Autumn on Lake Audobon

Autumn on Lake Audobon
Autumn on Lake Audubon, Photo by Alison Kamat

Friday, April 3, 2015

Apparently population growth in the suburbs and beyond is not over despite tremendous publicity to the contrary.

In fact, the University of Virginia's latest population projection suggests that while a couple of close-in suburbs--Arlington and Alexandria--will lose  population while exurb counties like Stafford and Spotsylvania will more than double their populations in the next quarter century.  An article in the Washingtonian takes a look at  the UVA study this way:
To New Exurbanites, the traditional suburbs—like the central city before them—feel full. Arlington County is now home to 229,302 people, Fairfax County to 1,118,884. It’s “saturated,” says Sue Smith, a real-estate agent in Northern Virginia for 27 years. So they trek to once-distant areas: Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and Winchester in Virginia and Frederick County in Maryland. Over the coming years, an increasing number of people settling these exurbs will be millennials, like Lindsay Arnold, and the generation that follows.
That’s not what you’d expect if you’ve been reading headlines. The prevailing wisdom about millennials is that they’re wedded to urban-style living—even in the suburbs—with craft breweries and yoga studios on every other corner and a Trader Joe’s within walking distance. But in Washington, many of the youngest homebuyers are hewing to the same patterns their parents did, according to Lisa Sturtevant, executive director of Washington’s Center for Housing Policy, the research arm of the nonprofit National Housing Conference. “The suburbs are ripe for a rebirth,” Sturtevant says. “Despite everything you hear about cities, people want a single-family home.”

Virginia counties, such as Frederick, Spotsylvania, and Stafford, are expected to have the most growth over the next 35 years. Data from US Census Bureau, UVA Cooper Center, and Maryland Department of Planning.

This is pretty much what Reston 2020 has been saying all along.  Yes, young adults--singles or couples--are looking for smaller, affordable housing close to their new jobs, near retail and vibrant nightlife, and are quite comfortable living in high-rise apartments and condominiums not unlike their college experience.  Then they start earning more money and having children, and they need more space for their growing family and even some outside space for the kids to play (and, no, a pocket park a block away doesn't fit that bill, especially for younger children), so they buy single family homes or townhomes in the 'burbs and by in large drive to work.  At the other end of the age distribution are empty nesters who are looking to downsize, reduce housing expenses, and have key retail shopping within easy walking distance and no need to commute whether by auto, transit, walking, or pedaling.  Like their young counterparts, they are likely to be more inclined to move into more affordable, higher density neighborhoods with walkable retail  in our metropolitan area--and these types are housing are spreading into the suburbs (although the costs often remain high).  In short, there is not so much a shift in the nature of housing demand overall, just a shift in where the various types of housing are needed.
15 Economic Facts about Millennials, CEA, The White House, October 2014

While the preceding life cycle of housing demand is not news in a major urban area with better-than-average incomes overall, developers would have local policymakers and the public believe we will all soon be living in high-density, high-rise, and often high-cost apartments and condos and use nothing but transit or our feet to go everywhere.  As the article suggests, the fixation on Millennials is overwhelming because they comprise about one-third of our population.  (Their relative size is a function of the fact that the "Millennial" generation covers the longest timeframe (24 years) and comprises the offspring of an ever-growing national population--including immigration--for any designated age group cohort.)

Local officials, especially in maturing counties such as Fairfax, are anxious to believe developers that the core demand for housing lies in high-density, high-rise development because it gives elected officials some legitimacy in approving high-density, high-rise development, especially near rail transit areas.  It's appealing to them because it give them an opportunity to believe they can build their localities out of stabilizing home values and a lack of space for new low-density homes that may enable them to garner additional property tax revenues without unnecessarily raising real estate property tax rates.

There are several key implications of the preceding.
Of the (Washington MSA) GRP growth, almost ¾ will be in locations where autos provide the accessibility.  . . For all economic activity in the region, the share of GRP enabled by auto travel goes from 74.3% in 2007 to 73.1% in 2040, and economic activity supported by
transit changes only very slightly from 22.3% to 22.2%.  The support of economic activity by mode changes very little over the 3-decade forecast period – surprising in light of the investments and focus of public policy to shift travel away from the auto and roads to transit.
. . .
  • Other public infrastructure needs and costs--schools, water & sewer, recreational facilities, etc.-- will also grow at least in proportion to the growth in population, the face of inflation, reduced real property value growth rates, and a desire to improve household quality of life.  It is highly unlikely that the taxes generated by housing growth alone will be sufficient to sustain existing "low" real estate property tax rates or other lesser local tax revenue sources.  This is especially worrisome in Virginia where local authority to create new taxes is substantially circumscribed by the state (although local politicians have been creative in using the authorities they have). 
  • Maturing counties like Fairfax have no significant place to add development except to go vertical, and that construction is generally more expensive than stick-built homes.  As suggested above, these high-rise, high-density homes are largely the residences of young professional Millennials and well-to-do seniors who can afford the higher rents and prices  and fees these structures require.  Yet, there is only so much of this above-average demand, and less wealthy younger and older adults are ill-served by this trend in the absence of policies mitigating this natural economic selection of residents.  This is especially important in Reston, a community that aspires to meet the needs of all people in all walks of life. 
Development and housing policies in Fairfax County and across the region need to consider the full range of issues in accommodating our growing populations and their diverse housing needs as well as their budget and infrastructure challenges.

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