Americans made two things very clear in the latest biennial Community Preference Survey by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS® (NAR). They want to live in walkable neighborhoods and they care more about neighborhood than house size when deciding where to live.
Given the focus on neighborhood, the question becomes what kind of neighborhood do people prefer most? According to the survey, it’s a suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops and businesses. The kind of neighborhood they prefer least? A suburban neighborhood with houses only.
Those findings are among several survey results that show an affinity for mixed-use, walkability, compact development and other characteristics of smart growth. The September 2013 survey of 1,500 people was conducted for NAR by American Strategies in conjunction with Myers Research and Strategic Services.
The number of people who preferred a mixed-use suburban neighborhood was nearly double the next leading choice of a rural area and nearly triple the number who preferred a suburban neighborhood with houses only. The total responses for a preferred location to live were: suburban with a mix of uses, 30%; rural area, 16%; city near a mix of offices, apartments and shops, 15%; small town, 14%; and city mostly residential, 13%.
A detached single-family home was the preferred housing choice of 76 percent. More than half — 52 percent — preferred a detached single-family home with a big yard while 24 percent preferred a detached single-family home with a small yard. But the preference for large lots versus compact development does not appear to be set in stone.
Most people said they would trade a big yard for a small yard if it meant living in a community where they would have a shorter commute to work (57%), could walk to schools, stores and restaurants instead of needing to drive (55%) or could walk to parks, playgrounds and recreation areas instead of needing to drive (53%).
Most (57%) would not, however, trade a detached single-family home for an apartment or townhome even if the apartment or townhome offered a short commute and was within walking distance of shops and restaurants.
If housing type is stripped from the equation, 60 percent preferred a neighborhood with a mix of houses, stores and other businesses within easy walking distance versus a neighborhood with houses only where they would have to drive to stores and other businesses.
People also put a high priority on walkability when they were asked to indicate the importance of 19 neighborhood characteristics when deciding where to live. Sidewalks and places to walk were rated either very important or somewhat important by 80 percent of survey participants. High-quality public schools (rated very important/ somewhat important by 74 percent) came next, but was followed by being within easy walking distance of other places and things in the community (rated very important/somewhat important by 69 percent).
When asked to choose between a smart growth community and a traditional suburban community, 50 percent favored the smart growth community compared to 45 percent for the traditional suburban community (5% did not answer). The smart growth community was defined as a place with a mix of housing types where schools, stores and services are within walking distance and there is nearby public transportation. The traditional suburban community was defined as a place with single-family homes only, where people need to drive to schools, businesses and services and public transportation is either distant or unavailable.
Being able to walk to schools, stores and services was the most appealing characteristic of the smart growth community for 64 percent of the people who preferred the smart growth community. It was also the most appealing characteristic of the smart growth community for 54 percent of those who preferred traditional suburban development.
There is some indication in the survey that the smart growth option may trend upward in the future as more people under 40 favored it (53% to 43%) than people over 50 (48% to 46%). It also was more appealing to college graduates (53% to 43%) than non-college grads (48% to 46%).
In addition, people who have moved in the last three years or are planning to move in the next three years expressed strong preferences for the smart growth community. Recent movers preferred it 58 to 38 percent and those who plan to move in the next three years preferred it 57 to 39 percent.
The survey included questions about traffic and transportation that produced mixed answers about the problems and solutions. When asked to choose the best long-term answer to reducing traffic and improving transportation in their state, more people named improving public transportation (41%) and developing more communities where people don’t need to drive long distances to work or shop (29%) than chose building new roads (20%).
When asked if public transportation is available in their area, 64 percent said yes. Twenty-one percent of those that said yes, agreed that they “prefer public transit over driving so my family can own fewer cars.” On the other hand, 57 percent agreed with the statement that nothing will replace their car as their main source of transportation while only 22 percent disagreed. Another 21 percent were neutral.
More people said they would be willing to pay for various transportation improvements than said they’d be unwilling. New roads (51% to 38%) and better quality of service from existing public transportation (50% to 40%) received the strongest support. Expansion of public transportation (48% to 41%) and new sidewalks and bike trails (46% to 43%) also received more yeas than nays.
However, when given a list of possible ways to replace shrinking gas tax revenues, 29 percent said they wouldn’t replace it and 29 percent said they didn’t know the best answer. The other responses were: make up the shortfall with a vehicle miles driven tax (20%), increase tolls (14%) and raise the gas tax (8%).
A majority (64%) said public transportation is available where they live, but 42 percent said they never use it and 18 percent said they use it less than once a month. When given a list of six things that might prod them to use transit more often, the most frequent answer was none of the above (25%) followed by more frequent service (23%).
When asked about the quality of life in their community, 44 percent said it had remained the same over the past three years, 32 percent said it had gotten better and 23 percent said it had gotten worse.
The most important overall issue for people was attracting businesses and creating jobs, which was considered a high priority by 78 percent. Next came lowering the crime rate and improving public education (73%) followed by improving the health care system (70%).
Although still comparatively low, a number of housing-related issues jumped in importance between 2011and 2013. More Americans placed a high priority on affordable housing (60% compared to 51%); housing opportunities for people with moderate and low income (57% compared to 46%); revitalizing older suburbs (38% compared to 26%); and creating new development outside cities (34% compared to 24%).
Americans also placed more value on community diversity than in 2011 as 53 percent thought living in a community with a mix of people from various racial backgrounds was important (up from 42%), 48 percent thought living in a community with a mix of income levels was important (up from 42%) and 66 percent thought living in a community with people at all stages of life was important (up from 60%).