Pandemic has potential to renew demand for suburban housing in N.J., land-use expert says

Long-term slowdown in land development could be derailed by exodus to suburbs.

The upheaval caused by the pandemic could renew demand for traditional suburban development. (SurFeRGiRL30 from Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

The upheaval caused by the pandemic could renew demand for traditional suburban development. (SurFeRGiRL30 from Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

New data confirms that New Jersey has recently been using a lot less land for new development than it did 20 years ago but the trend could be disrupted by COVID-19 as the pandemic drives more people to the suburbs, according to one of the authors of a new report.

study released by Rutgers and Rowan universities on Wednesday shows that land is continuing to be urbanized but at a much slower rate than in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Between 2012 and 2015, an average 3,464 acres a year in New Jersey was developed for housing or commerce, compared with an average 16,852 acres a year in the late 1990s, the report said.

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The slowing increase in demand for developable land reflects more young people wanting to live in town centers where they can walk or bike between homes, shops and offices, the report said. The new generation is turning its back on the traditional development of car-dependent suburbs that was spawned by their parents.

The trend, which began in the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continued despite the subsequent economic recovery, has been welcomed by land-use specialists and environmentalists as evidence that America’s most densely populated state is making better use of scarce land resources, and is creating more compact and vibrant urban centers on already-developed land. By 2015, 33% of New Jersey’s 5 million acres were urbanized, the report said.

But the upheaval wrought by the pandemic has the potential to renew demand for traditional suburban development as people scramble to leave tightly packed urban communities that are perceived as breeding grounds for the coronavirus, said Richard Lathrop, director of the Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis at Rutgers, and co-author of the report, “Changing Landscapes in the Garden State: Land Use Change in New Jersey from 1986 to 2015.”

“Given the reactions that we’ve seen in terms of the housing markets during this recent pandemic, it’s potentially reversing some of those trends,” Lathrop said in an interview.

Blip or long-term trend?

But he declined to predict whether the surge in demand for suburban housing will last longer than the pandemic.

“It’s very uncertain whether we see this surge in people moving to the suburbs continuing post-pandemic. Is it a blip or is it a long-term trend? I can’t predict that,” he said.

Even if it’s too early to tell whether COVID has upended the land-use trend, it has underlined the need for open space, said the report, co-written by John Hasse, a professor of geography at Rowan University.

“If anything positive has come out of this pandemic, it is the widespread appreciation for New Jersey’s public open space lands as vital to our quality of life, as a place for solace, exercise and fresh air,” it said.

Tim Evans, director of research at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that promotes “smart growth” in denser communities, argued that COVID won’t diminish the demand for living in town centers rather than suburbs because people will still be able to enjoy benefits like walkable downtowns while social distancing.

Even though a COVID-driven exodus of professionals from New York City is fueling housing prices in its suburbs, that doesn’t mean there’s a reversal in the long-term trend toward smaller, denser communities, Evans said.

“Most of the population growth in New Jersey is in more compact, walkable places,” he said, adding that many of those areas are broadly categorized as suburbs but often have walkable downtowns that continue to attract residents.

Amenities without the crowds

Smaller downtowns offer density without the crowding that characterizes big cities and increases the risk of COVID transmission, Evans said. “They typically don’t have the same kind of crowds on the sidewalk as in Manhattan where you are going to have trouble social distancing any time you leave the house.”

By contrast, a growing number of walkable town centers allow residents to get goods and services while safely social distancing, Evans said. “When you do need to go shopping, it’s easier to get things when you live in a more compact town that has local businesses, and they are probably less likely to be crowded than the Wal-Mart or Costco in the suburbs.”

Communities that by 2015 were built out — those that have built on at least 90% of their developable land, and where most of the rest is either undevelopable or preserved — accounted for two-thirds of the state’s population growth between 2007 and 2018, Evans said in a June blog post.

Still, it’s too early to say whether the pattern of development in New Jersey has permanently shifted from suburbs to cities, said the report, which is based on NJ Map, a data set from the Department of Environmental Protection, which was released last September.

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“While our results support the notion that New Jersey may be entering a new ‘post‐ suburban’ phase that reflects a stronger push towards smart growth and a focus on urban redevelopment, the degree to which this shift in residential development is a meaningful divergence from previous trends or a short‐term anomaly remains to be seen,” it said.

What the numbers show

More recently, the trend has been shown by an increasing number of certificates of occupancy (COs) — an important indicator of development trends — even as the rate of land use continued to slow. The number of statewide COs rose from a post-recession low of 10,352 in 2011 to 17,318 in 2018, the latest year for which data is available.

“This statewide simultaneous slowdown in land consumption attributable to urban development and uptick in COs is an indication that the recent growth has been on a more compact development pattern as well as an indication of redevelopment,” the report said.

Outside the state’s area of developable land, the report also looked at whether coastal salt marsh was being lost to erosion and sea-level rise. It concluded that 4,400 acres of salt marsh have been converted to tidal mud flat or open water over the last three decades, and estimated that 10 times that area, or 20% of the state’s salt marshes, are vulnerable to “drowning” by 2050.

Although the loss of marshes could be offset by natural succession or the conversion of abandoned coastal cropland to marsh, the report urged officials to defend coastal marshes, which help protect shorelines from storms, and are an important haven for wildlife.

“We suggest that these marsh retreat zones should be high priority for conservation protection to allow New Jersey’s salt marshes to ‘migrate’ to partially compensate for expected losses from sea level rise in the coming decades,” it said.

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