Are We Ready for the Silver Tsunami?

An aging population plus young people who aren’t buying single-family homes in suburbs could change the face of the Lehigh Valley.


Earlier this year, a Bucks County developer that had built large subdivisions with single-family homes in Upper Macungie switched gears.

The Heritage Homes Group got approval from the township to change a 2007 proposal for the Dunbar Tract III of its Breinigsville development from a majority of single-family homes to mostly townhouses on Twin Ponds Road.

If Mitchell Silver, president of the American Planning Association, is right, the Lehigh Valley is going to be seeing a lot more of these changes as our population ages and younger people opt for lifestyles that don’t include a big home in a suburban subdivision.

At the behest of Sara Pandl, Lower Macungie’s planning director and chair of the Lehigh Valley section of the national planning association, Silver spoke to a crowd of mostly planners at Lehigh University last week.

Silver said that by 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65 – a sea change that he referred to as “the Silver Tsunami” (no relation). By 2025, only 28 percent of American households will have children, according to U.S. Census projections.

Combine those trends and the smart money is looking at different types of housing construction. Senior citizens and young people are seeking to live in walkable, bikeable towns and cities, rather than suburban subdivisions only accessible by car, he said.

As chief planner for Raleigh, N.C., Silver is in the process of updating the city’s development code and is hoping to allow for more housing configurations, such as single homes with “backyard cottages” for older parents or young people who return home. Another possible option is “cottage courts” – 450-square-foot homes surrounding a small courtyard. 

Raleigh voters recently passed a $4 million bond issue to put in more sidewalks around the city, rather than mandate each property owner pay for his or her own sidewalks. The ballot question passed by 65 percent of the vote.

That might be the smartest option for Lehigh Valley municipalities seeking to become more pedestrian-friendly. Having the local government pay to install sidewalks would take away much of the sting that Emmaus residents faced a few years ago when the borough required them.  

More young professionals – like those Raleigh is attracting with its universities and research corridor – also prefer working in towns and cities, Silver said. 

“The young people don’t want to be out in an office park,” he said. “Office parks are so 20th Century.”

But what, one audience member asked, do you do about current residents who are resistant to change? For example, Heritage – the Bucks developer – ran up against some unhappy neighbors when it sought to change the Twin Ponds Road plans.

Silver said he tells such residents that because of market trends, very few banks want to lend a lot of money to developers planning large single-family housing tracts.

When he hears from Raleigh residents who oppose rental properties, Silver trots out a nice recent college grad and says, “You don’t want to rent to him?”

“Right now the younger generation wants to rent, they don’t want to buy,” Silver said. And in many cases, they can't afford to.

Changing demographics might well succeed in doing what municipal governments could not: slow the gobbling up of Lehigh Valley farmland and open space for single-family tract housing developments and office parks.

Mark Jamison December 06, 2012 at 01:49 PM
Finally! The old model off every successful person being obligated to buy an over sized house on two acres of prime farmland and then spend way too much time and money on maintaining a lawn they can be proud of was a model that was flawed on every level.
charles hampton December 06, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Agreed, Mark. I see a lot of good models in this story.
Scott Alderfer December 06, 2012 at 02:51 PM
Amen! If we update our Subdivision and Land Use Ordinances to reflect the kind of developments we want to see in Lower Macungie, the developers will have to bring those kinds of innovative designs when they want to build here.
Mary Anne Looby December 06, 2012 at 06:52 PM
I don't believe every new home buyer wants to love in a townhouse or "row" house as as they were called in the 60's. You have to keep in mind that space does have it's perks. I am not talking about 3,000 plus sq ft houses, but who want to share a wall or wall with stereo blasters, kids running up and down stairs and neighbors who yards look like a forgotten yard sale. There are plenty of charming smaller homes in neighborhoods with sidewalks that don't cost as much as the newer townhouses. I have been two 6 weddings in as many years and everyone of those couples purchased in the burbs or small towns. Living in cities only pays if you work in the city and don't want to pay for the transportation costs.
Robert Sentner December 06, 2012 at 09:23 PM
School taxes........anyone want to talk about school taxes or the need for a new high School if we convert single family homes to hi density residential. I am sure the demographics for a single family house versus a town house is much different on top of the massive increase in the number of houses.
rick troxell December 06, 2012 at 11:02 PM
Simple average number of kids per household and cost to educate at local level. Pass expansion cost off to developer same with water. Sewer. Road. Public services
Robert Sentner December 06, 2012 at 11:39 PM
Rick, I am sure there is a big difference between single family homes and town houses, school aged children per unit. The problem is when you factor out the cost over the life of the house decades in most cases, it is a number so large that no one would ever develop. That is not the problem, it's townships and municipalities having a discussion with the school districts, with both knowing the needs of each other.
rick troxell December 07, 2012 at 03:35 AM
Robert I agree but that does not occur. What I really mean with my. Comment is until good sound planning can occur taking into consideration current and projected future effects developement should carry mod responsibility to the community. It cant continue to be just build and don't consider the economic effect in the short or long term. Just my opinion
rsubber December 07, 2012 at 10:25 AM
Thanks, Margie, good story. The times they are a-changin'
Andrew Wilt December 07, 2012 at 12:51 PM
rick troxell - The cost of educating children cannot be put on the developer(s) because the amount is simply too great. At $12,000 per year in the Saucon Valley School District per child, assuming two children in a new home, that would be a $24,000 cost to the developer(s) for the first year alone. As Robert Sentner wrote, there would be no development. Not that that's a bad thing.
Mark Jamison December 07, 2012 at 01:49 PM
Agreed, this should not be put on the developers. Especially when construction is so critical to the economy. It is also time to revamp the very inequitable property/ school tax system..
Allan Bach December 07, 2012 at 03:17 PM
The point I take from this article is the prediction that only 28% of households will have children by the yer 2025. What does this say about society? Could it be that people place things above children? Are SUVs and vacations higher on the list of wants? If this prediction is correct, we may not have to be concerned about school taxes - schools may find it necessary to rent the empty space created by less children attending. I'm glad my parents thought it more important to raise a family - otherwise I wouldn't be writing this comment.
Crestor Januvia December 07, 2012 at 03:23 PM
Allan.... DERP..... the reason there will be FEWER houses with kids is because seniors are living so much longer, SO THERE ARE MORE HOUSES WITH SENIORS, and there A LOWER PERCENTAGE OF COUPLE OF CHILD BEARING AGE. Good grief.... it's not some choice being made by young couples to get a big house and not have kids. This is basic MATH. Did you vote for Obama ?
Allan Bach December 07, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Crestor, Did I vote for Obama? That's a great line - made me laugh.
gailm December 07, 2012 at 10:58 PM
Actually, I think that was a very immature thing to say. Grow up already!
Gerry Kranz December 08, 2012 at 02:11 PM
The unstated problem is that this "Tsunami of Depends-Wearing Complainers" is going to suckle at the public teat as much as the exploding demographic of poor minorities looking for their handouts. Without replacing the population that is able to work, WHO WILL THE GOVERNMENT BE ABLE TO COLLECT TAXES FROM? The old geezers won't be paying taxes. The cholo brothers on the block will be too bizzy "chooting up the Rican club" to earn legal money, that is taxed. The onslaught of homo couples will not produce legit offspring (no art and dogs are not kids!). The few people left that pay taxes may as well give up, than be enslaved by the Democrat-envisioned tax rates needed for the few to support the bottom-feeding many. Hey Crestor, you should have qualified your statement by saying there will be a lower percentage of people of child bearing age that will produce kids that can grow up and hold a job.
charles hampton December 08, 2012 at 03:09 PM
What is wrong with you people. You take an informative and interesting news topic, and turn it in to a hot button issue, spewing disrespect and hate.
Robert Sentner December 08, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Wow.... I agree with Charles, lets find a repair or thought for the problem. There is plenty of upstanding Puerto Ricans, African Americans, Gay, White, purple, whatever people just like there is plenty of trashy people of the same ethnic or minority background. The fact that my parents worked hard and are still working hard at 71 years old doesn't make them "depends wearing complainers" and I take offense to that. My advice to you Gerry is volunteer your services and see if you can come up with something that actually helps.
Andrew Wilt December 08, 2012 at 04:15 PM
Gerry Kranz - The "Depends-Wearing Complainers" have been supporting everyone else, likely including you, for decades with their taxes, just like the "Depends-Wearing Complainers" before them and the "Depends-Wearing Complainers" of the future.


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