Keeping families in cities: safety; schools; space + money
What Happens When Millennials Age Out of Micro-Lofts?," Next City interviews the author of Downtown Families: Discovering How Cities Support Urban Family Living.
I aver the issue of "aging out" of the city as people age and the nature of their household changes is nothing new.
I first was exposed to it on a tour of the Warehouse District in Cleveland in 2002, on a field tour during the National Trust for Historic Preservation national conference.
In your mid-30s, you don't go out drinking so much and noise at night tends to be more bothersome. So living in an apartment above a night-life oriented street becomes less appealing (also see "Daypart and age-group planning in mixed use (commercial) districts" from 2009).
Singles committed to living in the gritty city can deal with safety issues somewhat, and young marrieds don't have to worry about schools or having a yard and a bigger place (space) if they don't have any children.
Willingness to deal with grit and crime changes as household characteristics change. Plus, as you get older, "tiredness" from dealing with municipal problems increases and if the situation doesn't appear likely to change, moving out of the city becomes more likely.
Whether or not you can retain families (and in a way this is a financially bad choice for cities as the income to the city from a household is far exceeded by the cost to the city of paying for public schooling) is also shaped by whether or not the city is a strong or a weak real estate market.
Generally, housing costs increase as you move from apartments to single family housing, and the price differential can be significant, let alone the issue of whether or not there is a decent inventory of available housing.
In a strong market, high prices make retaining families much more difficult unless household incomes are extremely high, because the cost of housing + children + day care is significant.
If there are general public safety issues, people will move out of the city regardless of housing availability. If there are general problems with the quality of public schooling, people will move out the city.
Note this presumes that families with choice will still prefer semi/detached houses surrounded by decent sized yards. It's only dense, hyper expensive places, like New York City or to some extent Vancouver, where the nature of the housing market steers families to apartment buildings.
Cost of housing. The biggest issue in retaining family households in strong market cities like DC is the cost of housing. Rowhouses in the core cost $1 million or more. At today's interest rates, that requires a mortgage+tax+insurance payment of close to $5,000/month (think about how much the cost was when interest rates were 2.5 to 5 times greater than they are today).
Some neighborhoods well placed but undiscovered may have housing costs significantly less, say around $500,000, but as housing inventory shrinks, prices are rising in these neighborhoods too.
Schools. In the outer city, at least in Ward 3, traditional public schools are quite successful. But in those areas, housing costs are equally high as in the core, if not significantly more because houses are bigger.
In outer city areas where public schools lag most households have access to charter schools, which may or may not be much better than traditional schools, but people generally have higher satisfaction and confidence in those options.
Public safety. If people experience a great deal of crime, if they have the choice, they will move out of the city as they build their family, because of their concerns.
Multiunit family living. In 2006, The Vancouver Courier community newspaper ran a story, "In the City," about families with children living in the downtown, often in high-rise buildings (as opposed to garden style apartments).
It's an article worth reading because it shows that with the right mix of amenities--schools, parks, places to go and things to do--and high housing costs, people may be induced to shift their preferences and accept multiunit housing options.
One of the familes featured in the story has 6 children, and they live in a 1,300 s.f. townhouse. (The average DC rowhouse has far fewer than 8 inhabitants, and tends to be that size or larger.)
The Spino Family, from the US, chose to move to Vancouver to live as an urban family, after observing friends doing so in Sweden. They searched across North America for similar conditions, and chose Vancouver.
From the article:
For 39-year-old Spino, an elementary teacher recently hired on the Vancouver School Board's teacher-on-call list, downtown is the ideal place to raise children. "I don't see the need for having rooms in houses that you don't use. I don't see why you have two spare bedrooms for visitors that you just use to store boxes. I don't think that's efficient. I don't think that's a responsible way to live," he says. "You don't need that space. You don't need skis in the garage or a snowmobile somewhere and stuff in the attic-all that consumerism collecting. I don't think we're occupying a lot of space here. This high-density living is good for the city. It's good for the environment. It's good for the children-it's a fantastic way to live." ...
They own one car. Otherwise, the Spinos walk or ride bikes kept in a bike locker. They don't have to go far for entertainment. Granville Island, English Bay, Stanley Park, the aquarium, shops, and restaurants are nearby.In Vancouver, it helps that the government planning process ensures that there are community amenities including parks (downtown is already close to the water), schools, and other services. Most other cities haven't figured this out. Also see "Pack up the kids - we're movin' downtown! from the Toronto Globe and Mail and "Families say sacrifices to live in downtown Vancouver well worth it" from Global TV.
-- "Downtown living: for families? : the Vancouver, BC urban livability experience and lessons for other cities," MIT master's thesis, 2008
For example, DC's downtown park and plaza spaces lack any playground accommodations and there aren't many public schools located within the central business district or the neighborhoods on its outskirts.
If you get schools, safety and space right, the real issue is housing cost. However, with escalating housing costs in Downtown Vancouver, family living has become less prevalent, abetted also by the lack of production of family-sized units, and the cost to the city to provide additional schools, and leasing costs price out day care facilities.
Policy changes. Figuring out an appropriate set of policies to encourage the production of larger units as well as how to lower construction costs is an important issue.
But so is deciding how many families a city can afford, compared to the cost of servicing them. Even a city like DC, which collects 100% of the local (state) income tax on households, "loses money" on a household when it pays to educate them.
Some practical advice comes from this All About Cities piece, "Urban families after the great reset."
Multiunit housing developers aren't developing buildings with internal amenities for families. For example, while multiunit housing developers in strong markets are developing buildings with a wide range of amenities from rooftop pools and dog walking accommodations, outdoor barbecues and exhibition kitchens, outside of garden apartment complexes, I haven't come across articles ("5 Apartment Amenities to Incorporate in 2015," Multihousing News) highlighting center city apartment buildings with out of the ordinary amenities for children and families.
Of course, another option is to pay towards the development of common amenities serving multiple buildings in a subdistrict of the city.
And maybe, still, mobility. It's difficult to get around with young children between strollers, supplies, and basic wrangling. Without amenities and services easily accessible, living in the core can be a problem for young families. Between bikes, car share, and transit, and probably package delivery, people do it, but it isn't easy.