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This is the first part of a two-part conversation with Arthur C. (Christian “Chris”) Nelson, professor emeritus of urban planning and real estate development at the University of Arizona, as well as presidential professor emeritus of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah.


More about Dr. Nelson and a link to the paper that inspired this conversation at the bottom of this post.

Ben Brown: Thanks, Chris, for helping us work through some daunting implications of housing trends you’ve identified. We should start, as you often suggest, with the caveat about predicting the future:

There are no future facts. And the farther out the future we project, the more complex the potential interactions and the weaker the case for absolute certainty. Yet whether we’re families or businesses or governments, we’re still stuck with planning for what may be ahead. So, we make educated guesses from the best research and analyses available.

The demographic research and analyses you and your colleagues have produced suggest that, without significant policy changes, we’re risking the deepening of an equitable housing crisis over the next two decades. What’s lead you to that conclusion?

Chris Nelson: It boils down to too many homes for too few buyers and renters in many corners of even our most vibrant metropolitan areas — and more important, to large swaths of the nation.

We’re already seeing impacts of a supply-demand imbalance in popular metros struggling with housing affordability. We tend to frame the crisis in terms of economic inequality. And that’s certainly the case. But we haven’t been paying enough attention to sweeping demographic changes already in motion that are driving the challenges and that are likely to complicate everything.

If we can’t adjust ways in which we plan, build, and finance housing, the results are going to be devastating for substantial segments of the population.

The Demography of Housing 

BB: Okay, so what are the overarching demographic changes you’re talking about?

CN: By 2040, tens of millions of baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) as well as Gen-Xers (born between 1965 and 1980) will transition from career and wealth-building to preserving – and in some cases worrying about — quality of life as they age. Many, perhaps most of them, will want to exchange their larger homes on larger lots for easier-to-manage smaller homes on smaller lots or in attached homes.

Tens of millions of millennials—born between 1981 and 1997—will be forming households with children but may not want boomers’ large homes on large lots. Instead, they’ll compete with the downsizing boomers for smaller homes on smaller lots or attached homes, especially those in walkable communities. The newest generation—Gen Z born between 1998 and 2015—will become starter home households. They’ll be seeking mostly smaller homes on smaller lots, attached homes, and usually as renters.