Most millennials want to buy a home but we keep findings ones who don’t want to

Here is a recent story that both includes survey data that most millennials want to purchase a home yet leads with one who does not want to do this:

Niederkorn, a member of the millennial generation, currently lives with his parents but said he plans to be a renter for life and never buy a home. He craves the ability to pack up and go, he said, and doesn’t want to be saddled with a home loan, property taxes or homeowners associations fees. And though this may put him in the minority — an Apartment List survey of about 24,000 renters nationwide released in May found that 80 percent of millennial renters want to buy a house or condo sometime in the future — it does raise some interesting questions about the American Dream and the place of homeownership within it.

The historical overview of homeownership that follows is helpful but it is a weird premise: the cited data suggests there is a clear pattern but there is this one suburban guy who is going another direction. Do we follow the data or the single story?

On a related note, journalists are fascinated with millennials and what they may or not do, including buying a home. When I see such stories, I wonder if this is masking three different purposes:

  1. This is just another way to suggest there is a trend (journalists are always looking for trends).
  2. Journalists really hope millennials usher in major changes to American society.
  3. Younger journalists often live in big cities and want other millennials to affirm their choices.

Homeownership and suburban living is a hot topic in this area: will millennials follow their parents to the cookie-cutter suburbs and live boring lives? (There is often an evaluation of the suburbs included in the story.) I haven’t seen many articles where the conclusion is that many or most millennials will end up in the suburbs.

The ongoing difficulty of Chicago suburb to suburb commuting

The Daily Herald’s transportation writer details the difficulties of taking mass transit between Chicago suburbs:

My odyssey was prompted by the annual Dump the Pump Day, which encourages people to embrace public transit instead of driving.

Here’s a recap of the two-hour, 36-minute voyage to work:

• 8:20 a.m.: Boarded a Metra BNSF train in Downers Grove that arrived at Union Station.

• 9:23 a.m.: Caught a Blue Line train to Rosemont after a short walk from Union Station and a fight with a Ventra machine.

• 10:13 a.m.: Arrived at Rosemont and transferred to Pace Bus Route 606 at 10:30 a.m.; reached work at 10:56 a.m.

The tedious reverse commute lasted two hours, 57 minutes.

• 2:49 p.m.: Boarded Pace Bus Route 757 in Arlington Heights en route to the Forest Park Transit Center.

• 4 p.m.: Left on Pace Bus Route 301 headed to Oak Brook Center.

• 5:03 p.m.: Departed on Pace Bus Route 322 to Yorktown Center at 5:23 p.m.

• 5:30 p.m.: Took Pace Bus Route 834. Arrived in Downers Grove at 5:46 p.m.

By car, the trip is typically 30 to 40 minutes in the morning and 30 to 60 minutes in the afternoon, depending on traffic.

There are some easy answers as well as some more difficult discussions. The easy reasons to start:

  1. Mass transit in the region was constructed in an earlier era when many more people wanted to commute from suburbs to the city. The suburb to suburb trip is a product of recent decades.
  2. There is not money to do mass transit in the suburbs. This applies both to constructing mass transit (such as rail options) or attracting riders (with buses) who have too many starting points and endpoints.

But, given that so much commuting is now suburb to suburb, why aren’t there some more consistent options? Two deeper reasons:

  1. Infrastructure – not just mass transit but other systems including water – are in trouble. We are decades behind in providing good infrastructure. If it is any consolation, highway systems aren’t in much better shape as they often wait too long to add lanes or new routes (and it is debatable how successful these efforts are anyway.) It is both a funding and planning issue.
  2. Wealthier suburbs and suburbanites don’t really want mass transit. They don’t want to pay for it and they don’t want certain people coming to their community. They can generally afford driving and they like the freedom (and the exclusivity) it provides.

Overall, there is both a lack of will to build and use mass transit in many suburbs.

60+ Chicago suburbs lose population in recent years

Population loss may not just be limited to Chicago; dozens of Chicago area suburbs have lost population in the last few years.

From 2010 to 2014, Chicago and 73 of the suburbs saw their populations increase.

But the trend reversed from 2014 to 2016. In that time, Chicago and 61 suburbs saw their populations shrink…

Decreases were sharpest in the Cook County suburbs closest to the Chicago. Towns including Rosemont, Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect and even Hoffman Estates experienced declines of a full percent or more during the past two years…

But now, both the city and its suburbs are losing population, which is troubling to researchers. “That’s not really typical for us,” said Elizabeth Schuh, principal policy analyst at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. “Many regions often tend to lose from the central city as residents migrate to the suburbs. When you’re losing from both is when you see regional decline.”

From the maps, it is not as simple as closer suburbs are losing population and further suburbs are gaining residents. Instead, there seem to be pockets of suburban growth: the far west suburbs, two southwest corridors (though not Joliet), and some communities in eastern DuPage County and southern Lake County. Are these just communities that have had new development or are there particular features of these growing suburbs that are attracting residents (like access to trains or a high quality of life or a mix of housing options)?

The suggestion from the article that this is a regional issue could lead to some fruitful discussions: how does the third largest region in the country work together to attract more residents and businesses? It is easy to cast this as a problem with just Chicago but the city and suburbs are intertwined. A regional approach where multiple parties can win – and not just fight over businesses or residents moving from the suburbs to the city or vice versa – could be the better way to go.

Next steps to knowing a suburb

The six steps I discussed yesterday for knowing a suburb would provide a good starting point for any resident, outsider, or student. Here are the next steps to take in the same domains that would provide explanations of how things came to be rather than just a description of what is:

  1. A community’s website often includes a lot of interesting information. It may not be easy to find – after all, the website’s front page is intended to put the community’s best image forward – but there are minutes of local governmental bodies, announcements about projects, information on local officials, and more. I would go to the City Council (or equivalent) minutes or videos to start. They are often dull documents with records of the bills the community paid and other basic work that the average resident doesn’t care about. Yet, you can see the important matters that the Council discussed. What made it to their discussions (usually moving their way up through other local government bodies) and how did they decide? Attending such meetings can also help though reviewing documents and videos can probably be done more quickly.
  2. A zoning map provides a single view of how the land in a community is apportioned. But, how did the map develop? This is where finding the minutes of the Zoning Board or Plan Commission is useful. The City Council minutes show what projects were eventually approved but the Zoning or Plan Boards will reveal all the proposals that came forward (the ones that are voted down rarely make it to the full City Council). Again, many of the requests may be fairly dull – requesting a variance for a larger sign or building a residential garage a half foot over the allowed line – but discussions about the larger projects can be very consequential.
  3. Suburbs often have an “official” local history or two published by a local historian or group. Dig deeper than this through several avenues. Search through newspaper archives (a local or regional paper); some of these are now available online while others might be present in local libraries or museums. Go to local history museums, see what is on display and how they describe the formation of the community, and ask to look at the archives. (At these facilities, there may be a difference between the deeper archives and what the public is able to regularly look at in vertical files or published sources. Finally, the local library may be the most accessible option: they often have local history material including local government publications. In either a local museum or library, look for a comprehensive plan document: this is a formal moment when the community crystallized how they wanted to use land.
  4. Talking to any long-time residents may be helpful but talking to particular residents can provide more detailed information. In particular, talk with local officials and business leaders. These are the people intimately involved with the inside operation of the community, the movers and shakers. They can often articulate the vision that leaders have of who the community is and where it should go. Some of them may be harder to talk to while others are more approachable; look for venues such as community meetings of various kinds where they are available. Don’t be afraid to talk to these leaders: they either would like your vote or business and many like to talk about the community. (Talking to leaders of other community institutions can be spotty. For example, leaders of major non-profits or churches may have a sense of what their organization is up to but not necessarily have insights into the community as a whole or have much influence over the broader community.)
  5. Walking around helps provide insights into street-level social life but spending extended time in certain spaces can be very fruitful. Such spaces could include business districts, parks, central coffee shops or restaurants, community centers, main streets, and local festivals. Not all suburbs will have such spaces; indeed, many car-dependent suburbs lack public gathering spaces. However, the advantage of extended time in these spaces allows for observations over time (throughout a day and across months and seasons) as well as an opportunity to observe and enter into social interactions with those in such spaces.
  6. Census data can provide a quick snapshot of the community now but can also provide more detailed information. Here are three options: (1) look at the data over time to see how a community has changed; (2) focus on particular geographies such as a census tract, block group, or zip code; (3) dig into certain aspects of the data further (such as race and ethnicity, income and education, characteristics of the homes); and (4) compare across different parts of the suburb or nearby suburbs to get a sense how this community differs internally and with other nearby areas. There are also a number of non-Census websites that use the data in interactive ways. For example, use a detailed racial dot map to see where different racial and ethnic residents live.

All of these options are fairly accessible to the average person as long as they know where the resources are located and have some extra time beyond what the first steps (the earlier post) require.

First steps toward knowing a suburb

Residents of the suburbs can take a few easy steps to start learning about a community and what really is going on behind the scenes. Here are six easy steps:

  1. Check out the community’s website. How does the community present itself? What words are used and what photos are displayed? There is often a wealth of information available but also a lot of stuff that may not tell you much. At the least, the website will give you an idea of how the local government wishes outsiders to see them.
  2. Look at the zoning map of the community – this is often on the website and also can be viewed at the city/town hall. This provides an overview of how the community allots its land. The colors used should quickly tell you what takes up a majority of land – typically housing – but can also reveal where other pockets of activity are located (whether commercial districts, industrial parks, institutional land, or other options).
  3. Read some local history in books, local museums or historical societies, and websites. Local histories are often pretty positive about a community – many suburbs don’t want to talk about darker moments – but they can provide an overview of a community’s broad trajectory.
  4. Talk to some long-time residents about their experiences. While such conversations can highlight idiosyncratic individuals, residents can give a sense of the feel of a community as well as highlight important communal moments.
  5. Walk around. This is highly underrated and often appears quite difficult since so many suburbs are auto dependent. Walking gives you an opportunity to slowly see what is happening at the street level. If walking doesn’t work, try biking. If neither are a good option, driving around repeatedly can still be helpful since so much of the suburban landscape is designed to be seen from the road.
  6. Look at Census data for the community. Use the QuickFacts feature to see latest estimates from the American Community Survey and dicennial data. You can quickly see demographic and economic data for the whole community.

Through these steps, someone should get a sense of what community members think separates their suburb from all the others. In other words, what is the character of this suburb? One step that almost made the list: read a local or regional newspaper. However, these don’t exist in many communities now and even if they do, the news reported is highly selective.

In a soon to come post, I’ll provide follow-up steps to the six listed above.

Locating Trump supporters and fascists in the suburbs

One columnist explores possible connections between Trump supporters and where they live:

But scapegoating poor whites keeps the conversation away from fascism’s real base: the petite bourgeoisie. This is a piece of jargon used mostly by Marxists to denote small-property owners, whose nearest equivalents these days may be the “upper middle class” or “small-business owners.” FiveThirtyEight reported last May that “the median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000,” or roughly 130 percent of the national median. Trump’s real base, the actual backbone of fascism, isn’t poor and working-class voters, but middle-class and affluent whites. Often self-employed, possessed of a retirement account and a home as a nest egg, this is the stratum taken in by Horatio Alger stories. They can envision playing the market well enough to become the next Trump. They haven’t won “big-league,” but they’ve won enough to be invested in the hierarchy they aspire to climb. If only America were made great again, they could become the haute 
bourgeoisie—the storied “1 percent.”
…

Their material security bound up in the value of their real-estate assets, suburban white people had powerful incentives to keep their neighborhoods white. Just by their very proximity, black people would make their neighborhoods less desirable to future white home-buyers, thereby depreciating the value of the location. Location being the first rule of real estate, suburban homeowners nurtured racist attitudes, while deluding themselves that they weren’t excluding black people for reasons beyond their pocketbooks.

In recent decades, rising urban rents have been pushing lower-income people to more peripheral locations. As suburbia has grown poorer, the more affluent homeowners have fled for the even greener pastures of exurbia. Everywhere they turn, their economic anxiety 
follows them…

If you’re looking for Trump’s implacable support, Texas trailer parks and Kentucky cabins are the wrong places to find it. Fascism develops over hands of poker in furnished basements, over the grill by the backyard pool, over beers on the commuter-rail ride back from the ball game—and in police stations and squad cars.

Linking the suburbs to right-wing politics is nothing new. And it is certainly true that the formation of American suburbs is heavily influenced by race and class. Still, I’m a bit surprised I haven’t seen much data yet on the geography of Trump and Clinton support. In recent presidential elections, candidates have been fighting over middle suburban votes: cities and inner-ring suburbs vote Democratic, exurbs vote Republican, and suburbanites in the middle could go either way. Indeed, you can even find narratives that suburban voters are breaking for Democrats.

And fascism forming in the suburbs…I’d like to see a lot more evidence.

The new suburban crisis is…

According to Richard Florida, the era of cheap growth is over and suburbs will struggle to address important issues:

Suburban sprawl is extremely costly to the economy broadly. Infrastructure and vital services such as water and energy can be 2.5 times more expensive to deliver in the suburbs than in compact urban centers. In total, sprawl costs the U.S. economy roughly $600 billion a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, and another $400 billion in indirect costs from traffic congestion, pollution, and the like, according to a 2015 study from the London School of Economics. The total bill: a whopping $1 trillion a year…

When all is said and done, the suburban crisis reflects the end of a long era of cheap growth. Building roads and infrastructure and constructing houses on virgin land was and is an incredibly inexpensive way to provide an American Dream to the masses, certainly when compared to what it costs to build new subway lines, tunnels, and high-rise buildings in mature cities. For much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and on into the 1980s and 1990s, suburbanization was the near-perfect complement to America’s industrial economy. More than the great mobilization effort of World War II or any of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were applied during the 1930s, it was suburban development that propelled the golden era of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. As working- and middle-class families settled into suburban houses, their purchases of washers, dryers, television sets, living-room sofas, and automobiles stimulated the manufacturing sector that employed so many of them, creating more jobs and still more homebuyers. Sprawl was driver of the now-fading era of cheap economic growth.

But today, clustering, not dispersal, powers innovation and economic growth. Many people still like living in suburbs, of course, but suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.

Florida is right on a number of counts: (1) many suburbs are long past their period of growth and now having aging infrastructure as well as changing populations; (2) sprawl can be very inefficient for providing basic services (from water to roads to social services); and (3) we are in a different economic era.

At the same time, it is not necessarily clear where the suburbs will go after this. At least a few outcomes are possible:

  1. A decline in interest in suburbs (either a plateauing in population or even decreasing) due to inefficiencies, costs to the environment, and a resurgent interest in urban life (particularly among younger adults). Suburban critics have predicted movement in this direction for several decades.
  2. A retooling of suburbia. This could include: older suburbs adapting to the lack of greenfield growth opportunities; an increase in retrofitting older suburban developments and making them new and exciting; and denser suburban development (from row houses to New Urbanism).
  3. The status quo: enough Americans continue to express a desire for the suburban life despite what critics say. Technology may even help as driverless cars could make commutes more bearable.

There are indeed real issues facing suburbs, the suburban life was never as idyllic as it was portrayed, and suburban communities and outcomes today are varied. But, I believe it is hard to bet against an ongoing interest among Americans for the suburbs.