2024 Election

Millennials Are Moving to ‘the most boring places in the world’

Jandra Sutton feels like a lucky millennial. She and her partner were able to sell their house in suburban Tennessee and buy a condo in downtown Nashville in 2019, before mortgage rates and home prices skyrocketed.

A few years of suburban living had made the couple “miserable,” says Sutton, a 34-year-old writer and content creator. “The closest coffee shop was 15 to 20 minutes away, there wasn’t a lot to do in the area, and none of our friends wanted to make the drive to visit us,” she says. “It was so isolating.

They now have 1,500 fewer square feet of living space, one fewer car, and no yard, but they’re much happier. They’re surrounded by restaurants, live music, parks, and many other “third places” to meet people and hang out. They’re regulars at their favorite neighborhood bar and bodega, where, Sutton says, “we know everyone by name and vice versa.”

The couple could afford to return to the city in part because they’re DINKS: double income, no kids. They won’t need the extra bedrooms, pricey daycares, or outdoor space that would crush their budget. Sutton’s right — they are lucky. Many millennials hoping to buy a home and have kids are being priced out of the urban neighborhoods they’ve built their lives in and that were reshaped to fit their lives.

Some homebuyers who decamped for the suburbs in the horrifying first months of the pandemic have come to regret their move. But as housing costs and mortgage rates hit record highs, they’re stuck. Those who stayed in the cities are fleeing in droves, to parts unknown. Millennial homebuyers aren’t just leaving the urban core — they’re moving to the farthest reaches of the suburbs. The housing market and aging (the oldest millennials are entering their mid-40s, SMH) are turning millennials into the thing every generation swears they’ll never become: their suburban parents.

For nearly two decades millennials morphed dense, amenity-rich urban neighborhoods across America into exclusive playgrounds for the young and childless. Compared with Gen Xers and baby boomers, a much larger share of millennials moved to cities in their young adulthood — and stayed for longer. They wanted craft-cocktail bars over picket fences, walkable commutes over two-car garages, SoulCycle over swimming pools. In turn, cities were yassified in their image.

Millennials wanted craft-cocktail bars over picket fences, walkable commutes over two-car garages, SoulCycle over swimming pools. In turn, cities were yassified in their image.

That “youthification” trend has accelerated: Cities are getting younger, faster, from San Francisco to Boston, Salt Lake City to Seattle, Austin to Denver. But it’s not millennials who are making them younger — it’s Gen Zers. (Gen Z, it should be noted, isn’t exactly thriving in urban real-estate markets. About a third of Gen Z adults are thought to live with their parents, and many don’t think they’ll ever be able to own a home.) Millennials, meanwhile, are aging out and getting priced out into suburbia.

Recently, the Suburban Jungle Group, a real-estate advisory firm that specializes in helping New York City dwellers move to surrounding suburbs, has been getting a lot of calls from millennials freaking out as their lifestyle grows out of reach. They got pandemic-era deals and signed two-year leases, and they’re seeing their rent skyrocket. “Clients call us in a panic, saying, ‘I got my renewal, I have 30 or 60 days to let them know, and my rent is increasing up to 30-plus percent,'” said Allison Levine, the firm’s director of communications.

The pandemic only steepened a trend that’s been ousting millennials from cities for years: rising housing costs in cities.

In 2017, Tiffany Stuart, then 36, and her husband left New York City and moved to New Jersey when they realized they couldn’t afford a larger apartment for their growing family. These days, they both commute an hour each way — Stuart by train and her husband mostly by car — several times a week. Beyond tolls, car maintenance, and other commuting expenses, Stuart is frustrated by the other costs of owning a home, like leaky roofs and lawn care. Though she appreciates the greenery and her friendly neighbors, she misses aspects of city life, particularly all the West Indian restaurants she grew up around in Flatbush.

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When COVID-19 shut down much of the country, millions of people were suddenly living their entire lives in their cramped apartments, and demand for larger homes shot up. And since there aren’t enough family-sized apartments in urban areas to keep up with demand, in part because studios and one-bedrooms are more profitable for developers to build, that demand shot up in the suburbs.

Census data indicates that in 2022 adults between 20 and 29 were more likely to say they moved for housing-related reasons than for family- or employment-related reasons. Hyojung Lee and his colleagues at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies have found that cities with the most expensive rents and the smallest shares of apartments with three or more bedrooms lost the largest shares of their millennial population to the suburbs in recent years.

To Lee and his colleagues’ surprise, millennials aren’t moving to nearby dense, walkable exurbs. They’re getting way out to peripheral suburbs.

“It turned out that millennials are moving to the most boring places in the world,” says Lee, who’s now a professor at Seoul National University. “They’re moving to really single-family-dominated areas with very few urban amenities.”

John Natale, a real-estate agent based in Wall Township, New Jersey, calls this phenomenon “drive till you qualify.” He says it used to be that he could find his clients a home in their price range in whichever county they wanted to be in. Now, because prices in exurbs have swelled since 2022, his millennial clients are being priced out of anything within striking distance of New York. “People are adjusting one, two, maybe even three counties over just to be able to afford a house,” he said.

“People are adjusting one, two, maybe even three counties over just to be able to afford a house.” John Natale, a New Jersey real-estate agent

Rafay Qamar, a real-estate agent in Chicago, says many of his millennial clients who left the city to buy homes in the suburbs in recent years are trying to come back. “Some of these were rash decisions because properties were moving so aggressively, so quickly. People didn’t really have a chance to shop around,” Qamar said. “In about a year or so they’re like, ‘Listen, work just opened up, and this commute is terrible. We’ve got to sell it and go back to the city.'”

But in this housing market, many are stuck. They can’t afford to sell their suburban homes, some of which have depreciated since the market highs in 2021 and 2022, particularly with mortgage rates so elevated. “A lot of people are now underwater,” Qamar said.

The urban affordability crisis is hitting all but the wealthiest. As lower-income people were priced out of cities, the rate of suburban poverty rose three times as fast as the rate of urban poverty from 2019 to 2022. Black families have been particularly affected. New York City lost about 9% of its Black residents over the past 20 years and more than 19% of its Black children and teens from 2010 to 2020. It’s part of a broader trend, dubbed a “New Great Migration,” of Black families leaving expensive northern cities for the suburbs and for the South, where the cost of living is lower.

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It’s expensive to live in the places millennials prefer: walkable communities with lots of shops, restaurants, and public space. An analysis published last year found that homebuyers in the 35 biggest American metropolitan areas paid 34% more to live in walkable neighborhoods, while renters paid 41% more. Paul Stout, a millennial landscape-architecture student with a popular urbanist TikTok account called Talking Cities, says he constantly hears from followers who wish they could afford a home within walking distance of places like coffee shops.

“I can’t emphasize enough how many times I read comments with people saying that they wish they could live somewhere more walkable but they just simply can’t afford it,” Stout says.

But while millennials wallow over the choice between a tiny apartment in a dense city and a lonely, sidewalk-less subdivision, urbanists insist any place can be dense and walkable as long as land-use laws allow it and people want to live there.

“There’s a lot of places in the suburbs that could be really lovely to live if you could only put a grocery store or a coffee shop on the corner,” Stout says. “I’m optimistic that you could actually make living walkable almost anywhere in the US, given the right package of zoning reform.”

“There’s a lot of places in the suburbs that could be really lovely to live if you could only put a grocery store or a coffee shop on the corner,” Stout says

Zoning codes and other land-use regulations are controlled by local voters — and, particularly in suburbia, they tend to be older homeowners with a penchant for the status quo. Tayana Panova, an urban researcher writing a book about suburbia’s effects on mental health, said an influx of younger “city-craving” homeowners and voters could change that, but only if they engaged themselves in the politics of it all.

Millennials could help transform suburban sprawl into town-like communities or small cities with more third places and a stronger sense of community, Panova says.

In some places, it’s already happening. “Even the farthest-flung suburbs are starting to see some of the impacts of their new millennial residents. Many that gained a significant number of new millennial residents are also becoming more amenity-rich,” Lee said. Suburban retail is booming — half of Sweetgreen salad shops are now in the suburbs, up from 35% four years ago.

“There are so many towns that in the last five, six years I’ve seen huge revitalizations, where all of a sudden restaurants and exercise studios and trendy stores start to pop up,” says Levine of Suburban Jungle. “You can move to the suburbs and not feel like you need to go to the city to have a great dinner or to see a show or live music or the arts.”

Panova says this could be “a turning point” for suburban communities with a burgeoning millennial population that “makes them more city-like.”

“If we can plant those kinds of urban seeds that grow into little communities, that would be a great way to ease the pressure on these handful of cities that are getting all the incoming traffic of people,” she said.

Indeed, if the restaurants, bars, and cultural institutions near Sutton’s home in Nashville had been as easily accessible when she lived in the suburbs, she said, she might never have felt the pull back to the city.

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Ella Ford is a mother of two, a Christian conservative writer with degrees in American History, Social and Behavioral Science and Liberal Studies, based in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area.

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