Millennials Remade Cities, But Will They Keep Living in Them?

Officials in several cities transformed by young adults try to predict their next move.
by | July 2015
Millennials playing a softball game in downtown Chicago. (David Kidd)

For years, millennials have been hailed as fundamentally different from prior American generations in their attitudes toward cities. As large numbers of them have gravitated toward urban centers, local governments and private developers have responded, providing new housing, transit and other amenities aimed at luring them in.

In the past, starting families was the tipping point that led young adults to relocate to the suburbs. Now, as millions of millennials -- generally defined as those born between 1982 and 2004 -- reach this stage in their lives, recent commentary has called into question just how urban they truly are. As a matter of absolute numbers, more of America’s roughly 75 million millennials live in suburbs than in central cities.

What is clear is that millennials have delayed marriage and child-bearing longer than their parents. Large numbers have lived in cities for prolonged periods of time and may be more rooted to their communities and less willing to decamp for suburbia. Some of those wanting to stay put, however, may struggle to do so once they start families, as many cities simply don’t possess an adequate supply of affordable housing for families.

To gauge where this generation might be settling, Governing interviewed demographers and local officials in a few of the hottest millennial markets for an update on what’s happening on the ground.

Charlotte, N.C.

Over the past decade, few regions have seen the rapid boom that’s taken place in Charlotte, N.C. In the years immediately following the recession, Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County recorded faster annual population growth than in outlying suburban counties. But that could be shifting: 2014 Census estimates indicate neighboring counties surpassed Mecklenburg’s growth, which dipped slightly. Jeff Michael, director of the Urban Institute at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, says it’s too early to know whether the change represents a one-year blip or a return to stronger suburban growth. “There were so many people eager to write off the suburbs,” he says. “I was always a little skeptical of that.”

Many of Charlotte’s millennials have been drawn to apartment complexes along a light rail line that opened in 2007. They tend to be employed in the banking and energy sectors, two of the city’s leading employment bases. Accordingly, Michael says, they’re more conservative -- and possibly less committed to dense city life -- than millennials elsewhere. If they do decide to move, however, Michael expects them to opt for close-in suburbs or smaller, older towns with urban characteristics like Belmont and Davidson.

Chicago

The Chicago metropolitan area isn’t experiencing the same population growth as some metro regions. But many of its neighborhoods had already begun to transition long before millennials started moving in. More recently, the new arrivals have been drawn to jobs in and around the city core, particularly in the tech sector. “There’s no sign of it slowing down,” says Rob Paral, a Chicago demographer. “The expansion of the neighborhoods that are being rehabbed or gentrifying is still happening without a doubt.”

One advantage Chicago has working in its favor: Housing costs aren’t as high as in some of the nation’s other hot cities. So when millennials desire a larger living space, remaining in the city might be a more plausible option for them than in costlier places.

Los Angeles

Los Angeles has historically served as a gateway for Latin American and Asian immigrants. In recent years, though, immigration rates from foreign countries slowed significantly and white millennials started taking the place of Hispanics in some working-class neighborhoods.

Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, says he hasn’t detected signs that millennials are fleeing to the suburbs just yet. “They’re still flowing in the door,” he says, “and not flowing out the back door.”

That could change, Myers says, once the effects of the recession fade, but they’re still more likely to stick around than their parents. One reason is that the number of housing units in downtown L.A. has grown dramatically. By now, millennials are well established in the city. “The longer millennials stay,” Myers says, “the more they’re cultivating a new culture of urbanity that will permanently make them different than their predecessors.”

New York City

New York’s millennials embody some of the generation’s most commonly cited characteristics: Not only are the vast majority of them single and highly educated, but they live in the only major U.S. city where most households are carless. They are also more likely to have migrated from outside the metro region, lured by cultural amenities and a diverse economy.

With Manhattan neighborhoods becoming unaffordable, many young residents are seeking outer-borough neighborhoods such as the South Bronx and Brooklyn’s Bushwick, places that were once crime-ridden and declining. As millennials start families, they’ll seek larger living arrangements, but space may not be the near-universal draw among millennials that it was for the city’s past generations. “A lot of it,” says Joseph Salvo of the city planning department, “will be based on efforts by all of us to provide people with more affordable housing options.”

The region’s suburbs have their own challenges. Nassau and Westchester counties are aging and plagued by some of the nation’s highest property taxes. Salvo suspects some millennials will decide that those taxes aren’t worth the tradeoff of the additional space, and they’ll stay put in the urban core.

Seattle

Seattle has emerged as one of the nation’s fastest-growing big cities, competing with the likes of Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. Many of its newest residents are millennials who have moved to Capitol Hill, Eastlake and other rapidly changing neighborhoods.

Seattle grew more than 5 percent between 2010 and 2014, outpacing the rest of King County for the first time in decades, according to state Office of Financial Management data. Diana Canzoneri, the city’s demographer, says most millennials prefer to stay in the city. This preference, she says, “doesn’t just switch off when they get older.” But they may not be able to afford to stay once they start families. Families with children account for a mere 19 percent of households, less than in many other U.S. cities, according to a city planning report.

Washington, D.C.

The young, single millennials who transformed some D.C. neighborhoods virtually overnight are now marrying and starting families of their own. The question confronting D.C. officials is how to hold onto these residents.

D.C.’s Office of Revenue Analysis found that about two-thirds of married taxfilers remained in the district three years after adding their first dependent in 2007, 2008 or 2009. That rate has remained steady since the early 2000s. But many D.C. residents decamp for the suburbs by the time their first child turns 4.

While the D.C. economy remained relatively strong during the recession, the city now faces stiffer competition for millennials from other parts of the country. One way D.C. has sought to appeal to young families is by expanding its pre-kindergarten programs to 3- and 4-year-olds. A zoning change also protects some family-sized row houses from being divided into smaller units.