Gen-Y homebuyers expected to transform Maine communities

Posted Oct. 23, 2012, at 6:11 p.m.
Last modified Oct. 24, 2012, at 8:57 a.m.
Evan Richert
GrowSmart Maine
Evan Richert

AUGUSTA, Maine — The next wave of Maine homebuyers will value cellphones more than cars and prefer to live in communities where they can walk to work, shop and socialize, according to Evan Richert, former director of the state planning office.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 400 municipal officials, business leaders, development professionals and planning specialists Tuesday during a GrowSmart Maine summit at the Augusta Civic Center, Richert said the maturation of Gen Y — which he defined as people born between 1983 and 2001 — will alter the way Maine communities grow and function in the coming decades.

About 301,000 Mainers — 23 percent — fall into the Gen Y category, compared with 381,000 baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, according to Richert.

“In 2006, the leading edge of Gen Y was just entering young adulthood,” Richert said. “This is a longtime market that we are talking about.”

Richert listed four key changes that have occurred since 2006, when GrowSmart Maine first released “Charting Maine’s Future: An Action Plan for Promoting Sustainable Prosperity and Quality Places.” The great recession, higher gas prices, greater online connectivity and the initial influx of Gen X into the “household formation” market are driving changes in how Maine communities should prepare for the future, he said.

“Wherever they go, they will demand choices — technology in affordable homes, places where they can experience life in a different way than the low-density suburbs,” Richert said, citing data compiled by the Urban Land Institute.

GrowSmart Maine had commissioned the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program to complete the comprehensive report on how Maine could adapt government, education, business and other institutions to position the state for success in the 21st century. Tuesday’s summit provided an opportunity to provide status reports and consider revisions to that plan.

Richert noted that the nation plunged into a deep recession soon after the report was released. Two offshoots of that recession, higher gas prices and a deflated housing market, combine to make smaller, urban residences more appealing to Gen Y and other homebuyers, he said.

The value of living in suburbs with lower property values rather than in service centers diminishes as the cost of travel increases, according to Richert. That has triggered a serious reconsideration of suburban living in Maine.

“The break-even line is shifting inward, as travel costs erode the benefit of lower land cost,” he said. “In Portland, the point of equilibrium between travel and housing costs has shifted inward by 4.7 miles. In the Bangor area, the shift is probably … a little over five miles.”

The ability to connect online also affects value and lifestyle decisions that Gen-Y members will make as they decide where to live and work.

“They are growing up with computers, cellphones and instant online communication,” Richert said, noting that Facebook first offered public access in 2006, the same year that the Brookings report was released. “They expect instant answers. Smartphones are probably more important to this generation than cars. Connectivity is the lifeblood of this generation.”

For that reason, communities built only to accommodate travel by car will be at a disadvantage to those that offer “walkability” or other transit options, Richert said.

Coupled with the fact that Gen Y is coming of age during a period of sustained economic instability, these changes further emphasize the need for “smart growth” strategies, Richert said. Among his suggestions are changing zoning restrictions to allow more multi-use developments as Scarborough has done, reducing minimum lot size standards for new homes and mixed-use redevelopment of former industrial properties.

GrowSmart Maine and Brookings released revisions to “Charting Maine’s Future” on Tuesday. Among six lessons included in the revised report are to “respect local knowledge;” look outside government for solutions and to spur change; view the state as a collection of diverse parts rather than as a single unit; accept the cautious nature of Mainers and factor it into change strategies; recognize that investment takes sustained commitment; and that a long-term strategy requires patience.

Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, described Tuesday’s gathering as an opportunity to “re-energize Maine to keep doing great stuff … and to show that successes happen when people in a community come together.”

In introducing Richert, Yellow Light Breen, a senior vice president of Bangor Savings Bank who served with Richert in former Gov. Angus King’s administration, said, “It’s not enough to grow smart, you have to grow trust. I don’t think our values are fundamentally different. I think we have to understand the different milieu” in which Mainers live and work.

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