Thursday, August 18, 2011

demographic changes mean greater demand for walkable, transit-served communities

Mix of Housing and Building Types, King Farm
Walkable, suburban neighborhoods like King Farm in Rockville are what new homebuyers want, say real estate experts.

New research shows that a growing number of homebuyers are interested in walkable, transit-served communities, and are willing to sacrifice a bigger house for a better neighborhood.

Last night, Joe Molinaro, director of Smart Growth and Housing Opportunity at the National Association of Realtors, and Shyam Kannan, director of research at real estate consultancy RCLCO, gave a talk on "Polls, Demographics and Demand for Smart Growth" hosted by the Coalition for Smarter Growth at the National Capital Planning Commission. They presented recent studies that reveal several trends related to a growing preference for so-called "Smart Growth" communities:

There's lots of demand for housing in walkable, transit-served communities, but not enough supply.

The NAR study, which surveyed 2,000 people nationwide last February, found that 47% of respondents would like to live in a downtown, an inner-city residential neighborhood, or a suburb with shops and amenities within walking distance. Meanwhile, Kannan's research found that 23% of Americans surveyed want to live within walking distance of rail transit.

While that may not seem like a lot, this population is still underserved by existing housing options in most of Greater Washington, where only 14% of residents live within a half-mile of Metro. 22.8% of District residents can walk to Metro, but in Northern Virginia, defined as Fairfax and Arlington counties and the city of Alexandria, just 13.3% of all households live within a half-mile of Metro. In Montgomery County, that falls to 10%, while in Prince George's County, with fifteen Metro stations, it's 7.7%. Regionwide, it would take 170,000 new units within walking distance of transit to accommodate the estimated demand for such housing.

Though the real estate market slowed down considerably due to the recession, there will be a pent-up demand for new housing, and new kinds of housing when the economy improves. In 2005, 2.1 million building permits were issued nationwide, about 38% of which were for multi-family homes. In 2011, only 597,000 permits were issued, but nearly half were for multi-family homes. Given the demand to live in walkable, transit-accessible communities, and buyers' willingness to consider attached homes, trends suggest that we'll need to build many more townhomes and apartments in the coming years.

There's public support for Smart Growth and better transit.

After decades of urban disinvestment, Americans are interested in fixing established communities and providing alternatives to driving. When asked what type of development state governments should encourage, 57% said they should improve existing places, with another 32% endorsing new development in older communities. 50% said better public transit would reduce traffic, and another 30% endorsed creating places that required less driving. Molinaro said these results are pretty consistent around the country, with the opinions of people in mostly-rural states like Idaho and Montana mirroring those nationwide.

People will sacrifice a larger house or yard for a shorter commute.

NAR's survey confirmed common assumptions that Americans want to live in detached, single-family homes. 80% of respondents in the NAR survey said they'd prefer to live in a single-family house, which is in line with other studies. 87% said the most important thing they look for is privacy.

Yet when asked to choose between a neighborhood of large-lot single-family homes where you had to drive everywhere, and one with smaller homes but amenities within walking distance, 56% chose the latter. 58% said they'd pick a walkable neighborhood over one where driving was a necessity, and 59% said they'd take a small house and a shorter commute over a big house with a longer commute.

Homebuyers are willing to give up space for a close-in location, but those surveyed seem ambivalent about living in attached housing. When asked to pick between a single-family house and a long commute, and an apartment or townhome with a shorter commute, just 38% chose the latter.

These places aren't just desired by young singles but by a wide cross-section of Americans.

Both surveys explored who the typical Smart Growth homebuyers are and found that they're not just limited to young professionals, as is the common wisdom. In the NAR survey, respondents who said they preferred an auto-oriented, suburban community were more likely to be politically conservative, married, middle-aged, white men. Meanwhile, a broad range of people expressed preference for Smart Growth communities, including women under 40, low-income earners, and individuals with post-graduate degrees. Though each of these groups has different reasons for wanting to live in these places, they all find benefits in them.

Kannan's research looks at interested market segments in greater detail using psychographic variables, which groups people based on similar personality traits, occupation, or cultural outlook. People who'd be interested in living near transit include the "Laptops and Lattes," affluent liberal professionals, but also "Boomburbs," suburban dual-income households, or "Urban Villages," large, middle-class Hispanic families.

From this, Kannan concludes that the demand for transit, coupled with buyers who either currently live or want to live in suburbs, will result in a mismatch between where people live and where transit is available. "Are we undercounting the overall demand for transit-oriented environs?" he asks. "I don't know if we're seriously thinking about our regional, fixed-rail transit."

Despite demographic trends favoring homes in walkable communities, not all future homebuyers and renters will flock to the inner city, meaning that there will continue to be demand for housing in the suburbs. And though people may want to live near public transit, they won't use it unless it's fast and frequent. Yet it's not feasible to cover an entire sprawling metropolitan area with high-quality rail and bus service. This can be seen in Montgomery County's study of a 160-mile Bus Rapid Transit system, which was revised to reflect higher estimated costs and fewer projected riders.

If we're going to meet the demand for Smart Growth communities, we'll have to make significant changes in the way our region's structured. Building new transit is expensive, so we'll have to place a greater emphasis on building housing around the system we have, even when there's local opposition to doing so. We'll also have to make walking and biking easier, through the provision of sidewalks and bike infrastructure, but also through top-notch urban design that creates environments where people actually want to walk and hang out.

Those who want to live in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods may be a minority, but they're underserved by our existing housing stock and the communities we live in today. As Generation Y enters the workforce, we'll see a greater demand for these kinds of places, not just for swinging singles but for young families as well. And all this can happen while relieving development pressures on auto-oriented, suburban areas, allowing the majority of people who enjoy those places to continue enjoying them.

Smart Growth doesn't mean that everyone has to live in an apartment. In reality, the NAR and RCLCO studies reveal that most people don't want that. But it's a tool to create communities where people have a greater breadth of choices, from how they live to how they get around. In the coming years, we'll have a chance to give people in Greater Washington the choices they deserve.

Crossposted, sort of, on Greater Greater Washington.


Robert said...

Quote: "When asked what type of development state governments should encourage, 57% said they should improve existing places, with another 32% endorsing new development in older communities. 50% said better public transit would reduce traffic, and another 30% endorsed creating places that required less driving. Molinaro said these results are pretty consistent around the country, with the opinions of people in mostly-rural states like Idaho and Montana mirroring those nationwide."

The last sentence illustrates the problem with polling data such as this. What people say isn't necessarily what they do. Those Idaho residents obviously aren't buying near transit.

This kind of poll is similar to what Ford did to judge what people wanted in cars in the 1950s. They got the survey answers and introduced the Edsel in response. It was a huge flop.

We need to find out what people actually do. Are they bidding up the prices of condos or are they buying large lot single family homes instead?

Woody Brosnan said...

woody brosnan wrote,

I think Robert's last comment implies that the only option for a "walkable" community is a condo, not a single-family home with a yard. That is simply not the case. We have many neighborhoods of single-family homes that are within walking distance of transit and amenities. When the housing crash hit the Washington area these closer-in neighborhoods fared much better than the newer developments further out.