Zoning in on Millennials not making them zone out

Changing community codes to attract talented youth is one economic development strategy.

Most of our communities are zoned based on looking backwards. Our codes react to problems faced in the past and we have development standards to create more of what we have. These are codes designed to create communities based on demographic patterns of the past. We know that forty years ago, half of US households had children, getting a driver’s license was necessary and college graduates moved for jobs, not places to live. This has all changed and the associated impacts on our communities have too. Given these new realities, a community’s code should change as well.

Household formation is one main factor that has implications on the desirability of a community. People are marrying later and putting off having children or not having children at all. Analyzing census data tells an interesting story: over the last decade, 90 percent of new households were those without children. So, if we have all these households forming, what exactly are they looking for in housing? Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000, are entering the housing market looking for smaller houses or attached housing in a walkable or bikeable location close to cities. They are looking for amenities in close proximity to where they live. Millennials are the largest generation and will be responsible for the largest percentage of household formation in the near future.

Automobile dependency is also less among millennials. Vehicle miles driven among this generation is much less than previous generations. Life on college campuses has attuned them to biking, transit and walking. They also connect on devices unheard-of twenty years ago and enjoy the freedom of being able to text and connect on social media while on the bus or train. A car does not offer this freedom and also comes with a host of ownership and maintenance costs that millennials would rather do without.

Communities looking to attract young talented workers need to change their codes to allow for smaller, compact and more diverse housing options beyond the traditional single family house on a large lot. Communities also need to look at mobility options and provide options such as bike lanes and parking. Codes should also be changed to create more density around transit served areas, and don’t forget to create or plan for civic areas served by broadband that serve as gathering places for community members young and old. Information on how communities can reform their codes and ‘zone in’ on millennials is available at www.miplace.org and training programs are available from Michigan State University Extension as well as technical assistance in this area.

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