A New York Times op-ed by Christopher Leinberger (November 25, 2011) proclaims that the end is nigh for the “fringe suburb” because Baby Boomers and Echo Boomers prefer compact walkable urban neighborhoods to car-dependent single-family subdivisions. But I can think of at least three reasons to doubt this sweeping claim.
First, the U.S. is expected to grow by another 50 million people by 2030 even if immigration stays constant at just below a million per year. These new Americans will form new households and businesses that will need space somewhere—often, places we now call “fringe suburbs.” Subdivided and endowed with infrastructure but still lightly built-on, these places will eventually prove attractive to residents and businesses in most American metro areas.
Second, 40 to 50 percent of all population growth will almost certainly be concentrated in California, Texas, and Florida. Coastal California remains expensive and more densely populated than most of the rest of the U.S., so many future Californians will find living space in the heavily foreclosed fringe suburbs of the “Inland Empire” (Riverside-San Bernardino) and Central Valley, just as they did in the 1990s and 2000s. With the Texas economy humming on high energy prices well into the foreseeable future, fringe development there will continue thanks to relaxed development regulations, low land costs, a spiderweb of rural roads, and well-oiled institutions for toll-road building. Florida will still attract retirees from the Northeast and Midwest and immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean. Some will occupy today’s vacant condo towers, but many will gravitate toward single-family houses. In all three immigration magnet states, the modest suburbs and city neighborhoods of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s may experience more stress than fringe areas in the next 20 years as their housing stock and infrastructure age and their tax bases strain to keep up.
Third, the slow-growing parts of the U.S.—especially Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Upstate New York—have much higher concentrations of foreclosed and abandoned houses in their city centers than at their fringes. All these areas suffer from “sprawl without growth,” thanks to planning rules that accommodate faster growth in housing than in households—a recipe for rapid depreciation of urban and inner suburban housing stock and low prices for fairly new homes in the fringe suburbs. Most Baby Boomers in the Great Lakes states want to “age in place,” either in or close to their suburban homes. Many who do move will head not for their regions’ increasingly impoverished urban centers but for warmer clime of suburban and even exurban Arizona, Florida, and Nevada, where total tax burdens are lower than in Michigan, Ohio, or Pennsylvania and foreclosures have depressed housing prices. Baby Boomers’ houses will come onto the market in ever larger waves over the next 20 years, but buyer interest will be lower than elsewhere in the U.S. because too few Echo Boomers move to and stay in these places. The hardest-to-sell houses are likely to be older dwellings in financially strapped cities and first- and second-tier suburbs, not those at today’s fringe.
Since demographics will drive housing markets in the next 20 years (as they have for the past 100), it’s premature and probably wrong to presume that demographic trends will cause sprawl to wither. On the contrary: only continued patient policy and investment will help shift the nation more decisively away from sprawl and toward vital urban centers.