Families Finding Homes They Can Afford in the Exurbs
Although significant numbers of families are moving to the fringe communities of large metropolises because this is where they can find the housing they want at a price they can afford, they might otherwise prefer to live elsewhere in the area, closer to stores and in safe communities with good schools and nearby amenities, according to a new study by The Brookings Institution.
Prepared by researchers at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, “Finding Exurbia: America’s Fast-Growing Communities at the Metropolitan Fringe” describes the exurbs and who is living in them, and establishes a baseline for future consideration of their role.
“Not yet fully fledged suburbs, but no longer wholly rural in nature, these exurban areas are reportedly undergoing rapid change in population, land use and economic function,” the report says.
“Notwithstanding what they will become in future generations,” the study says, “exurbs are important places to understand in their contemporary form. They lie at the forefront of important local debates around growth and development issues. As such, they help ‘set the table’ for future metropolitan growth, and their prevalence may serve as an important indicator of emerging social trends of the effectiveness of various policies to shape metropolitan development."
The researchers at Brookings found that the exurbs are, by and large, home-owner communities. “More than three-fourths of exurban-county residents in 2000 owned their home,” the study says, “a significantly higher proportion than in any other metropolitan county type.”
The paper also notes that the exurbs provide affordable homeownership in many metropolitan areas, where that opportunity may be limited in closer-in locations. “In these regions, middle-income families may be ‘driving to quality’ for a home in their price range, one that does not exist in closer-in suburbs.”
Using Census 2000 data for the incomes of owners of new homes built between 1995 and 2000, the study finds that the home owners in the exurbs had significantly lower average incomes ($68,790) than owners of new urban ($93,627), inner suburban ($100,010) and other suburban ($88,618) homes. “While outer suburbs seem slightly more affordable overall than urban or inner suburban counties, new homes in the exurbs were occupied by families with incomes on average $20,000 lower than in outer suburbs.”
In fast-growing areas like Denver and Washington, D.C., incomes for owners of new homes were found to be the highest in the urban core, and to decrease with the distance of the county from the core. In slower growing areas, especially those with a struggling urban core, the incomes of new home owners tended to be highest in inner and outer suburbs, while the exurbs appealed to a middle- and upper-middle-income market. In the Richmond, Va. metro area, “new exurban home owners have incomes nearly equal to those in the outer suburbs,” according to Brookings. “In the Philadelphia area, the exurban market is somewhat more middle-income.”
Exurbanites Less Likely to Say ‘Super-Size It’
The report also concludes that the exurbs generally offer more intermediate, affordable new home types than do metropolitan suburbs. “Super-sized” homes containing nine or more rooms, compared to a median of six rooms for homes built between 1995 and 2000, accounted for one in six homes overall during that period, but only one in seven in the exurbs.
“In exurbs, these super-sized homes made up one in seven recently-constructed houses in 2000. The proportion of home owners in the inner (21%) and outer suburbs (23%) that occupied super-sized new homes in 2000 was roughly 50% higher than in exurbs.”
In terms of housing affordability, in 2000 just under one-quarter of all exurban home owners with mortgages spent more than 30% of their income on housing — less than owners in urban, inner suburban and outer suburban counties — and about 45% spent less than 20% of income on housing costs.
Not Every Preference Satisfied
But beyond affordable housing, the exurbs may not be providing everything that their residents would prefer: “Preference surveys reflect continued demand among home buyers for large lots (57% preferring more than one acre), but also the ability to walk to stores and restaurants (51%) and have reasonable daily commutes (79% desiring 45 minutes or less),” according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors® in 2004. “Much exurban development seems to be satisfying the first preference in lieu of the other two.”
The researchers also cite growing evidence that increased transportation costs may be significantly reducing the benefits of more affordably priced housing. (For a recent NBN story on the findings of the National Housing Conference's Center for Housing Policy on transportation costs for working families, click here.)
Where growth is proceeding at a decent clip, government policies or planning may be limiting the supply of housing generally, and affordable housing specifically, in closer-in jurisdictions, helping to push affordable development to the urban fringe, the study finds.
“Some local governments, including many in the greater Boston, Denver and San Francisco Bay areas, use exclusionary tools like low-density-only zoning and permit caps that severly limit the supply of apartment buildings and affordable housing,” the report says.
The Brookings researchers define exurbs as communities located on the urban fringe where at least 20% of their workers commute to jobs in a more urbanized area and where there is low housing density and relatively high population growth.
Based on demographic and economic data from 1990 to 2005, the study found:
- As of 2000, approximately 10.8 million people lived in the exurbs of large metro areas, representing roughly 6% of the population of these areas. These exurban areas grew more than twice as fast as their respective metro areas overall, by 31% in the 1990s alone. The typical exurban census tract has 14 acres of land per home, compared to 0.8 acres per home in the typical tract nationwide.
- The South and Midwest are more exurbanized than the West and the Northeast. Five million people live in exurban areas of the South, representing 47% of total exurban population nationwide. Midwestern exurbs contain 2.6 million people, about one-fourth of all exurbanites. South Carolina, Okalahoma, Tennessee and Maryland have the largest proportions of their residents living in exurbs, while Texas, California and Ohio have the largest absolute numbers of exurbanites.
- Seven metro areas have at least one in five residents living in an exurb, including Little Rock, Ark.; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Greenville, S.C.
- Nationwide, 245 counties have at least one-fifth of their residents living in exurban areas. The Louisville, Ky. metro area has the highest number of exurban counties (13), followed by Atlanta, Richmond and Washington, D.C., which each have 11. These exurban counties grew by 12% overall between 2000 and 2005, faster than population growth in urban, inner suburban or outer suburban counties. However, outer suburban counties added 4.5 million people in the last five years, exceeding the 1.8 million gain in exurban counties.
- Residents of the average exurb are disproportionately white, middle-income, home owners and commuters. Roughly half of all workers from exurban counties worked outside their county of residence in 2000. Only 11% of exurban workers commuted to an urban county, however; most commuted only as far as the inner or outer suburbs. In 2000, 9% of workers from exurban counties were employed in the construction industry, compared to 6% of workers from other metropolitan counties. “Construction accounted for an especially significant portion of jobs in boom-county exurbs outside of Virginia Beach (Currituck County, N.C.); Denver (Park and Elbert counties); and Atlanta (Pickens and Walton counties, Ga.).