Context matters: challenging the American dream

By Lisa Bassett, Community Preservation Planner, JM Goldson On Wednesday, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) released a new report as described in the article "Demographic Changes Mean Dramatic Shifts in Demand for California Housing . . ." The report examines housing needs, supply and demand, and future trends through the lens of younger generations-- namely, Generation X and Generation Y-- and posits that housing demand between today and 2035 is going to change dramatically. This particular study, The New California Dream: How Demographic and Economic Changes May Shape the Housing Market, was written by an urban planner named Arthur C. Nelson, a ULI member and director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. The research is focused specifically on California, but according to ULI Chief Executive Officer Patrick Phillips, has implications nationwide.

The report essentially challenges the antiquated ideology of the American Dream: a big house on a large plot of land with a 2-car garage in the suburbs. It claims the existing supply of conventional subdivision lots exceeds current demand, and will continue to do for at least the next 23 years, even if no new supply is created during that time. It also predicts that increased demand for multi-family housing, as well as townhomes, duplexes, three-plexes and four-plexes on small lots will dominate the housing markets of California's four largest Metropolitan Planning Organizations. This demand will be driven, according to the findings of this report, largely by the desires of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1978, and Generation Y, born between 1979 and 1996, both of whom are likely to be living in smaller housing than baby boomers. At least half of the demand will be for locations near transit.

I felt compelled to write about this report, admittedly without having read it all yet, because of its publicized findings, and more specifically, how its findings are being advertised. Phillips is quoted in this article for saying that "Generation Y, in particular, will have an outsize influence on consumer demand. It is the largest demographic group this country has ever seen, and their preferences will influence every aspect of American society. Quality of life is a paramount concern to much of this generation, and they will be drawn to places that offer the best work-life balance."

This quotation made me pause and think, as a community preservation planner with JM Goldson, and also as a member of Generation Y, that even though the statement above is a dauntingly overzealous generalization, it is important to note. At the very fundamental level of planning, we must know WHO we are planning for, and for WHAT purpose. Context matters, and just as the times change, social norms evolve, and we as a society must adapt. I hope similar research is conducted in all US states, if for no other reason than to gain perspective about current housing needs in the context of today’s market. I believe that doing the work that California has done now in each state can only improve our planning efforts moving forward.