Suburbs See Apartment-Building Boom

Not everyone is happy about this trend.
by | September 2018
High-rise construction
(Shutterstock)

This summer, no fewer than 14 construction cranes dotted the skyline in Bellevue, Wash. That’s a lot of high-tower construction, especially in a suburb. In fact, it’s more cranes than were in place in most major cities. But it reflected a growing trend. Suburbs are seeing a boom in apartment construction in response to market demands and demographic change.

Not everyone wants to live in a single-family home. Households are getting smaller, with single-member households growing fastest of all. At the same time, not everyone can afford to live in a center city, where costs have risen sharply over the past decade. Add these factors together and the result is lots of new apartments going up in suburbs. “People don’t have to choose the center city or the suburbs with the idea that they’re homogenous or contrasting,” says June Williamson, an architecture professor at The City College of New York. “There are parts of each all around.”

In the Minnesota-St. Paul area, for instance, more than twice as many apartments were issued permits in the suburbs last year than in the Twin Cities themselves. Around half the apartments built in the region this year will be in the suburbs, with the suburban share rising to around three-quarters in 2019.

Not everyone is happy about this trend. In suburban Minneapolis -- and in suburbs of Chicago, Salt Lake City, San Jose, Calif., and other cities -- longtime residents have waged one form of protest or another against new developments. They complain that their towns don’t have the capacity to handle so much growth at once, whether their worry is traffic or increased demand on schools. “A lot of these units are one or two bedrooms, max,” says Rolf Pendall, head of the department of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois. “Even so, there’s concern about kids entering the local elementary school or, even if they’re above median income, concern that the new residents of a home of any kind are going to put more demand on the local budget.”

So far, the doubters haven’t had much success. Suburban towns around Boston, which have strong home rule, have for the most part been able to keep big developments out. But elsewhere, the NIMBY contingent has sometimes awakened much too late to block the projects. “In most cases, it seems that zoning has already moved ahead of local opinion on these things,” says Armando Carbonell, who heads the urban planning program at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. “Projects are going ahead because in essence they’ve already been approved.”

Zoning is important, as is common sense. Developers aren’t putting many high-rise towers around the corner from rows of ranch houses. Most of the projects are happening near freeways and light rail lines, or represent conversion of disused office parks and mall space. “You don’t need to put high-density, mixed-use housing everywhere,” says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. And not every new apartment has to be part of a high-rise. Developers and local officials are frequently looking at multiunit construction that falls somewhere between a row of townhouses and a five-story building with 200 apartments. But whatever their shape and size, it’s clear that after a long drought, apartment construction is coming back to the suburbs in a big way.