Warning Signs From Columbus About America’s Big Suburban Housing Glut

The Columbus, Ohio region could support the construction of more than 1 billion square feet of commercial development on existing parking lots alone, a recent study found. Image: Richard Webner via Streetsblog
The Columbus, Ohio, region could support the construction of more than a billion square feet of mixed-use development on existing parking lots and commercial sites — but only if planners get their act together, says researcher Arthur C. Nelson. Photo: Richard Webner

Columbus, Ohio, is a convenient microcosm of the United States as a whole.

Demographically, Columbus closely resembles America. That’s one reason the city ends up being a battleground for presidential candidates every four years, and why fast food chains like to test new menu items there.

Because Columbus is so, well, typical, the city also has a lot to teach us about where the average American city is headed. Esteemed urban affairs researcher Arthur C. Nelson recently took a look at Columbus as part of a report for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he found that the city is on course for “sweeping demographic changes” that could transform the local housing market.

The demand for single-family housing on large lots is expected to plummet, leaving the region with an oversupply. Image: NRDC
The demand for single-family housing on large lots is expected to plummet in the Columbus region, while demand for more compact dwellings is expected to swell. Image: NRDC

Columbus is growing at nearly the same rate as America as a whole. By 2040, the region will have added roughly half a million people, bringing its population to about 2.2 million.

But those new households will look a lot different than today’s, and that will have huge implications for the local housing market. New households will be older and much more likely to be childless than current households.

Between 1990 and 2012, for example, about 78 percent of population growth in the Columbus area was among households headed by people between 35 and 64 years old. That stage of life is the period of “peak housing demand,” when homeowners favor detached houses on large lots. But by 2030, that age group will make up just 22 percent of population growth — while homeowners over 65 will make up 56 percent of new households. Many of these older homeowners will want multi-family housing or single-family homes on small lots, according to Nelson.

It turns out that Columbus’s current housing stock is woefully mismatched to future needs. By 2040, as much as 40 percent of the demand for housing could be for attached, multi-family units, and another 30 percent will be for single-family homes on small lots, Nelson estimates.

In the Columbus area over the past few decades the majority of households were baby boomers raising children. In the coming decades, the older population will swell and the households with children that demand large houses on large lots will recede. Image: NRDC
In the coming decades, the Columbus area’s older population will increase and there will be less growth among households with children. Image: NRDC

“Even if all new residential units built to 2040 were attached and small lots, there would be up to 75,000 more homes on all other lots than the market may demand,” Nelson said.

According to Nelson, nonresidential real estate will undergo a similar sea change, with 300 million square feet of growth by 2040 and an additional 750 million square feet that will be “repurposed, redeveloped, and otherwise recycled.” Nelson calls that figure “nothing less than staggering.” Nevertheless, because of increased demand for mixed-use development and the extent of under-used parcels in the area, he told NRDC Switchboard that technically, “all new jobs and all new multifamily housing could occur on existing parking lots.”

Unfortunately, planning in the Columbus region suffers from what Nelson calls a “baby boom time warp.”

“For the past half-century, housing demand in the Columbus MSA was driven by baby boomers’ parents who wanted to raise their children in suburban, single-family, detached homes on larger lots, and then by boomers themselves as they became parents,” he writes.

In order to be prepared for the changes expected in the next 30 years, Nelson recommends that Columbus “rethink its transportation investments” and “invest in a modern regional transit system.” Columbus is the largest city in the country without any passenger rail whatsoever — urban transit or inter-city. Nelson also recommends that the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission use some of its planning money to encourage local jurisdictions to conduct land use planning.

  • com63

    “Demand for commercial real estate is expected to grow by nearly a billion square feet in the Columbus area by 2040.”
    A billion SF? really? Try again. Manhattan has something like 300-400M SF of office space that has been built up over the last 100 years. That billion number by 2040 is obviously wrong. I could believe 1M or maybe even 10M.

  • To clarify, and sorry we worded it wrong, here’s the change: “According to Nelson, nonresidential real estate will undergo a similar sea change, with 300 million square feet of growth by 2040 and an additional 750 million square feet that will be ‘repurposed, redeveloped, and otherwise recycled.'”

  • Andrew Magee

    Columbus would have had inter-city rail with the 3C project if it weren’t for the current governor.

  • com63

    Nelson must be talking about changes nationwide, not just in Columbus.

  • No it’s definitely about the Columbus region, that means Franklin and the surrounding counties. This isn’t just office, but all development except housing. He says that 1 billion represents 1.8 times the “total enclosed nonresidential space” housed in the Columbus MSA in 2010. Check out the abstract, linked in the story.

  • cjlane

    “He says that 1 billion represents 1.8 times the “total enclosed nonresidential space””

    Which means there is about 550mm sf of enclosed nonresidential space now. (Note: agreed. per costar info I could find, Columbus metro has about 308m sf of industrial, and about 120m sf of office, with retail, if national average, about 110m more, and some amount of ‘flex’ space).

    So, he is saying that 100% of the existing space will be rebuilt or repurposed in the next 26 years, AND that over 1/4 of it will be rebuilt or repurposed *a second time* in such fashion that it doubles in size in that time? That’s *fantastical*.

    The numbers don’t really work out–550m existing + 300m new just doesn’t equal a billion, even using the new math.

    But, there’s no question you read it the right way, Angie–I read it four times, and that’s what the abstract sez.

  • Sprawl Me Out

    Let’s be clear about C-bus: there’s no there there.

  • Rebecca Marino Heckman

    Idk. Manhattan is also a 14square mile island… And as such, things are small here (in NYC)

  • Ruben Castilla Herrera

    Columbus residents need to learn not to be afraid to ride the bus first.

  • WalkerEvans

    The lack of rail-based transit is certainly the elephant in the room in Columbus.

    But in spite of that drawback, Columbus continues to rapidly densify with thousands of new residential units added to the urban core every year — the majority of which are smaller (studio, 1br or 2br) and built as rentals/apartments.

    If the housing market does change as much as predicted by 2040, then we’re already moving in that direction to accommodate. (Though it could mean increased vacancies and/or decreased values for single family / suburban housing around the outerbelt).

    Here’s a sample of just the larger residential and mixed-use projects completed, constructed or announced in 2013 alone: http://www.columbusunderground.com/2013-year-in-review-urban-development-bw1

  • DanMankowski

    3C Project had nothing to do with inter city rail……..

  • Uh, what? It was an intercity rail project. That was the only thing it was about.

  • DanMankowski

    You are correct Miss Angie…the discussion was about public transit within Columbus and believe the comment about The 3C project had nothing to do with that. Andrews statement was 100% correct, but it still has nothing to do with the conversation or intra city transit.

  • Consider Biking

    Thank you Angie! I hope you will attend the April 22 Good Ideas for Columbus event at Seventh Son brewery. https://www.facebook.com/events/403129233154530/

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