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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Industry study: Americans want smart growth

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 7, 2011 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably

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  plan for Collier County, FL (courtesy of Dover Kohl & Partners)

Americans decidedly favor walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, says a new industry study.  In fact, 56 percent of us prefer smart growth neighborhoods over those that require more driving between home, work and recreation.  These findings are from the just-released Community Preference Survey sponsored by the National Association of Realtors®.

“Realtors® care about improving communities through smart growth initiatives,” said NAR President Ron Phipps, in a press release posted Monday on the Association’s web site.  Phipps is broker-president of Phipps Realty in Warwick, R.I.  “Our members don’t just sell homes, they sell neighborhoods. Realtors® understand that different home buyers are looking for all kinds of neighborhood settings and that many home buyers want walkable, transit-accessible communities.”

Walkable communities were defined in the survey as those where shops, restaurants, and local businesses are within walking distance from homes.  According to the survey, when considering a home purchase, Greenville (by: Dan Burden/PedBike Images)77 percent of respondents said they would look for neighborhoods with abundant sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly features, and 50 percent would like to see improvements to existing public transportation rather than initiatives to build new roads and developments.

The survey also revealed that, while space is important to home buyers, many are willing to sacrifice square footage for less driving.  Although eighty percent of those surveyed would prefer to live in a single-family, detached home as long as it didn’t require a longer commute, nearly three out of five of those surveyed – 59 percent – would choose a smaller home if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less.

 The survey also found that community characteristics are very important to most people. When considering a home purchase, 88 percent of respondents placed more value on the quality of the neighborhood than the size of the home, and 77 percent of those surveyed want communities with high-quality schools.

These findings are welcome and mostly consistent with others, but the extent of the preferences for single-family homes and good school districts is somewhat inconsistent with other research and perhaps particularly reflective of what one would expect from certain demographic groups such as families with children.  A much higher portion of single adults and empty-nesters would be expected to seek multifamily living or townhomes, Holland, MI (by: Dan Burden, PedBike Images)and I would also expect fewer of those categories to have strong preferences for places with good schools.  It is not clear from the study how respondents were contacted and recruited (“Panel members are randomly recruited through probability-based sampling” . . . “Knowledge Networks selects households by using address-based sampling methods.”)   

Perhaps it's the qualification "as long as it didn't require a longer commute" that raised the portion of respondents favoring single-family homes.  Analysts Zimmerman Volk Associates have reported that as much as 38 percent of the market prefers attached or multifamily homes and that, of the 62 percent preferring single-family, most prefer homes with small (7,000 square feet or smaller) lots.  85 percent of the projected growth in demand for housing will come from households without children, according to research by Robert Charles Lesser & Co.  in general, demographic trends show households with children remaining an important but diminishing portion of the overall US housing market.

In the new Realtors survey, single adults age 35 or younger were found to have a very strong preference for a neighborhood with a mix of houses and businesses (73%) over an area with housing only (25%).  This category also indicated a marked preference for an apartment or townhouse within an easy walk of places (56%) over a single-family home that requires more driving (39%). Nearly seven in ten (68%) chose a smart growth community over a sprawl community (31%).

NAR indicates that the survey of 2,071 adult Americans was conducted by Belden, Russonello and Stewart from February 15-24, 2011.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page

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Comments

Joe MolinaroApr 7 2011 11:35 AM

Kaid, thanks for featuring our survey on your blog.

You raised a question about how the people polled were selected. A representative sample of the country (by race, gender, income, geography) is selected and people are contacted by phone (land line and cell phone) and if they don’t answer their phone, they are contacted by mail. Then the people are directed to take the poll via the internet. If someone chosen does not have a computer or does not have access online, they are provided that access at a remote location. This appears to be the best methodology today -- if you just call people by land line, it is hard to get a good sample of younger people. And by making internet access available to those who don’t have it, you address any concerns about underrepresenting people who do not have internet access. One advantage of taking the poll online is that it allows for longer questions - complex questions are more difficult on a phone survey because by the time you get to the end of the question, people can’t remember the beginning of the question. And to be clear, when I say the poll is taken on line, I don’t mean that anyone can take it - it is only accessible to the people who were chosen to take it based on their demographic characteristics.

What I take away from the survey is that if you ask about just one feature at a time, people choose what would appear to be the non-smart growth choice. But when you add complexity to the question and make them consider how different factors compete against each other, you get choices that tend toward smart growth. For example, a very large percentage of Americans say they want a single family-detached house (80%), and a majority (56%) say they prefer large lots. However, once you start offering people the advantages of a smart growth community -- being able to walk to shops and restaurants, having a shorter commute to work -- then these numbers change drastically. For example, 58 percent would prefer a neighborhood that has “a mix of houses and stores and other businesses that are easy to walk to," compared to a neighborhood that “has houses only and you have to drive to stores.” Fifty-nine percent would choose houses on smaller lots, if they could have a short (20 minutes or less) commute. And that 80 percent who said they want a single-family detached house? That goes down to 59 percent when the choice is a SFD home that requires driving everywhere versus a townhouse or apartment in a smart growth community. So what I see is that there is a large “swing vote” of Americans who could be convinced that a smaller home or smaller lot or attached home is the best choice if the features of a walkable community are part of the package. That is why educating Americans about smart growth choices is so important – the more they learn about the option of living in a walkable mixed-use community, the more they will like it.

As you suggest, the breakdowns by age, gender, race, etc. are very interesting. Because we had a large sample size (2,071 people), the data for smaller subgroups is more reliable than in a typical survey.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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