Dealing with Density Fears

New research challenges a common anti-development argument that new apartments will overburden the local school system.

In this era of tight budgets, local governments have to be mindful of potential additional costs to public services. Many local governments’ finances suffered significant deterioration as a result of the recent economic downturn.

However, often these budgetary concerns are unjustly leveraged to slow new apartment development. One of the enduring obstacles thrown at apartment developers in many local jurisdictions is this assumption: A new apartment property will bring in too many children and overburden the local school district.

But the facts are otherwise. The average number of children in apartments is less than the average for single-family dwellings (both owned and rented). The difference is even greater for recently built homes.

Fewer households with children

While the backbone of this common anti-apartment argument is that new apartments will bring in many schoolchildren and that the local government cannot afford to educate these incoming children, demographic trends suggest something quite different.

The number of children under 18 years of age is almost 74 million, representing 23 percent of the population.1 Declining birth rates, increased longevity and changing lifestyles has shrunk not only children’s share of the population over the last 100-plus years but also the percentage of households with children, which has undergone a long-running decline to under 29 percent today.

These children are not spread proportionately among different kinds of housing units, however.

On average, there are 60 children for every 100 households in the nation. The figure is about the same for single-family owner households (59), but much higher for single-family renters (96). In contrast, for every 100 apartment households, there are 41 children; for condos the figure is 17.

These data show that, on average, there are significantly fewer children in apartments than in single-family homes, whether renter- or owner-occupied. The difference is even greater among recently built homes.

For every 100 households living in all homes built since 2005, there are 80 children. Among single-family renters in newly built houses, the figure is 120, while among single-family owners it is 91. By contrast, there are only 38 children per 100 apartment households living in newly built properties.

Apartments house fewer school-age children

If we narrow the focus to just school-age children—traditionally defined as those between six and 17 years of age—apartments contribute even less to demand for schooling. Overall, 25 percent of all households have at least one school-age child. The figure is about the same for single-family owners (26 percent). Among single-family renters, 37 percent of households have school-age children. But only 16 percent of apartment households and 7 percent of condo households have school-age children.

The difference is greater still in newly constructed homes: For homes built since 2005, fully 35 percent of single-family owners and 42 percent of single-family renters have school-age children. This compares with only 13 percent for apartment households, meaning that 87 percent of newly constructed apartment homes have no school-age children. Moreover, there are far fewer school-age children in new apartments overall—only 22 per 100 households, compared with 58 for single-family owners and 77 for single-family renters.

To put this differently, 100 new apartment homes will have the same number of schoolchildren on average as just 35 new single-family owner-occupied houses.

Variety of factors drive overburdening claims

Given these data, the overburdening argument appears to have much more to do with biases against both renting and compact development, community misperception about the economic and social value of apartments, density fears and not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) movements than with effective local fiscal planning.

There is a broader point to be made as well. The number of children (and school-age children) in the nation isn’t determined by the number or type of housing units available. Given the choice families make about whether to have children (and, if so, how many and when), the real question is where, and how, these children are to be housed and educated.

While one local jurisdiction can try to push this misconstrued burden onto another through regulation and political pressure, these types of activities don’t help solve the problem. What’s more, any apparent benefit may be short-lived; communities with a variety of different types of housing and real estate—mixed-use, mixed-income, single-family and multifamily—appear to be in greater demand than ever before.

Mark Obrinsky is the senior vice president of research and chief economist for the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) in Washington, D.C.