Tuesday, April 22, 2014

NYC Suburban Demographics: Choice or Fate?

The New York Times recently profiled a study from Community Housing Innovations which noted a demographic collapse among the young adult population in the wealthy suburbs of Long Island and Westchester County since the 2000 Census. The decline is attributed largely to high housing costs rather than an immutable preference for urban surroundings:
"The villages and towns suffering the largest losses of their young workforce have historically restricted multifamily development in favor of single-family homes. The practice, known as exclusionary or snob zoning, makes living in these communities unaffordable for much of the Long Island and Westchester County workforce."
The study paints an interesting picture of the unintended consequences of restrictive zoning, which in this case may be hindering adults at a prime age for starting a family (25-34) from living in what, in many cases, are probably the very same towns they grew up in. Although the Times quotes a Westchester County source disputing the figures and noting that the "county’s own enrollment data shows that more children are attending its schools, a telling sign of young families," a glance at the Census figures reveals that the under-5 population in many of these towns is plummeting as well.

For instance, while Westchester County saw a decline of 11% in this group from 2000 to 2010 despite experiencing overall population growth, Scarsdale's under-5 population fell by 28%. Jericho, New York, mentioned in the article, also saw a decline of 27%. For further comparison, here are the figures for part of nearby Fairfield County mapped over median housing prices:

These can be compared to the same figures for the 25-34 population:

Although the numbers don't match up precisely, the correlation is strong. There is an overall decline of around 10% in both population groups, compared to an increase nationally of 3% for both, but there has been a rapid assortative process as young families have apparently been priced out of many locations and restricted to the few remaining jurisdictions without stratospheric housing costs.

Whether this is also due to a preference for urban living conditions is unclear, since the urban markets also happen to be the low cost markets, and are the only places in Fairfield County permitting the construction of significant quantities of new housing. The fact that population loss of these demographics was somewhat less in relatively more affordable suburban towns (such as Fairfield or Trumbull) suggests that cost is at least as important a factor, a pattern which is also noted on Long Island in the New York Times article.

The overall losses among the 25-34 age group indicate an accelerated outmigration in addition to the internal assortative process. The study cited by the Times suggests, in the vein of the Great Inversion, that this migration is a product of relocation to New York City proper, and to particular areas within the city, although many must be leaving the region entirely. In this broader context, though, I'm not satisfied with a sample period of only ten years and certain areas, and so I compiled median age data for the greater New York area from 1970-2010, dividing it into three regions*:

Although there is certainly a great inversion here, it appears to be a multi-decade process, rather than an sudden shift which occurred over the last ten or fifteen years. These trends can also be expressed as a function of the US median age in each Census period so as to show which regions were growing "younger" or "older" relative to the population as a whole:

Rather than the city abruptly changing course in recent years, a long term downward age trend actually decelerated after 2000. Trends have not always been consistent, with the inner suburbs actually growing relatively younger from 1970 to 2000. The continued aging of the outer suburbs is also notable. Several counties in this region now exceed a median age of 40, with individual towns highly coveted for their excellent public schools exceeding a median age of 45. These median age figures in some cases approach or exceed those of Florida counties known as retirement havens (cf. Westport, CT, at 44.6, with Palm Beach County at 43.5). With little new construction and limited housing turnover, combined with greatly elevated prices, these towns await a generational shift.

Just how big will that shift be? The Westport town newspaper, at it happens, suggests dramatic changes after 2015. According to one quoted source, "there's going to be major turnover in property. People who currently own homes and have for a long time, are going to decide to downsize. When turnover does occur, you'll get a flood of students entering elementary school." 

The problem for towns such as Westport, however, is that due to their resolute opposition to any new construction – even including senior housing, as described in detail in Snob Zones – there are not many options to downsize to. It seems more likely to me that the inhabitants of these homes will, by and large, remain in them to the end, as they will generally be unwilling to abandon their towns and long-established connections simply to find smaller accommodations elsewhere. The turnover point is therefore more likely to be in the 2030s than by 2020, but this will obviously come too late for the Boomer generation's own children seeking to start families. It's also not clear, given the widespread declines in the under-5 demographic, where a "flood" of new students could come from several years down the road.

An apparent denialism about the effect of high prices on young families seems to be rampant among many of the wealthy towns profiled in the CHI study and in Fairfield County. Wishful thinking about floods of new students that are just around the corner, or analysis of falling school enrollments that fail to diagnose high housing costs as a contributing factor, rules out consideration of the supply-based solutions that have apparently worked to some degree to retain young people in certain Long Island suburban towns discussed in the CHI study. These towns need not be victims of fate, but unless changes are made, their futures are already inscribed on their current demographics.


Related links: Remember this New York Times article from 2013 covering young families moving out of Brooklyn to suburban towns in Westchester County? As it turns out, Brooklyn experienced a decline in its under-5 population from 2000 to 2010, but only by 3%. Hastings-on-Hudson, by contrast, saw that group decline by 19%.

*By county, "Urban" = Manhattan (New York), Bronx, Brooklyn (Kings), Queens, Hudson; "Inner Suburban" = Westchester, Nassau, Bergen, Union, Passaic, Staten Island (Richmond); "Outer Suburban" = Suffolk, Fairfield, Rockland, Morris, Somerset, Middlesex, Monmouth. Exurban counties are omitted.


  1. This is an interesting analysis.

    I wonder if the trend will continue for two main reasons: First, the growing desire for urban amenities among Millennials will attract them away from suburbs. Second, I'd bet younger people in this region are less exclusionary in thought than their well-to-do parents may be, and once they perceive they are unwelcome in a place as adults (i.e. housing types and rents do not fit their life stage), not only will they leave but they will be unlikely to return, even if their incomes later match or exceed the levels required to live in those neighborhoods.

    Just a thought.

    1. Hi Chris -- I agree that the trend of the 20-35 age group moving to cities (certainly to New York City) is real and is based on preferences rather than absolute necessity. The suburban towns of Westchester, Nassau and Fairfield are never going to be able to match the city for urban amenities. What they have successfully competed on instead is housing cost (and often school quality). These are indelibly appealing qualities to young families confronting tradeoffs in choice of residence.

      The issue, I think, is more likely that it has actually become cheaper, even on a per square foot basis, for a young family to live in the city rather than to move to a desirable suburb. This is not because New York is cheap, but because it has a wide variety of housing types, including small apartments, duplex homes, etc., that can provide a range of rents.

      A town like Wilton or Scarsdale, on the other hand, although they have median housing costs only comparable to gentrifying parts of Brooklyn (rather than the UES), have very little range around that median. There are few apartments and a limited supply of condos. The price of admission essentially is a $600,000 house on two acres. Rental stock is almost nonexistent -- a search in Wilton yields six total properties for rent, none under $2400/month. The reason why Greenwich lost relatively less of its youth and young families is, I would venture, because it has a large legacy stock of apartments, duplexes and three-deckers predating its zoning code.

      Will these young families later return? You guess no, and I’m inclined to agree. Some of the most restrictively zoned places, like Easton, I can see eventually becoming de facto retirement communities with a small population of middle and high school students brought in by parents in their 40s and 50s (those parents possibly being the inheritors of their own parents’ houses). Many others may abandon the NY area. The idea that young families will flood back in as the current generation cashes out seems like pie-in-the-sky thinking to me, and either ignores the cost factor or assumes that prices for these homes will plummet tremendously, which seems just as improbable.

  2. The problem is an old one. Around about 1985 or so new residential construction just about stopped except for some condos in various places. In Greenwich the situation is a disaster due to the extremely low turnover and lack of places to build.

    1. Yes, and even most of the condo development in the county seems to date from the early 70s through the mid 80s, shortly before 8-30g was adopted in 1989. The NY Times has an article discussing the problem from back in September 2000, and it's of course gotten much worse since then:


      (Interesting quote in there of the Trumbull selectman noting that his own daughter could not afford to live in the town even at that time.)

    2. As for Greenwich specifically, I checked the ACS numbers, which claim that 7.6% of the housing stock was built in the 2000s, which seemed high to me, given the stagnant population. I think most of these are probably tear-down/replacements that provide no added units, though. Compare to Fairfield, which has seen less aggressive housing replacement -- only 15% of all housing was built since 1980, and only 4% since 2000.