cultural ideology) does not necessarily mean this will continue in the future.

At the same time, is an article like this in a long line of suburban critiques that now stretch back roughly a century? Some of the same concerns are present: what makes a home (the happy suburban facade or the difficulties many people still face even when it looks like they have the American Dream), whether the suburbs are financially possible (beyond just homes, driving is expensive and giving children all sorts of advantages is encouraged), environmental effects (using more land, driving, building individual homes), and a lack of excitement or vibrant community in the suburbs.

All of this leads me to wondering about the millennials who are still moving to suburbs by their choice. Surely they exist. Surveys suggest many millennials want to own a home in the suburbs at some point. The homeownership rate recently increased, driven by millennial’s purchases. The population of millennials in big cities recently declined. Empirical data could settle whether millennials are not settling in the suburbs at the same rate as previous generations or might be doing so at a delayed rate (which would fit with other findings regarding emerging adulthood).

Is finding these suburban millennials not a priority because it reinforces the suburban ideology? If millennials do largely settle in suburbs, would this be viewed as a failure of American society on multiple levels? Would settling in denser suburban areas be enough to make amends for decades of urban sprawl and “the ghastly tragedy of the suburbs“? Or, might slight changes among millennials be an acknowledgement that reversing long-standing narratives about the good life – the American Dream – could take decades (just as it took time to develop suburbia as the ideal on a mass scale)? What if, in the end, Americans like suburbs for multiple reasons?