Economists' Outlook

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Community Preference Survey: Smart Growth Neighborhoods

This is a guest blog post by Joe Molinaro, NAR’s Managing Director for Smart Growth and Housing Opportunity.

Two weeks ago, NAR’s Smart Growth Program released the findings of its 2011 Community Preference Survey, which aims to discover how people choose a neighborhood.  We were trying to measure the appeal of “smart growth” characteristics, such as walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, smaller lots, and access to public transportation.  We also asked some more general questions related to housing and other issues.  We asked some of these same questions in a 2004 survey, so it’s interesting to see some of these comparisons between then and now.  The news release can be read here; and within that is a link to the entire survey (with 2004 vs. 2011 comparisons) and the full report, including crosstabs (e.g. breakdown of responses by demographics).  We polled 2,071 people, so the data for subgroups is better than for a typical survey of 1,000 people.

Our headline story that people prefer a smart growth neighborhood is based on the results of several questions, but one very important question is Q13.  Our pollster, Belden Russonello & Stewart, devised this way of providing people with a full description of the many characteristics of a typical low-density suburban subdivision versus the characteristics of a smart growth community, and 56 percent chose the smart growth model.  Here is the question as it appeared on the survey:

13. Please read the two descriptions below and answer the following questions. Assume that the quality of the schools, crime rates, and cost of house are exactly the same in the two communities:





We then further probed to find which of the individual characteristics shown above were seen as the most positive and the most negative factors.  We also used simpler questions to compare one or two factors related to neighborhood choice.

Although most people prefer a larger lot and a lifestyle of driving everywhere (Q8), they are also very sensitive to commute time (Q9) and would accept a smaller lot if in return they received a shorter commute (Q9).  The benefit of being able to walk to stores and restaurants appeals to many people (Very Important to 24% in Q17).

I was not surprised that 80 percent of people would prefer a single-family detached home (Q6).  What is interesting is that if you could give people a shorter commute and a neighborhood where they could walk places, this number drops to 59 percent (Q12).

We see that there is a hard core of about 10 or 11 percent who are focused on big houses in new suburban developments (Q17d; Q17p; Q5;); and a hard core of about 7 or 8 percent who want true city living (Q5; Q17k).  But in between, there are the more typical home buyers - those willing to weigh many factors to find what works best for them.  There appears to be a large “swing vote” of Americans who will say they want a single-family home on a large lot, but the more you tell them about the alternatives of a walkable, mixed-use neighborhood, the more they are willing to make compromises in house and lot size in order to gain the neighborhood benefits of smart growth.

One striking finding of this survey, which is consistent with other surveys we have done, is the strong support for improving public transportation.  In Q19, we give people three choices for the best approach to dealing with traffic congestion in their communities.   A full 50 percent support improving public transportation, 30 percent support “developing communities that require less driving,”, and only 18 percent support building new roads.  These numbers are nearly identical to what we found in 2004, and improving public transportation is the first choice across all political party affiliations.

One note on methodology:  the survey collects the sample of respondents by contacting people by phone — land line and cell phones  — and if they cannot be reached by phone, postal mail is tried.  Then the people chosen to take the survey are directed to the internet to take the poll.  Those who do not have internet access are given instructions for where they can go to take the survey.  One advantage of this method is that you can write longer questions  — complex questions are more difficult on a phone survey because by the time you get to the end of the question, people can’t remember the beginning of the question.

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