Five Reasons Why Age Diversity Matters

posted Feb 15, 2016, 11:12 AM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Feb 15, 2016, 11:31 AM ]

Sustainable Neighborhoods in preparing to champion a community-friendly, demographically balanced vision for the Burnet-Anderson corridors has defined success benchmarks for two "must-have" goals that will require a great deal of political will. These are:

  1. A minimum of 10% public space arranged in support of village centers around the MetroRapid stations
  2. A minimum of 70% housing that doesn't physically exclude any kind of household

The first benchmark probably seems intuitive – good walkable places have some space for people to walk and gather. In a future blog I’ll go into some nuances around arrangement of this space and the challenges of actually getting enough where land is so expensive. But hopefully most people get the value-add of transit-oriented public space.

I need to connect some dots to explain the second benchmark on housing.

The intent of the second benchmark is to ensure that our housing supply doesn’t inadvertently and permanently lock out parts of our population.

Achieving a true mix of housing types will be one of the hardest things to do. The Austin real estate market (like other urban markets around the country) is geared up to build lots of urban housing for young adults. That’s seen as the primary urban demographic, and Burnet Rd happens to be a centrally-located corridor with aging properties suitable for redevelopment as dense apartments. So if policymakers do nothing or deploy band-aid solutions, mostly efficiency and one-bedroom units are going to get built.

"Inclusive" housing (simplified, this means at least two bedrooms) can be used by families or anyone else. Efficiencies and one-bedroom units generally don’t work for families, or at best become housing of last resort when nothing else is affordable.

A 70% benchmark for "inclusive" housing seems to represent the minimum needed to retain a natural balance of people by age in a community. (More on this below).

Changing the rules and zoning to get a more balanced housing mix for Burnet Rd will be really hard. It’s not just that developers don’t want to be told what to do. Balanced housing also means less affordable singles-oriented housing. The square footage allocated to one 3-bedroom apartment could have yielded 2 or even 3 efficiencies. So before I say more about housing, let me make the case for why it’s important for Austin to have at least some diverse, age-balanced urban communities in the first place.

1. Most people like inter-generational communities.

The average person prefers to live in a community with a mix of singles, couples, families, and seniors. In the Burnet Rd area, 43% of last year’s SN survey listed our diverse community as a top reason for living here. The real estate community recognizes this. "According to many builders and developers, the housing choices of those 55 and older are varied and location-dependent, but they reveal a definite trend toward more active and intergenerational living that is closer to family, friends, and their extended community."

2. Diverse community = diverse economy

Imagine Austin directed staff to pursue a "creatives class" economic model. This model has the advantage of looking ahead to a world where smart, educated people generate most of the wealth. Conversely, it is a mono-cultural strategy, one being pursued by most other urban areas in the country. Cities that over-rely on a single economic strategy tend to experience boom-bust cycles. In some cases, like Houston in the 1980s, "bust" leads to innovation and diversification. In other cases, like Detroit, "bust" becomes permanent.

Diversity is the key to sustained economic health. Age diversity is the hand maiden of economic diversity. We need young creatives, of course. But we also need blue collar workers, and seasoned managers who bring a mix of creativity and experience. A lot of that manager-level talent pool (I’m thinking here of my employer, Charles Schwab) resides in Cedar Park, not downtown Austin. Austin’s urban economy also needs those people to compete.

Age diversity makes our local Burnet Rd economy resilient. People spend on different things at different points in their lives. Young people and childless couples with disposable income are boosting the restaurant and entertainment sector. Families spend a lot on daycare (a major employer of young people). Seniors spend on healthcare (ditto). A mix of generations stabilizes housing prices.

Putting more family-friendly housing in urban places is a smart resource play.  AISD will have to raise taxes to add new schools at the edge of town.  Allowing families to live near underutilized urban schools (Burnet Rd has two underutilized campuses – Read and Rosedale) saves money for families and taxpayers.  Mixing middle class students with disadvantaged students (the preferred ratio at schools like Lamar MS is 2:1) shapes positive educational opportunities, at no additional cost to taxpayers.

3. Cities that segregate half the population to the suburbs aren’t environmentally sustainable

Cities are supposed to be more environmentally and fiscally sustainable. But are they really sustainable if they are designed in a way that relegates children and their parents to the suburbs?

Let’s take those mid-level managers in Cedar Park. How many of them are driving into Downtown every day, 40 miles round trip? How sustainable is that?

Not every part of Austin’s core has to be "family-friendly." But seriously - if you can’t solve for inter-generational redevelopment on a corridor like Burnet Rd that runs between existing family-friendly communities, where exactly in the urban core is it supposed to happen?

4. Safety – eyes on street at different times of day

One of the respondents to last year’s SN community survey observed this one – diverse communities have "eyes on the street" more consistently throughout the day. On my block, there’s a retired gentleman who takes walks up and down the street. I think he’s an ex-marine. We don’t get many break-ins on my block.

5. Community investment and resilience

Mind, "eyes on the street" won’t deter crime if people don’t care. Crime deterrence requires residents who are not only physically present, but emotionally invested. Families and seniors are more likely to invest because they tend to live in place over a longer period.

Communities that gray out may also die out. Communities that plan for a mix of housing (and therefore people) are shaping an environment where twenty-somethings can remain and become sixty-somethings.


Why Use the "Natural" Age Distribution as a Diversity Target?

Sustainable Neighborhoods has defined "demographically balanced" as the natural age and income distribution of the wider Austin-Round Rock region. Talk of baby boomer or millennial bulges is overstated. The natural distribution of people by age is essentially flat, until you reach the age of about 55 where numbers slide off.

A natural age distribution benchmark has two big advantages for framing the Burnet Rd housing conversation:

1) It’s fair. We’re accounting for the needs of all groups, in the equal proportions laid down by Mother Nature.

2) It's us. It reflect's Burnet Rd’s existing diversity and culture.

Why 70% Multi-Bedroom Housing to Protect Age Diversity?

Data from several US and Canadian cities show that a community can have a natural age distribution when at least 70% of housing has more than one bedroom. Go below that, and age diversity drops off.

This graph shows the percentage of multi-bedroom dwellings for each neighborhood in Vancouver, BC, vs. the percentage of children. Vancouver is a good city to look at, because it has a much wider range of housing types than Austin.

Affordability is of course part of the equation, and so is school quality and the services mix. But you can’t explain away this bedroom count data. Housing unit type and demographics are tightly correlated, even more so for middle class communities. Getting a true mix of housing is especially important because once built, it’s difficult to change.

Plot of CanStat census tract data for Vancouver, British Columbia.  Each dot is a neighborhood.  Its location on the graph shows the percentage of housing in that community with at least two bedrooms, versus the percentage of children (age 0-17).   The correlation between housing and children is higher for middle and upper class communities.

So What About Affordability?

It was interesting to me that there is so much talk in Austin about affordability, and yet Affordability in last year’s SN Burnet Rd survey failed to crack the top 5 reasons respondents live in the Burnet area. One clue – many people in their responses lamented that the area was affordable "when I first moved here." In other words, most of us are moving into the neighborhood at a price point we’re comfortable with. And if after many years of gentrification you can no longer afford to live here, you leave, and your voice in the community is silenced.

That’s the citywide frustration that is increasingly resonating at City Hall.

Income diversity is just as important as age diversity. I have personally chosen to focus on age diversity because it is a new phenomenon, one that Austin's policy-making circles poorly understand and under-prioritize. There are many people who have studied housing affordability more than I have. In upcoming blogs I’ll be inviting one or more authors to explore different facets of housing affordability in the context of Austin and Burnet Rd. I’ll also run some numbers on housing mix, and look at potential risks of unbalanced housing.