Do Millennials Actually Love Cities — or Are They Just Too Broke to Leave?

Survey says 66 percent want the single family home on a cul-de-sac.

No bottle shop, no thanks. |

No bottle shop, no thanks. |

Millennials have been hailed ad nauseam as the saviors of urban America, and there’s no debating that they’ve helped rejuvenate Philadelphia. There are nearly 75,000 more 20-34 year-olds in the city in 2013 than there were in just 2007, a boom more than big enough to offset declines in other population groups.

But what if those millennials are actually dying to move to the suburbs, and they just can’t afford to?

It’s not an entirely new argument, but it’s getting some new press in recent days. Consider this article in The Atlantic:

It’s now the case that after young people live in a prosperous city for a few years, they’re finding it increasingly hard to get the economic foothold that would allow them to leave. Median wages have fallen for this generation almost across the board, which means young people have had a hard time saving money and building the good credit needed to secure a mortgage and buy a house elsewhere. This inability to flee from cities might be masking the fact that many Millennials still yearn for a house in the suburbs.

The article cites a few somewhat dodgy sources to make its case, starting with a survey from the National Association of Home Builders, which found that 66 percent of the 1,506 millennials questioned would actually prefer single-family homes in the suburbs to living within city limits. But the survey has a pretty big flaw: it only queried millennials that are already homeowners. No renters. A second survey, from the Demand Institute, avoided that trap, however, and still found that 48 percent of millennials want to live in the suburbs, 14 percent in rural areas and just 38 percent in urban areas.

What’s missing here is context. I wasn’t able to find comparable surveys asking baby boomers or Gen X’ers where they wanted to live. Perhaps 38 percent represents a big jump in urban inclination over prior generations.

I’m also not buying, at least in the Philadelphia market, the premise that millennials are rushing to rent in the city because owning homes in the suburbs is just too expensive. There are rental options in the suburbs, and the suburban housing market here is nowhere near as inflated and challenging for first-time homebuyers as it is in, say, Los Angeles or Washington D.C.

It’s not a mortal lock that Philadelphia hangs onto its millennials over the long term, of course. The quality of the School District of Philadelphia will help determine that. But are they locked in the city because Plymouth Meeting is too damn expensive? I don’t think so.