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Urban areas see revival in housing construction


By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY


Workers lift a wall frame on a new single-family home in Corona, Calif., on Feb. 25. Though home construction has jumped in urban areas, suburbs continue to get their share of development.


Workers lift a wall frame on a new single-family home in Corona, Calif., on Feb. 25. Though home construction has jumped in urban areas, suburbs continue to get their share of development.


A substantial amount of housing built this decade has shifted from open fields on the edges of suburbia to dense central cities and their nearby suburbs, a new government study suggests.


The change suggests that a much-publicized urban renaissance in the past 15 years is more than an isolated trend, some urban analysts say.


In more than half of the 50 most populous metropolitan areas, communities at the urban core have captured a significantly larger share of their region's new residential building permits since 2002 than in the first half of the 1990s, according to an analysis by the Environmental Protection Agency.


"It's a very striking trend," says John Thomas, an EPA policy analyst and author of the report. "It seems to be holding up the first year of the real estate market downturn."

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Long-standing patterns remain: A large share of residential construction still takes place on farmland on remote fringes of metro areas. In most regions, new housing in urban core neighborhoods accounts for less than half. Nonetheless, there was a consistent increase in housing in urban centers from 2002 to 2007, and the trend could transform growth patterns in some places for decades to come.


"For years, there was just one model — homes in auto-dependent suburbs," says David Goldberg with Smart Growth America, a national coalition that advocates denser development to allow easy access to jobs and services on foot or mass transit.


Changes in demographics, high gas prices and longer commutes on congested roads are generating more interest in smaller homes in urban settings.


"The development industry finally began to create the kind of in-town products that people were looking for," Goldberg says. "It also reflects the investment that a lot of metro areas have made in rail transit systems."


The battered economy presents challenges — downtown housing is struggling with vacancies just as exurban subdivisions are, says Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., who writes about urban history and trends.


"You have to have an economy to sustain high-density housing," he says, and most jobs are created in the suburbs. "Very few mayors focus on job creation."


The EPA study analyzed the share of residential building permits that were issued in a region's core city, its close-in suburbs and suburbs farther out from 1990 to 1995 and from 2002 to 2007.


Comparing those two periods was bound to show a growth in construction in the center because not much was happening in cities in the early '90s, Kotkin says. "It was the absolute nadir," he says.


The study highlighted 2007 results to capture the effect of the start of the housing collapse.


"There's a clear trend going on, but it's not universal," Thomas says:


• In 15 regions, the central city greatly increased its share of residential building permits. Those regions include large cities with strong ties to the global economy (New York, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles) and medium cities that are leaders in controlling growth (Portland, Ore., Denver).


• In 26 cities, including Sacramento and Milwaukee, the share has doubled or tripled since 2000.


• Old suburbs on the edge of cities captured a significant chunk of new housing in eight metropolitan areas, including Boston, Minneapolis and Washington.


• The shift also occurred in Atlanta, where the metropolitan area has been sprawling for decades. The share of permits issued in the city went from 4% in the early '90s to 13% this decade. In 2007, it jumped to 21%, reflecting a slowdown in more remote areas.


Atlanta renewed its focus on attracting residents after it hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. Public housing was redeveloped, and a beautification push created parks and trails.


Condo development took off as more young professionals came to Atlanta.


"Demographics have really changed," says Dan Reuter, land use chief at the Atlanta Regional Commission. "People are waiting longer to get married, longer to have children, and once children are grown up, we're living longer."


INTERACTIVE MAP: Housing going up in and near cities





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