Getting Ahead of the Aging Curve

Preparing for Demographic Change in Rural America

Metro-NonMetro Popultion by Age

Reprinted from the Small Town & Rural Planning newsletter, Fall 2016.

The other night, Planning Commission was looking at demographics in our rural county of about 12,000, with a touch of skepticism.  Archuleta County grew rapidly during the last boom, and fell hard in the housing bust.  Nobody expects that level of growth to return to our corner of the Western US, but things are picking up again.  Oil & Gas are down, but the Four Corners region continues to attract tourism, and we are on track this year to issue the most new single family home permits since 2007.

So what’s changed?  The world has changed, that’s what.  Or more particularly, the demographics of our known world has changed.

As the STaR newsletter noted in Summer 2015, Millenials (ages 18-34 in 2015) now outnumber Baby Boomers (ages 51-69) nationwide.  Generation X (ages 35-50) continue to plug along, caught between the two.  And the Millenials continue to swell, according to the Pew Research Center, as young immigrants follow the American dream.

Small towns are used to hearing about “brain drain” of young adults leaving home for college and life in the big cities.  If you look at US Census figures for population by age, it’s clear that Metropolitan Areas across the US have a younger population profile, with a larger share of population in every age category under 45 years old.  Like much of life, the story—the rural narrative—is more complicated than the sound bite.

Ben Winchester, research fellow with University of Minnesota Extension, has highlighted a trend he dubs “Brain Gain”.  When you look more closely at the Census data, many rural communities are attracting 30-49 year-old adults and their young children, mitigating some of that out-migration.  Going out and talking to real people making this move, folks told Winchester they were looking for “a simpler life, safety and security, affordable housing, outdoor recreation, and.. a quality school.”

Generation X are not the only life-style migrants on the move.  Baby Boomers have been disrupting “normal” their entire lives, and many are entering an “Active Retirement.”  The Baby Boomers, confounding the experts as always, are moving less and when they move are avoiding the expected migration magnets, especially in larger metro areas notes Jeremy Goldstein of Renaissance Planning.

Some Boomers may be trapped underwater by the housing crisis, but others are choosing to age in place, creating “naturally occurring retirement communities”.  As the Urban Land Institute highlights, this creates both challenges and opportunities for local government.

Last year at the APA National Conference in Seattle, the AARP launched the Livability Index, a simple online tool reflecting research into amenities important to many senior citizens—housing, transportation, neighborhood character, environment, health, and civic engagement.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Millenials are seeking many of the same lifestyle amenities as the Baby Boomers.  As the Urban Land Institute also points out,  Millenials are looking for sustainable, safe, walkable neighborhoods, but also are increasingly concerned with affordability.  As one young professional in Denver explained about their urban neighborhood “There’s sense of community here, with people of all ages doing things together. This is important; it roots me to where I am.”   Even if  you’re not growing, if you build no new homes people are going to look elsewhere.  Build a quality community attractive to Millenials and you’ll have a community attractive across generations.

Affordable housing is a big concern in my mountain community.  Where just a few years ago, foreclosures drove down single-family home prices, it is now  difficult to find long-term rentals, whether due to the popularity of Air-BnB or the general pain-in-the-neck factor of being a landlord in a small town.  To make the rental situation worse, local contractors have not built one new multi-family unit in the County jurisdiction since 2007.

Critics pin the blame for housing inflation on over-regulation, such as building code requirements for minimum square footage and flush toilets, minimum lot sizes and separation of uses.  Maybe there’s something to that.  In September, the White House issued a “Housing Development Toolkit” using the bully pulpit to attack local zoning restrictions and lengthy public review processes.  When both the Cato Institute and President Obama agree on an issue, we better pay attention.

John C. Shepard, AICP, is Planning Manager at Archuleta County, Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and outgoing STaR VC-Communications.


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