City Slickers: Are Seniors Really Moving Back to the Urban Core?

Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm, says not to believe the hype, saying senior population gains continue to grow larger in the outer suburbs and he doesn’t believe there’s a so-called resurgence of seniors in the urban core.

For decades, census data has shown that upon retirement, most seniors hightail themselves out of the big metropolitan cities and choose to settle down and spend their Golden Years in a rural environment, leaving the urban core to the “youngsters.”

However, this may no longer be the case. There are a growing number of developers and apartment industry experts who believe that seniors are not only remaining in the big cities upon retirement, but many are also moving in.

It’s a trend that developers are certainly keeping an eye on. After all, the seniors of today are much more tech savvy and adventurous than ever before, and they are interested in some of the same sort of amenities and features that attract Millennials to apartments. This includes walkability to restaurants, shopping and entertainment; easy access to transportation; car services like Uber; and close proximity to health care.

Jeannette Chapman, research associate for the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis, says this is one of those cases where the data hasn’t really caught up to reality because the most recent data that people are making observations on comes from 2010.

“We are seeing people saying they don’t want to move too far from where they’ve been, wanting to stick close to their jobs, their grandchildren and the comforts they have grown accustomed to,” she says.

In her research on the urban core in the Washington Metropolitan area, which includes parts of D.C., Arlington, Va., and Bethesda/Silver Spring, Md., she notes that a growing number of seniors are staying in place and some are moving to the urban core, with not as much an exodus as people think.

“In this region there are not huge trends, and that becomes counter to some of what we’ve been hearing anecdotally from builders as the trends are different in net worth brackets,” she says. “The problem is that certain data sets have income numbers, but if you’re retired, it doesn’t necessarily capture net wealth, so it’s very difficult to pull out who’s moving because they can as opposed to who’s downsizing or who’s moving because housing costs have gone up more and they’re moving to the suburbs because it’s a relatively cheaper option.”

Manny Gonzalez, principal with award-winning architecture and planning firm KTGY Group, Inc., says from statistics he sees (and believes) approximately 4 percent of people 65 and older are moving to the urban core.

“That might seem like a small number, but with 10,000 people a day turning 65, that means nearly 400 people a day are moving into an urban environment,” he says. “That may not be a huge market, but there’s certainly an opportunity if it’s the right product in the right location.”

One senior development that Gonzalez has seen do very well is Angelus Plaza, a 1,100-unit renovated high rise tower in Los Angeles, that currently has a waiting list of over 4,000 seniors to get in.

“Something that big with that many people shows you there is a market,” he says. “It’s been highly successful and justifies the thought that people 65 and over will live in an urban environment.”

Developers taking notice

There are developers who believe that seniors are becoming more prevalent in the urban core and are making additions to meet the perceived growing demand.

“Developers are starting to look at this trend and they are already starting to build to it, rethinking their target locations and target building types,” Chapman says. “They are looking more towards downtown districts with activity centers and walkable transit-oriented communities.”

Some owners are adapting their existing buildings to provide senior centers to support the interests of families in all stages to be able to age in place, with many adding active lifestyle programs to keep seniors entertained.

Not so fast

Wendell Cox, principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm, says not to believe the hype, saying senior population gains continue to grow larger in the outer suburbs and he doesn’t believe there’s a so-called resurgence of seniors in the urban core.

“I analyze data at the zip code level, and if you look at changes in the population between 2000 and 2010, what I’ve found is those 65 and over are dispersing throughout major metropolitan areas, and specifically away from the urban cores,” he says. “It’s a myth that comes from regrettably a lot of analysts, some urban planners and reporters who let their hearts get in front of the data.”

According to his data, between 2000-2010, the number of senior citizens living in the suburbs and exurbs of major metropolitan areas (over 1,000,000 population) grew, with numbers strongly skewed away from the urban cores.

“Suburbs and exurbs gained 2.82 million senior residents over the period, while functional urban cores lost 112,000,” he says. “The later suburbs added 1.64 million seniors. The second largest increase was in exurban areas, with a gain of 0.88 million seniors. The earlier suburbs (generally inner suburbs) added just under 300,000 seniors.”

Gonzalez believes that a hybrid of urban and suburban may be the future of senior living—sort of like an “urban light.”

“The home building industry is creating this urban environment without it being in New York or Chicago; an urban feel without it being 50 stories tall,” he says. “Santa Monica, Calif., is a good example of that. Stapleton, Col., is another. These are more approachable urban living environments for seniors.”