Friday, April 12, 2013

young families increasingly want urban living

Trees And People, Maryland Avenue
Mother and daughter in Rockville Town Center. Photo by the author.

More and more Millennials, or young adults in their 20's and early 30's, are choosing to live in urban areas. Unlike their parents, however, they don't want to leave when they have kids. While families seeking the urban lifestyle may face some challenges, there are huge opportunities for places that can convince them to stick around.

Three panelists from the real estate and education worlds discussed this issue with former DC planning director Ellen McCarthy at the ULI Real Estate Trends conference on Wednesday. AJ Jackson, partner at local builder EYA, noted that many young adults who spent their twenties in the District or Arlington are no longer moving to the suburbs when they have kids.

Revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods have made them safer and more attractive to young professionals. Meanwhile, rising congestion and farmland-consuming sprawl have removed much of the allure of suburban living. "They're not moving to the suburbs because ... the green oasis that our parents moved out to doesn't exist anymore," said Jackson.

Instead, young parents are looking at closer-in areas that offer a little more space without having to maintain a large yard or endure a long commute. EYA mostly builds rowhouses in walkable, inside-the-Beltway neighborhoods; as a result, 30% of their buyers are young families with kids, Jackson said.

However, this presents many unique challenges to young parents, as the Post's Jonathan O'Connell noted last year. Many parents worry about finding homes that meet their needs, unsure if they can comfortably live in a rowhouse or apartment. The quality of services in urban neighborhoods, like trash pickup, crime prevention and schools, is another issue.

Parents considering inner-city schools often ask, "am I going to be subjecting my children to inferior teaching and an inferior academic experience?" said Sharicca Boldon, vice-chairman of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance.

Boldon finds that the best to combat these perceptions is by exposing parents to the benefits of city living. She holds non-education-related community events at schools so parents can get familiar with them before enrolling their kids. Boldon also organizes tours of rowhouses to show how families like her own can live in one comfortably.

"I find that housing configuration to be very efficient for a family. I can be on the third floor and my kids can be loud on the bottom," she said. "I think it changes family needs that I need to be in the suburbs with a driveway and a two-car garage."

Even as they become more attractive to young families, inner-city neighborhoods can't take them for granted. McCarthy said that the District's population growth comes mainly from out-of-area migration, and that the city continues to lose more residents to Maryland and Virginia then it gains. "There aren't a lot of things that tie [young families] here if the District doesn't gain a reputation for being family-friendly," she said.

Increasingly, urban living is no longer synonymous with being in DC or Baltimore. The growth of job centers outside both cities are drawing young families to places like White Flint and Silver Spring in Montgomery County and Merrifield in Fairfax County, which offer both walkable neighborhoods and transit access alongside larger homes and higher-quality public services. In Montgomery County, young families are clustering in areas where they don't have to drive as much.

Jackson pointed out that the Mosaic District in Merrifield, where EYA is building new homes in a neighborhood with shops, schools and Metro close by, has drawn the firm's youngest homebuyers. "It's the experience and the overall atmosphere more than the specific location," he said, adding that newer suburban neighborhoods may have trouble competing with their inner-city counterparts to provide the same feel or history.

It's unclear whether this trend is limited to young parents. While there are many highly-rated elementary schools in the District and Baltimore, issues remain with many middle and high schools, which may discourage parents from sticking around. Even in good school districts, families may simply want more space and leave their rowhouses for single-family homes.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, raised three kids in Adams Morgan and says it gave her teenagers a sense of freedom and independence. She wonders what would happen to DC if more parents chose to do the same. "It'll be interesting if they stick around as their kids age," she said.

As singles, Millennials have led the ongoing revitalization of inner-city neighborhoods and encouraged the creation of urban places in the suburbs. However, it's what they do as parents that could have a lasting effect on the urban realm.


Unknown said...

This is an excellent article. As a real estate agent, I see this trend continuing to grow. I'm centered in Silver Spring, but Hyattsville has piqued the interest of many of my millenial clients who cannot afford the higher housing prices of MoCo. EYA's Arts District revitalization of downtown Hyattsville includes affordable urban townhomes mixed with upscale retail. With its "walkability", close proximity to DC and two Metro stations,as well as the neighborhing historic district, the Arts District has become a wonderful community in which to live.

Robert said...

Do they really want urban living, or is is only a second choice?

It may well be the latter. You quote EJ Jackson of EYA as saying: "They're not moving to the suburbs because ... the green oasis that our parents moved out to doesn't exist anymore." In other words, they want it but can't find it because we have gone too far in increasing density in the suburbs.

I'm not so sure what a lot of people really want is that different today from the sentiment expressed in the text of this amazing ad from the [Washington] Evening Star newspaper of October 31, 1925. The ad was headlined “What Sort of Place Will Your Children Call Home.” It went on to say:

"Some Day, not so many years from now, your little boys or girls will be telling their little folks about “our old home.” What sort of place will they describe—an apartment house like an office building with a cold marble lobby, where children were “tolerated,” or a row house on a noisy, crowded city street?

"Or will they have tales to tell of a home out where the blue begins — and the green of Springtime and the gold and red of Autumn? A home, centering around a real hearth-stone where marshmallows were toasted on long Winter evenings and stockings were hung at the Yuletide?

"Will you buy or build your suburban home now or after it is too late for your children to get the full benefit of its health and joy-giving advantages?”

Dan Reed said...

Some families may still want the suburban lifestyle depicted in the ad (thanks for sharing), but there's a growing number that prefers an urban experience for their kids, not as a second choice, but because its what they want. I understand its not what you'd prefer, but it's still a valid choice and one that communities would do well to support.

Dan Reed said...

I'd also add that my mother and her siblings grew up in an apartment building in DC (after emigrating here from Guyana) and that I grew up in an apartment building in downtown Silver Spring. I knew dozens of kids who lived in Georgian Towers, Twin Towers, Falkland Chase, etc. We weren't simply tolerated - I used to spend my summers hanging out in the Georgian Towers pool with the leasing agent, who gladly answered all of my questions about the building and its history.

Of course, my parents eventually bought a house, but for me, the good parts of raising a kid in an urban environment had already imprinted themselves on me. When I was 10, I had a park across the street from my house and plenty of things to do within a short walk (and much more now than there was in 1998). My brother is 13 now and there's almost nothing he can do without being driven there.

Maybe parents want a yard for their kids to run around in, but if given the option not to chauffeur their kids everywhere once they got out of preschool, I think they'd be open to an alternative.