Met Council: Doing Real Damage

I have written recently [here, here, and here] about the plans of the Met Council regional government to undertake a radical redesign of the area’s housing and transit patterns under the banner of its Thrive MSP 2040 plan.

For its part, the Met Council says they are responding to changing housing preferences: namely the desire of young millennials and empty-nester baby boomers to live downtown.  But what if the assumptions underlying Met Council’s planning are exactly wrong?


Because, so far, it sure looks that way.  Columnist Joel Kotkin has a piece up on on national trends under the headline “Where Are The Boomers Headed?  Not Back To The City.”  Kotkin writes,

Indeed, our number-crunching shows that rather than flocking into cities, there were roughly a million fewer boomers in 2010 within a five-mile radius of the centers of the nation’s 51 largest metro areas compared to a decade earlier.

Kotkin is referring to this data, which flies in the face of what the Met Council has been assuming about the housing preferences of what it calls the “silver tsunami.”

And it does not look like Minneapolis-St. Paul is bucking the national trends that Kotkin identifies in the data.  Kotkin’s colleague demographer Wendell Cox has actually looked at the data for the Twin Cities.  In examining whether core counties within metropolitan areas lost or gained domestic migrants, he found that Minneapolis-St. Paul’s core counties lost domestic migrants while the suburban counties gained from 2000 to 2009. 

More recent, and more specifically to the Met Council’s point, Cox found that the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul saw small population declines from 2000 to 2010.  All of the Metro area’s growth during the past decade was in suburban communities. 

What about all those new downtown condo and apartment buildings constructed in the past decade?  Yes, those buildings are full of people, but elsewhere in the City, households are shrinking as families move out and are replaced by empty nesters and singles.  On net, there is no population gain.

Of course, growth overall may have slowed during the recent recession.  But the Met Council’s idea that when growth returns it will occur predominately in the core cities is counter to all population trends back to the early 1950s.  There is simply no support in census data that core cities are growing faster than suburban areas.

The National Association of Realtors’ 2011 Community Preference Survey includes some interesting data on this topic.  Their national survey asked where respondents actually lived and where they would like to live.

The Realtors found that 5 percent of the adult population actually lived in a city-downtown location, while 8 percent would prefer to live in such an area.  So, perhaps the Met Council will help meet the unmet desires of that three percent differential.

However, the Realtors also found that 70 percent of the adult population lives in single-family detached homes, while 80 percent would like to live in a single-family detached home.  The Met Council has no plans to help satisfy this larger, unmet market desire.

The dangers of the Met Council being wrong are almost uncountable.  It plans on spending billions of dollars on mass transit projects that are likely to be little used.  It plans to mandate the creation of additional housing in the dense urban core and along transit corridors for which there may be little demand.  It plans to discourage the construction of new single-family detached homes for which there may be considerable unmet demand.

The net result will be to drive up the costs of certain types of housing, making the single-family home in the suburbs less affordable for growing families.  Overall tax levels will have to rise to pay for the while elephant transit projects.

The biggest danger will come from other cities and regional centers that get it right.  Not every metro area in the U.S. will fall for the seduction of the smart growth/new urbanist story line.  Communities that combine affordable housing for growing families and efficient government investments in the correct kind of transportation infrastructure will come out winners.  If we follow the advice of the Met Council, our Metro area will not be able to compete.

Cross-posted at Bill Glahn – comments welcome.