Therapy for those making the city to suburb move

For families that are having a hard time leaving the city behind, the move to the suburbs can be easier if others help:

People move for many reasons. Brokers, however, see a familiar thread: Couples move to the suburbs after having kids. And, as people marry later and live in the city longer, moving becomes more than just packing. Mentally and emotionally, experts say, people wrestle with changing from city dweller to suburbanite.

“I see this all the time with my practice,” said David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center, which has offices in Chicago and Skokie. “Where we live gives us a sense of identity.”

Swapping city life for the suburbs is different from moving to another town or neighborhood. Real estate agents say city-to-suburbs folks often need special hand-holding…

In September, Alison Bernstein launched Suburban Jungle in Chicago, which she started after moving from New York City to the surrounding area and feeling lost on which neighborhood would best fit her family. The company’s sole purpose is helping families transition from, for example, Lincoln Park to Lake Forest. Employees meet with shoppers, aiming to best match a town to their personality. They connect clients to suburb experts and locals at no cost, taking a commission from the sale.

“Our job is literally 98 percent therapy and not real estate,” Bernstein said. “It’s like, ‘Am I making the right move?’ It’s a lot of stress, and it’s a big change.”

Even as Americans move quite a bit (see evidence here and here), it can be a stressful process. However, two things strike me about this particular article:

  1. All the people cited here are on the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum. The moves invoked include going from Lincoln Park to Hinsdale or Lake Forest. These are people who can afford to use a company like Suburban Jungle.
  2. Some of the fear of the suburban life might be driven by negative stereotypes of the suburbs. Some of these may have some truth – such as having fewer entertainment spots in the suburbs – but the typical suburban critiques (which have a long history dating back nearly a century) present a very one-sided view.

All together, being able to move to these kinds of suburban communities – wealthy, safe, good schools, clean, high property values – would be a dream for many people. On the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, people often move to the suburbs seeking necessities such as work or cheaper housing but can end up in suburbs that have many problems that cities feature.

Moving a 762 ton Chicago house

To make room for the development of the McCormick Place entertainment district, a heavy landmark home from South Prairie Avenue has to be moved:

The house, built in 1888 by Rees, widow of real estate pioneer and land surveyor James H. Rees, is the last structure standing on the 2100 block of South Prairie. The house was granted landmark status in 2012 by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

Moving the 762-ton house will be a monumental job, involving 29 remote-controlled hydraulic dollies with a total of 232 wheels. The total weight, including equipment, is 1,050 tons…

The authority is spending more than $6 million to move the home and the adjacent coach house. The new plot of land cost an additional $1.9 million. The home won’t change owners, but the authority will also compensate the private owners with $450,000…

Last month, workers did a practice run, moving the much smaller coach house to its new location. It weighed a mere 185 tons.

Though the relocation will be among one of the heaviest in U.S. history, it won’t set any records. Guinness World Records lists the Fu Gang Building in China’s Guangxi province as the heaviest building moved intact. The 16,689-ton building was moved in 2004.

Two notable things here:

1. This is quite a project. Read the story for more of the details including what they laid on top of the road in preparation for the move as well as how they secured the home on its pad so it doesn’t fall off during the move.

2. South Prairie Avenue used to be the home for wealthy Chicagoans. Here is more from the Wikipedia entry on Prairie Avenue:

During the last three decades of the 19th century, a six-block section of the street served as the residence of many of Chicago’s elite families and an additional four-block section was also known for grand homes. The upper six-block section includes part of the historic Prairie Avenue District, which was declared a Chicago Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places…

By 1877 the eleven-block area of Prairie Avenue as well as Calumet Avenue housed elite residences. By 1886 the finest mansions in the city, each equipped with its own carriage house, stood on Prairie Avenue. In the 1880s and 1890s, mansions for George Pullman, Marshall Field, John J. Glessner and Philip Armour anchored a neighborhood of over fifty mansions known as “Millionaire’s Row”. Many of the leading architects of the day, such as Richard Morris Hunt, Henry Hobson Richardson and Daniel Burnham designed mansions on the street. At the time of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, guidebooks described the street as “the most expensive street west of Fifth Avenue”. However, after Bertha Palmer, society wife of Potter Palmer, built the Palmer Mansion that anchored the Gold Coast along Lake Shore Drive, the elite residents began to move north.

While the wealthiest area was several blocks north, this home is part of an area once very important to Chicago’s elite. Yet, like many areas in major cities, redevelopment is common as people and businesses move and new residents and leaders bring in new ideas.

Countering blanket statements about cities and suburbs

A Dallas columnist argues typical views of the city and suburbs are outdated:

Yet we seem to cling stubbornly to outdated city-vs.-suburb cliches and mutual suspicions that serve no purpose other than to make people think ill of one another.

On one side are quasi-racist Dallas baiters for whom “urban” is thinly veiled doublespeak for poor, minority, crime-plagued neighborhoods where government is unfailingly corrupt and public schools actually make kids stupider. It’s a segregationist stereotype that by now should be eroded by three decades worth of urban revitalization, crime reduction and development of spectacular public spaces.

On the other are sanctimonious hipsters who use “suburban” as an insult that describes selfish, conformist commuters who drive everywhere in super-sized SUVs, spend their leisure time at the mall, vote like the people next door and think “art” is a Thomas Kinkade print. It’s a myopic definition that hasn’t budged since Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road in 1961.

The truth is that the places we live are as individual as we are, and we choose them based on our individual priorities — entertainment, safety, good schools, friendly neighbors, what we can afford, what we want to see when we look out the window.

I agree with one conclusion but not the other. First, individual communities, whether they are urban neighborhoods with a sense of place or far-flung suburbs, are unique and have different characters. This is particularly true for a number of the people who live there and buy, in terms of housing but also symbolically and culturally, into the place. Both cities and suburbs are assumed to be all alike and this is simply not the case. There are distinguishing differences between these different types, such as population density, the number of nearby jobs and business, the kinds of housing, the history, etc. but it is silly to lump them all together.

On the second conclusion, it isn’t quite as simple as suggesting people make individual choices. This may feel like it is the case, particularly for those with means (money, status), but even those people are constrained by the lifestyles they desire. But, people with less means have fewer choices and then are restricted by cheaper housing options or what is close to jobs. In other words, residential choices tend to fall into patterns based on class and race, whether in the cities or suburbs.

Trying to explain the declining mobility of Americans

More recent data suggests American mobility has slowed and we’re not quite sure why:

Historically Americans are an extremely mobile people, but if they keep moving like they did the past five years, they may not keep that reputation for long. This month the U.S. Census released the latest migration data [PDF] from the Current Population Survey, which measures whether or not a person has moved within the past five years (via David King). The 2010 national five-year mobility rate was about 35 percent — the lowest since the Census began to collect data on the question…

The Census has detailed data on who’s moving. People in their late twenties had the highest mobility rate (about 65 percent), while Latinos and African Americans were the most mobile racial groups (each with rates of roughly 43 percent). Households making under $50,000 a year moved a bit more than those with incomes over $75,000. Renters moved much more than homeowners: at a rate of two-thirds to less than a quarter, respectively.

The bureau also knows where they’re moving. Among people who did move, most stayed in the same county (61 percent, an all-time high). The share of Americans who moved from different states (nearly 16 percent) and from different counties within the same state (19 percent) both declined a few points. The South had a statistically significant net mobility gain of 1.1 million people, while the Northeast (832,000) and Midwest (350,000) lost people on net…

But the Census can’t quite say why Americans are moving — or not moving, as the case appears. The obvious culprit is the recession: when it’s hard to get a new job or sell your house, you aren’t likely to move. That explanation doesn’t entirely hold up against the data, however. For one thing, the unemployed moved at a higher five-year rate than people with jobs (48 to 37 percent). Also moving rates having been trending down in recent years for renters and homeowners alike (green and red lines, respectively).

The summary: it is not clear why Americans are moving less. The one answer the article ends with is that Americans may simply be willing to move less. What if we simply have reached a point where fewer Americans are willing to explore, have adventures, take advantage of different opportunities, and other supposed traits of American residents? We are long past the frontier era of American life and perhaps this narrative of mobility simply doesn’t apply any more. The last “frontier” we conquered was putting astronauts on the moon; this was a while ago and it didn’t lead to much mobility to the new frontier.

I wonder if there is any sort of story here about maturing communities or nations where people “settle down” and mobility slows. I could imagine this taking place at the level of a suburb: the early years might be marked by a highly transient population that is moving in and out of new housing but as the community matures fewer new people are moving in to the decreasing amount of new housing.


Sociologist/time management consultant on the rush of Baby Boomers to new homes

A sociologist and time management consultant offers some thoughts about the upcoming years for many American Baby Boomers:

Jan Yager, a sociologist and time-management consultant, predicts that within the next decade “tens of millions” of baby boomers will sell their current homes and move to different abodes more suitable for retirement.

No matter where they plan to move, boomers who’ve lived in the same home for many years will face the enormous task of sifting through accumulations and upgrading their property for market. And all who try to tackle this project need a strategic plan to manage their time, says Yager, author of “Work Less, Do More,” a time-management book…

If possible, Yager encourages those who need to clear through a vast collection of belongings before selling to allow a full year for this project. But she’s aware that most sellers don’t have this much latitude and that they may need some help to expedite the process.

“It could be a good idea for you to hire a professional organizer,” says Yager, who recommends that home sellers consider seeking a local referral through the National Association of Professional Organizers (

Four things strike me here:

1. Moving is not made easier after decades of consumption and accumulation. While our houses have gotten larger, our household sizes have gotten smaller, suggesting we need more space for our stuff or like more private space.

2. Is there a lot of potential for contractors and companies to offer remodeling or flipping services to Baby Boomers who don’t have the time to upgrade their own homes? New buyers have their own tastes and there could be a lot of money spent on upgrading homes built during the construction boom after World War II.

3. The potential move of so many Baby Boomers has the potential to have a large effect on demographics and other features of American life such as electoral politics, the housing industry, and advertisers. We’ve already seen some of this in Sunbelt growth in places like Florida and Arizona.

4. Americans have been known for their mobility, their interest in trying out new places and tackling new opportunities. Is this an extension of this spirit, another example of the American can-do spirit? Or more of a recognition that life truly changes as we age?

The best state to live in is North Dakota; will this change anything?

A new set of rankings suggests that North Dakota is the #1 state in which to live. Here are some of the reasons:

Lowest unemployment rate among the 50 states. North Dakota’s 3.8 percent unemployment rate is less than half the national rate.

Statewide GDP growth of 3.9 percent ranked third in the nation in 2009 behind Oklahoma and Wyoming (2010’s figures are not yet available.)

Best job growth last year. A Gallup survey reported that North Dakota businesses had the best ratio of hiring to firing among the 50 states.

Stable housing market. Across the nation, nearly 1 in 4 homeowners with a mortgage are underwater. In North Dakota, just 1 in 14 have negative equity, the fourth lowest negative-equity ratio among all the states. The state also has the third-lowest home foreclosure rate. Affordable homes are a big part of the story here; let’s just say you don’t need to overstretch to own. According to Zillow, the median home price in North Dakota is below $150,000. That’s less than three times the state’s median household income. By comparison, even after sharp post-bubble price declines, the median priced home in California is still about five times median household income.

Low violent crime rate. The incidence of violent crime per 100,000 residents in North Dakota in 2008 (latest available data) was the fourth lowest in the country and nearly 60 percent lower than the national average.

Lowest credit card default rate. According to TransUnion, North Dakotans seem to have a handle on spending within their means.

The article goes on to say that Gallup recently found North Dakota to be the 3rd happiest state in the county.

One way of thinking about this ranking is to address the typical questions about such rankings: how dependent is the ranking on what factors were considered and how they were weighted? This plagues rankings of everything from states to colleges to communities to country’s well-being.

But another way to look at this is to ask whether the ranking will have any impact in the real world. This seems akin to the issue of substantive significance: statistics or data might suggest several variables are related but this doesn’t mean that this relationship or finding makes a big difference in everyday life. If North Dakota really is #1 based on a variety of useful measures, does this mean more people will move to the state? People move for a variety of reasons: jobs, to be by family, for certain climates (warmer weather) or atmospheres (the excitement of creative class cities or more sophisticated places), for education, to escape certain issues (crime, poverty) and benefit from the advantages of certain places (schools, parks, family-friendly, kid-friendly). But would anyone ever move to North Dakota based on this ranking? Will it lead to more businesses taking a second look at locating in North Dakota rather than big cities (or their suburbs) like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or elsewhere?

Another possible area of impact are perceptions about the state. Will the state’s status or prestige increase due to this ranking? If the state is seen as successful by other states, they might emulate North Dakota’s policies.

Overall, if North Dakota was #1 for decades, would anything really change?

(A related issue: if people did start moving to North Dakota in large numbers, would the state be able to maintain its top rank on this list?)

Argument: improve educational performance of poor children by moving them to the suburbs

Academic achievement is a familiar topic in recent American discourse: how exactly do we improve student performance, particularly for those who are behind? One foundation president suggest the answer is to have more poor kids move to the suburbs and attend suburban schools with wealthier children:

One of the most important recent pieces of education research was released last year — and promptly ignored. The Century Foundation’s report “Housing Policy is School Policy” confirms the seminal 1966 finding of Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman: The school-based variable that most profoundly affects student performance is the socioeconomic composition of the school. In short, poor children do better if they attend schools with affluent children.

The “new” news in the report? It highlights the critical out-of-school influence of where the low-income children reside. Poor children attending an affluent school do even better, it turns out, if they also live in an affluent neighborhood.

There is more interesting material in here, including reference to the Gautreaux program in Chicago (see some of the academic research generated in studying this program) that was one of the first programs that moved public housing families to suburban neighborhoods. (However, there is no mention of over similar and bigger programs, like HUD’s Moving To Opportunity.)

As the article suggests, this is a difficult solution to implement. The suburbs tend to have more expensive housing, suburban residents can be resistant to minorities and the lower classes, support networks can be lacking, and transportation by automobile is often required (and is costly). Additionally, it is very hard to create laws that would force movement or impel suburban communities to build affordable housing.

More broadly, this piece is a reminder of the price of segregated housing in America. We have an ethos that says people can move wherever they want (particularly if they have the money) but there are a variety of factors that inhibit this. As American Apartheid suggests, residential segregation “is the ‘linchpin’ of American race relations.”

How other states see Illinois’ income tax hike

The news this week that Illinois will have higher personal income and business taxes has spread to nearby states. According to this AP report, “neighboring states” are “gleeful” over this news:

Neighboring states gleefully plotted Wednesday to take advantage of what they consider a major economic blunder and lure business away from Illinois.

“It’s like living next door to `The Simpsons’ — you know, the dysfunctional family down the block,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said in an interview on Chicago’s WLS-AM.

But economic experts scoffed at images of highways packed with moving vans as businesses leave Illinois. Income taxes are just one piece of the puzzle when businesses decide where to locate or expand, they said, and states should be cooperating instead trying to poach jobs from one another.

“The idea of competing on state tax rates is . . . hopelessly out of date,” said Ed Morrison, economic policy advisor at the Purdue Center for Regional Development. “It demonstrates that political leadership is really out of step with what the global competitive realities are.”

A few thoughts:

1. Mitch Daniels watches The Simpsons? Might this admission hurt his possible presidential run or would it help him sell a hipper image? In the minds of some, perhaps where the analogy breaks down is that the Simpson family always seems to turn out all right in the end.

2. Income taxes are just one factor that businesses consider. I would like to read more about this at some point. For example, the conventional literature on suburban development suggests that low taxes is one of the reasons that residents and businesses decided to move out of the city in the first place. It would be helpful to know what are the “most important” factors that businesses consider – is income tax a lesser factor or a greater factor?

3. How many businesses will actually move to Wisconsin or Indiana or elsewhere and is there a way to predict this? It is true that Americans can vote for certain policies or actions by moving. Taxes may even be part of the reason the Sunbelt has grown in population in recent decades. At the same time, there are other factors beyond taxes that anchor people or businesses to certain places. I was intrigued with this question when living in South Bend, Indiana. Some people said they couldn’t wait to leave. Others wanted to stay. What pushes people (or businesses) to the point where they actually will move? Moving is not an easy process – it requires quite a bit of change and money (though money might be saved in the long run).

3a. The opinion of Wisconsin or Indiana held by Chicago area residents is often not the highest. Are these tax increases enough to push people toward places that they chose not to move to before?

3b. Is this “gleefulness” from other states tied to larger issues other states with the state of Illinois?

The methodology behind Money’s 2010 best places to live

Every year, Money magazine publishes a list of “the best places to live.” I’ve always enjoyed this list as it attempts to distill what communities truly match what people would desire in a community. The winner in 2010 (in the August issue) was Eden Prairie, Minnesota

But one issue with this list is how the communities are selected. In 2009, the list was about small towns, communities between 8,500 and 50,000. In 2010, the list was restricted to “small cities,” places with 50,000 to 300,000 residents. Here is how the magazine selected its 2010 list of communities to grade and rank:

Start with all U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 to 300,000.

Exclude places where the median family income is more than 200% or less than 85% of the state median and those more than 95% white.

Screen out retirement communities, towns with significant job loss, and those with poor education and crime scores. Rank remaining places based on housing affordability, school quality, arts and leisure, safety, health care, diversity, and several ease-of-living criteria.

Factor in additional data on the economy (including fiscal strength of the government), jobs, housing, and schools. Weight economic factors most heavily.

Visit towns and interview residents, assessing traffic, parks, and gathering places and considering intangibles like community spirit.

Select the winner based on the data and reporting.

A couple of questions I have:

1. I agree that it can be hard to compare communities with 10,000 people and 150,000 people. But can the list from each year be called “the best place to live” if the communities of interest change?

2. I wonder how they chose the median income cutoffs. So this cuts out places that might be “too exclusive” or “not exclusive enough.” Are these places not desirable to people?

3. Some measure of racial homogeneity is included in several steps. How many home buyers desire this? We know from a lot of research that whites tend to avoid neighborhoods with even moderate levels of African-Americans.

4. Weighting economic factors heavily seems to make sense. Jobs and economic opportunities are a good enticement for moving.

5. I would be interested to see what kind of information they collected on their 30 community visits. How many residents and leaders did they talk to? How does one measure “community spirit”? If a community says it has “community spirit,” how exactly do you check to see whether that is correct?

Overall, this is a complicated methodology that accounts for a number of factors. What I would like to know is how this list compares with how Americans make decisions about where to live. Do people want to move up to places like this and then stay there or is the dream for many to move on to more exclusive communities (if possible)? How many Americans could realistically afford to or possibly move into these communities?

(A side note: the four Chicago suburbs in the top 100 for 2010: Bolingbrook at #43, Naperville at #54, Mount Prospect at #56, and Arlington Heights at #59. Naperville used to rank much higher earlier in the 21st century – I wonder how it has slipped in the rankings.)