Housing and Demographic Change

The 2008 economic crash changed the way many Americans think about housing, at least for a while. While the faltering economy plays a key factor in what kind of dwellings people buy and rent, this CNBC report suggests that shifting demographics may be more important in the long term.  According to a report written by Chris Porter of John Burns Real Estate Consulting, the number of non-family households—people living alone or with roommates — has increased nearly 5 times in the last 50 years, from 7.9 million to 39.2 million. At the same time, the number of family households has increased by just 1.7 times, from 45.1 million to 77.5 million. Married couples have dropped to less than 50 percent US households, from 75 percent in 1960.  Further, according to Brookings, “the population age 45 and over grew 18 times as fast as the population under age 45 between 2000 and 2010”.

Frequently referred to as “non-traditional” households (carrying a tinge of midcentury morality), households consisting of single people, unmarried couples without children, roommates, and seniors are gaining visibility in cities and suburbs.  Policy makers, planners and developers have to creating policies, plans and housing stock that caters to the needs of these households. In some suburban developments, the era of McMansions is fading into memory. Transit Oriented Developments (TODs) – with varied and compact housing options – are indirectly responding to these shifts.

However, subtle changes in urban environments are also necessary. For example, a two-bedroom apartment with a master and junior bedroom does not make that much sense, if two unrelated adults are sharing it, rather than a young couple with a child. Our Zoning Resolution, written in 1961, is based on a separation of uses:  commercial /manufacturing from residential. What about those New Yorkers who work from home?

This issue comes back to a core question within urban planning – How can we create plans that are flexible and adaptable to social changes we cannot anticipate? The planners working on the 1961 Zoning Resolution, or the developers building the first suburbs could not have foreseen the New York metro area as it is today.

An example of legislation which effectively addresses demographic change in cities is the designation of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities(NORCs) .  NORCs are communities with a sizable senior population, which were not purpose-built as senior communities. Once a community meets the NORC designation criteria, it becomes eligible for local, state, and federal funds for elderly support services. In New York City, many NORCs are located in public housing and moderate income co-ops – like the Sheepshead Nostrand Houses and Amalgamated Warbasse Houses – adapting a modernist housing model to a new demographic need. The Artists Loft Law, which grants protection to illegally converted manufacturing lofts to live/work spaces, is an older example of adaptive legislation, though one that comes with a host of baggage associated with gentrification.

Since we cannot yet predict the future, adaptivity and flexibility should be key, for both housing development and planning in general.


Images courtesy of www.infrastructurist.com   and http://urbanomnibus.net/



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