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Rockin' The Suburbs

July 26, 2012

I’ve been studying the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) recent report on housing – “The State of the Nation’s Housing 2012” – which is chock full of insights into the state and future of the housing industry. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Generally, it provides lots of data reinforcing the notion that the housing industry is ready for a rebound. Though carefully documenting the challenges housing confronts – tight credit markets, millions of potential foreclosures, loss of equity of existing owners – the Joint Center’s assessment of the market is, overall, encouraging.

There are a number of trends that really caught my attention as unexpected, but one really stood out. The report contends that “sprawl,” more precisely suburban and exurban development, is poised for strong growth. JCHS studied Census data and found that since the 2000s most of the household growth has been concentrated outside of cities. The city core accounted for 21%, while the suburbs and exurbs accounted for 38% and 41% respectively. It turns out that the slowdown in exurban construction was a product of the meltdown in the housing market more than a fundamental shift in lifestyle choices. It is also striking that ethnic diversity increased significantly in the suburbs and exurbs with the minority share of households living outside the city increasing from 23 to 30 percent in the suburbs, and from 14 to 19 percent in the exurbs. It turns out that the suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse racially and ethnically.

With the return to the suburbs, we can anticipate the litany of controversies that will ensue in community after community across the nation. While they have been muted the past five years as we have endured a horrific housing recession, we cannot assume that the prospects of economic growth will be enough to overcome the political and regulatory obstacles housing development will face. Suburban housing will have to defend itself as environmentally, fiscally, and socially responsible.

Fortunately, builders and developers have new tools to work with. The maturation of social media and breakthrough consumer electronics technologies now allow easy and direct access to end-consumers at a very low cost. And, the development of third-party certification programs such as Home Innovation Labs’s green building certification to the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard (NGBS) provides an aggressive and objective standard for defining green building. So, let’s put both of these to use promoting good development.

Avalon Rockville Centre on Long Island provides a great example. I was just there to celebrate their accomplishment of achieving certification under the NGBS for the two building, 349-unit multifamily project. From the start, AvalonBay deserves a tremendous amount of credit for selecting a former Brownfield site (which often turn developers away in fear) and turning a community negative into a huge positive. Add to that high-performance housing certified to the most rigorous green building standard that exists, beautiful architecture, and a location that allows convenient pedestrian access to train service to downtown New York City and the vibrant epicenter of Rockville Centre’s diverse offering of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, and you have a huge win for everyone. I was impressed with many features of the project, but the environmental planning geek in me was particularly impressed with excellent use of porous pavement as service roads for the buildings which softened the landscape surrounding the buildings and helps minimize water quality impacts of runoff.

Suburbia is still the preferred housing location of a majority of households. It has taken its share of criticism among planners for a host of purported ills. Avalon Rockville Centre is proof that suburban development can be good for the public fisc, good for the environment, and provide a lifestyle attractive to all ages.