Thursday, June 10

Do young families prefer suburbs?

A couple has a kid, moves out of their condo in the city, buys a house with a big yard, sets up a swing set in said yard, loads up the minivan SUV with backpacks and shin guards, and never looks back. This is probably our dominant life-cycle narrative in America, but does the actual data of housing preferences bear this out. Is this what we want?

There's generally two ways to figure out what people want: see what they do and see what they say they want. Both are tricky.

A new report from Statistics Canada saw what young families did. Between 2001 and 2006, many of them moved out of the Canadian cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver into the surrounding suburbs. A full 27% of first-time parents made the move out the city and very few moved in. While this is definitely statistically significant, we can't jump to the conclusion right away that these families have a preference for suburbs. As family researcher Clarence Lockhead explains,

I think a lot of what we’re seeing in these patterns are really associated with housing costs and availability of affordable homes. I think that’s a really big factor.”
This is supported by the fact that young families with incomes over $100,000 do tend to live closer in, perhaps because they can afford to be homeowners in high-amenity, walkable neighborhoods. Any market choice reflects both supply and demand. It may look like families are demanding homes in the far-flung suburbs, but it could also be that there is a supply shortage of affordable, urban or inner suburban homes suitable for families. Or a little of both.

Another study just published in JAPA saw what families say they want. Researchers evaluated housing preference surveys conducted throughout the Southwest. They asked questions about trade-offs. Short commute or spacious yard? A Mixed-use neighborhood with things to walk to or a purely residential street? One finding:
"The presence of children in the respondent’s household is linked to less interest in small houses with short commutes, less interest in walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, and less interest in transit-oriented neighborhoods."
The correlation between families and conventional suburban homes was not huge, and it didn't apply at all in some states, but it still does raise our question again. It looks like families are more likely to say they want to live further apart from others, whether they are currently able to do so or not.

Yet here there are complications too. Although the survey tried to force trade-offs, it's impossible to fully construct the multiplicity of real life with questions simple enough be answered in a few seconds. For instance,
"Among the Southwest respondents who embraced a small house and short commute, 39% nevertheless said they preferred to live in a strictly residential (rather than mixed-use) neighborhood, and fully 61% of them said they preferred a low-density, auto-dependent neighborhood."
The researchers note that this is probably not a realistic bundle of preferences, but they were unable to truly force the decision between these ideals.

There's also the difficulty of parsing necessity from contingency. What factors are inherent to a type of physical form and what factors happen to be associated with it in Post-WWII America?  For instance, good schools may come to mind when the respondents imagine a low-density scenario, but there's nothing about the density itself that has anything to do with educational quality. It's just how things happen to have shaken out in recent U.S. history.  On the other hand, a large yard really is logically connected to lower densities, and lots of walkable destinations are only possible in higher densities. If what we're interested in is just the physical form, it's not easy to pull apart the conscious or subconscious prejudices that have become attached to that form in our culture.

I've hopefully been successful in shrouding this whole issue in a cloud of confusion. Or I could just admit that young families might be more likely to want lower densities, single uses, less connected streets, etc. and point to David Alpert's nice post about incorporating shared play space for children into neighborhoods. There's certainly more that can be done design-wise to make urban neighborhoods attractive to families.


Anonymous said...

What your discussion leaves out is the role of school quality. For a lot of middle and upper middle class families, the primary government service they consume (and value most) is public schools. What drives sprawl is the desire to find affordable housing with higher performing public schools.

If you look at the new urbanist success stories (San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, etc) what you see are a lot of cities with more dogs than children.

The best predictor of school test scores is average educational attainment of the parents. Successful urban neighborhoods strive to be mixed income neighborhoods. But mixed income neighborhoods also tend to have middling schools. Urban renewal often means higher property values, but still middling schools. Oakland California, offers both very expensive housing prices and very poor performing public schools, thus the movement out of Oakland to places like Elk Grove, California for people planning on starting a family, where housing is much cheaper yet the public schools are much better

High cost housing and low performing public school aren't an issue for the gays, the dinks and the single folks who don't have children, but for people with kids, high cost housing and lower performing public schools mean its time to move to the edge city, where schools are better and housing costs are cheaper.

The problem is that yesterdays edge city is today's inner suburb. The inner suburbs are now having a lot of the same problems that inner cities have. More poor people moving into this aging housing stock, fewer well educated people and more immigrants who fail to do as well on standardized test scores.

Strict urban growth boundaries tend to stiffle this process, but the communities with the stiffist growth policies tend to have the least amount of housing affordible to the middle class and tend to have lots of domestic migration out of the region as people leave the area in search of affordible housing. See the middle class exodus from Coastal California to the inland parts of California, like Sacramento, Fresno, Riverside, etc.


Daniel Nairn said...

Ed, I do agree with you that schools are a major factor. Maybe this could also help explain why upper-middle class families in Canada were more likely to choose cities than their middle-class peers. Maybe they could afford to send children to private schools or homeschool.

However, I was trying to get around those kinds of explanations and isolate just the physical form of a place. I probably should have been more precise with how I'm using the words urban and suburban. So when I say suburbs, I mean low densities, segregation of uses, disconnected streets, etc. I'm trying to figure out whether it's really this stuff that people want when they choose suburbs, or whether it's the other things that got associated with it (although are not logically necessitated by the form itself).

Anonymous said...

When I was single, I lived in San Francisco, California. When I was ready to buy a home I made a move than many people did in my situation, I moved out to Roseville, California.

If you look at median family incomes in the two places, they are about the same $88k a year in Roseville and $87k a year in SF. But housing prices were vastly different, median housing price in SF was $821k vs $431k a year in Roseville.

The big differences were that public schools were much better in Roseville and I could buy bigger home for about half as much in Roseville as in SF.

I don't know if you are familiar with Tiebout sorting.

But basically he was arguing that people will self-segregate based upon differing preferences for goods and services.

part 1

Anonymous said...

If you compare walkscores for Roseville vs. SF, there is no comparision. SF scores very well on that criteria. Roseville is pretty much a car dependent urban fringe city.

When I was single, I was pretty much willing to sacrafice access to high quality public schools and space for convientent access to local neighborhood cafes and restaurants. Once I had kids, I was pretty much willing to give up walkable access to cafes and restaurants for access to high quality public schools and more space to store my kids stuff.

Roseville is loaded with kids, SF for the most part doesn't have many.

Housing is a positional good. Homebuyers need to outbid others for the right to live in a specific neighborhood. When money isn't an issue (like when comparing communities of the same income level such as Roseville and SF) people will still try to outbid each other in non-monetary ways, like trading off access to walkable communities for access to high quality schools or even climate.

The reason, I no longer live in SF, is that the people without kids were willing to outbid me for the right to live in SF. The reason, the people in Roseville have so many kids is that they were willing to outbid the people without children for the right to live in Roseville and send there children to high quality Roseville public schools.

SF has plenty of nice local neighborhood parks with lots of playground equiptment that was rarely used.

It doesn't have many families using those playgrounds, because the families have been outbid for the right to live in those neighborhoods by young single folks who share housing for the opportunity to live in San Francisco. When you have three young lawyers all talking a room in a shared 3 bedroom apartment, they can outbid me and my wife for the right to occupy that three bedroom apartment. They need less space and they don't need to put money away to send there children to college or pay for braces.

The other issue is income segregation. While median incomes are about the same in Roseville and SF. The distribution of incomes is very different. You have a much wider spread of incomes in SF. You have CEOs of companies like Levis and Chevron and you have first generation immigrants living in Chinatown.

But the very wealthy in SF aren't sending there kids to the local public schools, they can afford to send them to private schools. As a result for a given price point in SF, the schools in SF are filled with a greater number of poor people who do less well on standardized tests.

A $500k home in SF will have much worse performing public schools than a $500K home in Roseville.

In terms of school quality an 800k home in SF is equivalent to 250k home in Roseville.

If you don't have kids, you don't care about these types of considerations, but if you do have kids, you end up saying, well I think I probably should move to Roseville.

Dano said...

It is true that the reason for many's exodus from the city is the cheaper housing and the schools. This is so well-established in the literature it doesn't bear mentioning - which may be why Daniel forgot it in his argument.

Nonetheless, many of late have been pointing out WalkScore and location-efficient housing, to try and point out that transportation costs are high in the McBurbs. Economists have talked about the tradeoffs agents and coupleagents make in their decision to spend 1.5 hrs/day in the shiny box in order to procure good schooling for the progeny agents.

These basic facts won't go away, no matter how hard Daniel tries to construct his argument. Many young families may not "prefer" to live there, but they choose to. There is a difference and if the task is to keep young families near the core, then something will have to be done about the schools.



CG said...

What about the size of the houses themselves, as apart from the yard or the education issue? The most basic change the family is undergoing is moving from 2 occupants of a unit to 3 -- possibly with the expectation of a 4 and 5. Most living spaces in urban areas simply are not designed with more than two or three occupants in mind. By contrast, the single urbanite has little need for the five-bedroom suburban house.

So, if the new family wants to simply maintain its existing ratio of occupants/sq. ft., it may have little choice but to decamp to suburbia. The supply of large housing units in urban areas is so small that prices will be greatly inflated -- see about purchasing a 2,000 square foot townhouse in Dupont or Greenwich Village -- and few people want to relive the experience of our great-grandparents of stuffing the whole family into one bedroom, at any price. Thus, the factor of urban amenities almost becomes moot to such a family, even where, if acceptable options were widely available at an reasonable cost, they'd strongly prefer remaining in the city.

Daniel Nairn said...

I can't help but point out that I didn't forget the schools.

"For instance, good schools may come to mind when the respondents imagine a low-density scenario ..."

I didn't focus on this because I'm trying to isolate issues of form and design (what I'm mostly interested in) from the equation. If families are moving to Roseville just for the affordability and good schools, then maybe the car dependence is merely something they tolerate in order to secure the former. If they had the option for walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented developments that shared these two big factors, would they take it instead? That's the question I honestly don't know the answer to. Certainly this bundle of preferences is not unreasonable in and of itself.

I agree that the house size is a tricky one. Because compact form will inherently raise land values, it will be more expensive to build larger. Yet I think the yard size is the bigger factor. If you're willing to max out the building footprint on a lot (and zoning allows it), you could fit quite a bit more square footage within many existing urban areas.

CG said...

"I agree that the house size is a tricky one. Because compact form will inherently raise land values, it will be more expensive to build larger. Yet I think the yard size is the bigger factor. If you're willing to max out the building footprint on a lot (and zoning allows it), you could fit quite a bit more square footage within many existing urban areas."

Well, in theory the living spaces in an urban area could be enlarged, but more typically isn't the opposite the case? Large single-family rowhouses are divided into several smaller units; rowhouses then give way to an even greater number of even smaller apartments in a large building, and so forth. I recall reading an article in the NY Times a few years back about a number of ultra-wealthy families who had reversed this trend by purchasing multiple adjacent apartments to create a living space "big enough" for a family -- while still retaining the amenity of living in Manhattan -- but that was clearly the exception to the rule.

According to the 2000 census, 58% of available homes in Manhattan are studios or one-bedroom apartments. The young family, by having its first child (and, we'll say, expecting more) has effectively grown itself out of the majority of the inventory in Manhattan. Only 13% of homes have three or more bedrooms, and these will be either 1) highly expensive or 2) in a less desirable area which negates the appeal of living in an urban area in the first place. The young family simply does not have the savings for 1), and will rarely choose 2), thus suburbia becomes not only the best, but in effect the only, option, for ownership -- regardless of preferences.

So really, I don't know how much the study you linked can say about preferences. Possibly the preferences such as they are reflect a psychological rationalization of the available choices -- it being easy to convince someone that the surburban home is a "better" choice when it is in fact their *only* choice.

Megan Cottrell said...

I think there's also just a cultural idea that you must move to the suburbs when you have kids, and that in itself makes people want to move there because they think they should want it. Obviously, this isn't a very scientific angle I'm pushing, just an observation.

I live in Chicago and have been married for five years. Anytime anyone visits me, they talk about how wonderful the city is, but how hard it would be to have kids there. I always ask, "Why?" and they don't always have an answer. Yes, schools, but there are good city schools. Yes, violence, but these days there is violence and drug abuse everywhere.

Quite honestly, I think a lot of us have grown attached to the idea that the way to raise kids is in the suburbs, and so we think that's the only way to do it. Let me tell you - a suburban mom or dad can't walk to the grocery store, to a local church, to a place where there's a story hour, to the park. I think there are a lot of wonderful things about raising kids in the city and there are a ton of people actually doing it. We've just got the idea stuck in our heads that its impossible or harder, so we all assume it will be.

That's just my 2 cents. I think housing affordability is a huge factor, probably more important. But I also think the cultural norm plays a role.

Wendy said...

Great discussion. A few comments/thoughts:

In Canada, a recent poll by TD Canada Trust (a large financial institution) found that 36% of people stated they were willing to raise children in an apartment.

Also, living in a suburb generally requires a stay-at-home parent. Otherwise, the commute can be so long that neither parent would see their children (at least when they are under 6). So, a survey might need to ask about whether both parents intend to pursue professional employment after having children. If you want to have one parent stay home, cheaper suburban living and more space will seem like a good idea (esp. if you're the parent home with the kids!). But if the parents work and the kids go to a daycare or school, then a smaller family space close to the parents' workplaces can actually work quite well.

A couple posts I've done on this topic:

Anna Tarkov said...

Megan is right in saying that there is a cultural expectation that you move out of the city to start a family. When my husband and I did it (with no immediate plans for a family) I can't tell you how many people asked me if I was pregnant.

But no, we did it for financial reasons only. We simply couldn't afford to buy what we wanted in the neighborhoods we would want to live in. We could afford to rent, but not buy.

That said, there are suburbs where one can experience a city-like life. Our home for instance has no front or back lawn. We are walking distance from a giant shopping area and there's a Pace bus stop nearby. We have resolved to have only one car for as long as possible.

Thinking of our costs to live here, there are probably, now, after housing has fallen even more, places we could have afforded in the city. But the crime is definitely still a factor. In our apartment in the city in a supposedly nice area, we were the victims of two break-ins, one of which resulted in an unrecoverable loss. Out here, I'm monitored by a police department that has considerably less on its plate.

In addition, while we've remained in the county that our big city is in, I know that many people move for that reason. Property and other taxes are extremely high here and the level of services you're getting for them is sometimes extremely low. Many people are fed up and leave for that reason as well.

Dano said...

Along the lines of what Anna and Wendy wrote, there is a fairly large segment (yet still subset) of the population that self-sorts to suburbs for the homogenous population of particular neighborhoods. Denver area is very much like this. They also defend their buying decisions and self-identities (associated with their location choice) very vigorously.



Miriam said...

The fact that this discussion even needs to take place is indicative of the sad state of the middle class. I'm an American who spent more than a decade living in Berlin and Edinburgh before moving to a suburb north of Boston with my half-Scottish kids to be closer to family.

What a mistake! The town itself was attractive enough as a summer hangout (beach, arty shops), but it was unaffordable and badly connected to cultural amenities. Suddenly, we needed two cars, and were saddled with a high rent and high utility costs.

And we were bored. I used to long for the days when I took my kids into the center of Edinburgh to walk around the museums (free of charge), the botanical gardens, the Royal Mile with its shops and cafes and 600-year-old buildings. While I had lots of like-minded friends in Berlin and Edinburgh, in Ipswich, Massachusetts, most people seemed concerned with lawn care and the Red Sox.

So we moved back. My children and ex-husband are settled in a village 30 miles from Edinburgh. My kids walk to school and play in parks and fields without supervision. Rents are low and quality of life is high. I divide my time between Scotland and Berlin, which also has an incredibly high quality of life for families. When my children are in Berlin, the main problem is which museum to go to or which park to check out. Even young children can walk, bike, or use public transit to get around, and don't need to rely on parents for entertainment. Far more interesting than any U.S. suburb. Rents in both Edinburgh and Berlin are far lower than in most American cities, and you don't need a car in either.

Why can't my home country offer this quality of life? But whenever I tell Americans that the U.S. should become more like Europe, they get angry, or claim I don't know what I'm talking about. Again, it's very sad.

Miriam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


I don't think you can isolate issues of form and design. They are interlinked.

Mixed use neighborhood means mixed income neighborhood. Mixed income neighbor means middling schools at a given price point.

That leads to Tiebout sorting.

The people with the kids who value hiqh quality schools move to the suburbs which offer better public schools for a given price point than the families without kids.

CG said...

A New York Times article very much on point with this discussion:

"EVEN in today’s uncertain real estate market, family-size apartments are having something of a baby boom in New York City.

Sales of three- and four-bedroom apartments swelled last year, even as sales of smaller places declined, and the trend has since persisted. The increased sales are another sign that New York City has become a more appealing place for families. In addition, prices for these apartments have decreased more significantly than those for smaller units, and so are now more affordable for more people."

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