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Why the Suburbs Aren’t Going Anywhere

by Peter Thomas Ricci

Reports of suburbia’s death,  it would appear, have been greatly exaggerated.

It’s been a common trope in post-bubble news coverage – the United States, after several decades of embracing suburban sprawl, is returning to its urban roots and, once again, embracing denser city environments.

There’s one problem with that theme, though; simply, the data does not support it. According to new research from Trulia, not only are the suburbs in no state of decline, but in terms of household growth, they are still exceeding their urban brethren.

The Suburbs – Ain’t Going Nowhere

Here were Trulia’s main findings:

  • Using U.S. Postal Service data on the number of addresses receiving mail in ZIP codes, Trulia found that in March, suburban neighborhoods saw a 1.1 percent increase in the number of households, year-over-year.
  • That’s compared to 0.9 percent for urban neighborhoods.
  • Interestingly, high-rise urban neighborhoods (where the majority of housing units are in buildings with 50-plus units), saw stronger growth than suburban neighborhoods, at 1.8 percent year-over-year; however, such neighborhoods are relatively small in number, and therefore do not suggest a larger trend towards high-rise living.
  • One area where urban housing bested suburban, though, was in median price per square foot – both urban neighborhoods and high-rise neighborhoods, at 9.8 and 11.4 percent respective gains, were stronger than suburbia’s 9.4 percent increase.

Don’t Call it a Comeback

If the suburbs are still growing faster than urban areas, why have big cities (and the flourishing construction numbers accompanying them) been grabbing the headlines like they have? As Jed Kolko, Trulia’s chief economist, explained, it’s all a matter of relativity.

Firstly, the recovery in new construction has been overwhelmingly urban, with multifamily building at a 15-year high and single-family homebuilding still clunking along; so from an empirical perspective, urban centers have been extremely active places the last few years.

And secondly, population growth in urban areas has reversed course in a major way. Since 2012, urban populations have grown 0.8 percent, compared to less than 0.2 percent from 2003 to 2006; in case you aren’t keeping track, that’s an jump of more than fourfold!

However, impressive as those numbers may be, they have not been at the expense of suburban areas, which have continued to grow steadily. As Kolko phrased it, “Population growth since the housing bust has slowed most in the bottom quartile of counties, which are largely rural areas, not suburbs. The suburbs are far from over.”

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