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Urban Land Institute: Suburbs like Atlanta’s will thrive forever

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Jobs, affordability bode well for longterm viability of the ‘burbs, study says

A typical suburban cul-de-sac in Atlanta.
The median cul-de-sac life is $60,000 cheaper than homeownership in cities, per ULI.

Earlier this year, the Atlanta Regional Commission raised eyebrows (and hackles) by releasing a study that showed how millennials are choosing to buy homes and plant roots in vast swaths of suburban and exurban Atlanta.

A thought-provoking national report that emerged this week could help explain why. Beware: Suburb-despising intown ATL zealots might want to avert their eyes.

Findings by the nonprofit deep-thinkers at the Urban Land Institute suggest the suburbs of Atlanta — and those of America’s largest 50 cities — will continue to thrive for decades, buoyed by demographic shifts and consumer demand.

The broad takeaway, in a nutshell, per ULI:

“Suburban housing markets across the United States are evolving rapidly and overall remain well-positioned to maintain their relevance in the years ahead as the places where most Americans live and work, even as many urban cores and downtown neighborhoods continue to attract new residents and businesses ...”

Love it or hate it, America remains a largely suburban nation, where the ‘burbs account for 78 percent of households — and 75 percent of young adults (ages 25 to 35), the report found. Between the turn of the millennium and 2015, suburban areas account for 91 percent of population growth in metro areas, a number that probably holds true in Atlanta and certainly contributes to cancerous traffic.

If suburbs seems generally nicer, maybe it’s because median household incomes in the ‘burbs ($71,000) dwarf those of America’s urban areas ($49,200). Meanwhile, the median home value in suburbs ($305,000) is significantly cheaper (by $60,000) than core areas.

What’s really interesting is that the report parses the suburbs of Atlanta into the distinctive districts that they are — rather than one bland doughnut of societal conformity where hipsters’ dreams of being cool go to die.

With an eye on things like lifestyle issues and development trends, the report breaks down ‘burbs into five different types: “Established High-End,” “Stable Middle-Income,” “Economically Challenged,” “Greenfield Lifestyle,” and “Greenfield Value.”

Below is a screenshot of real estate advisors RCLCO’s suburb atlas, which classified suburbs in the country’s top 50 metropolitan areas based on factors that define their housing markets. By RCLCO’s estimation, suburban Atlanta begins well within the Interstate 285 loop — and very little of the region is considered urban:


From these parsed-down suburban zones, analysts found that “auto dependence is uniformly high across all types of suburbs, even in those with better access to transit.” Nothing shocking there.

Another intriguing finding is that millennials — always in search of a bargain — are most attracted to both economically challenged and greenfield value suburbs. The latter category has the lowest housing costs of the five types, and those findings are certainly consistent, for the most part, with the ARC’s, as seen below:

A map of metro Atlanta’s millennial homeowners.
Atlanta Regional Commission

So contrary to popular intown chatter, not every Atlanta suburbanite is angling for a cute Beltline bungalow. And, per all the above, many likely will never be.