Although economic growth has been decelerating, this slowdown might take second place to some disquieting new socio-demographic trends, which paint a rather bleak picture: America’s big, wealthy cities are forcing out precisely the demographics that would ensure the continuation of the developed, business-centric urban hub: the families with children.
According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University:
Perhaps nothing speaks greater volume about changes in modern American life than the rise of the single-person household. A recent paper authored by Census Bureau researchers shows that a hundred years ago, fewer than six percent of all households consisted of people who lived alone. By 1940, that share had only inched upward to 7.8 percent. By 2013, at 28 percent of all households, it is now the second most common household type just behind married couples without minor children (29 percent), and well ahead of marrieds with minor children in the household (19 percent).
In the past decade, the share of single-person households went up significantly in America’s largest cities. Whether they rent or own, residents from established urban areas are increasingly living on their own. According to the 2019 National Association of Realtors, Home Buyers and Sellers Generational Trends Report, although the largest share of homebuyers is still represented by married couples – at 63% – single women are the next-highest significant cohort at a staggering 18%, followed by single males (9%).
Adding to the trend of the big city driving out one key demographic and encouraging single living, the number of unrelated people living together has gone up, as well. Defined as a multi-person household where at least one member is not related by blood, marriage, adoption or partnership to the other members, the rise in unrelated households and unrelated people sharing a home suggests that city-dwellers are moving in together in order to afford to live in their city of choice.
The high, and increasing demand for housing in some of the busiest, densest American cities sends both home prices and rents into the stratosphere, pushing out many of the residents who can no longer keep up; this leads to a more scattered workforce and to cities losing their sense of community and continuity.
Looking at the changes in types of households and people’s shifting housing preferences in America’s 200 largest cities in the past decade, we noticed certain trends emerging. In particular:
- Compared to 2008, the share of single-person households in 2018 went up in 83 of the 200 largest U.S. cities.
- 15 large cities have a share of single-person households greater than 40%, and 98 cities reached a share between 30% and 40%.
- The share of unrelated people living in the same home went up 14% on a national level and has more than doubled in cities like Mesquite, TX; Miramar, FL; Sunnyvale, CA; Midland, TX; Columbus, GA; and McAllen, TX.
- In 2019, 63% of homebuyers were married couples, but single females continued to represent the second-largest homebuying group with a share of 18%, while 9% were single men.
- Further proof that settling down and buying property in the city is prohibitive for most: renter-occupied, single-person households represent the majority, with one-person rentals comprising more than 50% of households in New Orleans, LA; St. Louis, MO; Pittsburg, PA; Cleveland, OH; Atlanta, GA; Cincinnati, OH; Mobile, AL; and Washington, D.C.
- The share of owner-occupied single-person households surpasses renting households in four markets: Salinas, CA, Alexandria, VA, Garden Grove, CA and Augusta, GA.
- Condos and shrinking dwellings are both a solution to the urban housing crunch and a way to perpetuate and bolster the single lifestyle; 25 of the 200 cities included in the study are predominantly condo markets, consisting of more than 50% condos in 2018. An additional 81 are comprised of at least 30% condos.
Cities of Paradox: 83 Large Urban Centers See Spikes in Single-Person Households
Ours is an age of paradox.
Young people and Millennials postpone marriage, starting a family and buying a home, whereas seniors are increasingly choosing to age in place and not downsize. The share of people living alone is on the rise, with many of those who opt for this lifestyle citing mostly financial reasons for their choice.
However, this seems counterintuitive, as housing and living costs tend to be much higher for single-person households, not to mention that “unpartnered adults are about twice as likely as partnered adults to be living in poverty (17% vs. 7%),” per Pew Research Center data.
Another paradox is that people continuously gravitating toward the city is leading to more difficult, rather than more streamlined, housing conditions. In true Econ 101 fashion, increasing demand typically pushes rents and home prices through the roof. This, in turn, forces many people out, while blocking newcomers from accessing a city’s job opportunities and all the business and financial options associated with it.
Cities – and especially the larger, bustling urban nodes of the nation – are starting to behave like financial behemoths with significant turnover rates. The ultimate paradox takes shape here: cities want to attract and keep people by fostering a sense of inclusivity and opportunity, but they end up pushing out all those who are looking for a better, more well-rounded life within their metaphorical walls.
When it comes to the biggest increases in the rate of single-person households, North Las Vegas, NV blew all of the other cities out of the water: after a 43.3% jump, the city currently hovers around 23.5% of its residents who live alone. Listed by the Census Bureau as one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, North Las Vegas is seeing an influx of high-tech businesses moving into the area, including solar and green technology. Frisco, TX comes second and Sunrise Manor, NV, the unincorporated town adjacent to North Las Vegas, takes the third sport, with a 32.3% increase in the share of one-person households.
Meanwhile, it’s actually the smaller U.S. cities that are seeing the most impressive spikes in single-person households; this could be seen as proof that smaller cities are following in the footsteps of the largest, most dynamic metropolises, where putting down roots is made almost impossible by constant change and displacement.
1-Person Households Make Up at Least 40% of Households in 15 Cities
With the highest shares of one-person households of all of the markets in the study, New Orleans, LA; Cleveland, OH; Atlanta, GA; and St. Louis, MO lead the way. Eleven more large cities are comprised of at least 40% of single-person households, with New Orleans also recording a staggering 21.7% increase compared to 2008.
One reason for the rise in one-person households is the major lifestyle shift of younger generations, who now focus on their education, career and personal goals, eschewing more traditional paths, like marriage and family formation. Rapid urbanization and increasing population densities have paved the way for a concentration of opportunities and services in the city – or, maybe just in certain cities. According to a recent Brookings report:
Based on “winner-take-most” network economies, the innovation sector has generated significant technology gains and wealth but has also helped spawn a growing gap between the nation’s dynamic “superstar” metropolitan areas and most everywhere else. […] For much of the 20th century, market forces had tended toward “convergence” among communities—reducing wage, investment, and business formation disparities between more- and less-developed regions. However, that trend began to break down in the 1980s, as digital technologies and innovation moved to the center of economic activity. Intense new demands for talent and insights increased the value of “agglomeration” economies, unleashing self-reinforcing dynamics that increasingly benefited big, coastal regions, often to the detriment of cities and metro areas in other parts of the nation.
136 Large U.S. Cities See Increase in Percentage of Unrelated People Living Together
Unrelated households are the multi-person households where at least one member is not related to the other members. The increasing number of unrelated people choosing to share a home suggests that more residents are opting to live together rather than increasing their commute time or moving out of the city where they currently work and live.
Six of the 200 largest U.S. cities have more than doubled their number of non-relatives living in the same household, with Mesquite, TX, and Miramar, FL, noting increases well above 200%. Sunnyvale, CA; Midland and McAllen, TX; and Columbus, GA, have all logged increases of more than 100%.
Moreover, apart from the massive shift in the evolution of single-person households and unrelated people living together, America’s largest cities also have high net domestic out-migration rates, meaning that more and more people – especially older Millennials – are leaving the city to continue their life in more affordable places.
This trend might be seen as the other side of the same coin: a city with an economic environment that encourages economic development at the expense of fostering a sense of community – and without doubling down on real estate development – will either drive out the people who need more space for their growing household or force the ones who do want to stay to share their living quarters.
Condos & Shrinking Dwellings Help Perpetuate Single Lifestyle
The urban housing landscape has always been characterized by vertical rather than horizontal expansion, a scarcity of space rather than ample room to roam, and a focus on space efficiency and convenient transit options rather than idyllic places of unspoiled beauty. To this end, residential and commercial buildings have gone higher and higher, and dwellings have slowly but steadily decreased in size to help accommodate an increasing number of professionals ready to adopt the urban lifestyle.
As such, smaller living quarters have become the norm with many people now able to live on their own – whether they want to or are forced to do so by their financial situation. This is one reason behind the increasing popularity of condos in large markets. New York leads the way with a share of 70.8%, and 24 other cities boast inventories made up primarily of condos. These smaller living units are a necessity in the urban environment. But, at the same time, they enable those who want to live alone to continue to do just that – indefinitely.
Only 4 Cities Stand Out with More Single Home Owners than Single Renters
A sub-segment of the renter-occupied household, the single-person renter-occupied household cements the idea that buying and owning a home in the city is out of reach for many, and that city life and family life are, more often than not, mutually exclusive.
The large shares of one-person renter households show that America’s largest cities are the playgrounds of professionals who may be forced to choose their career at the expense of developing other aspects of their life. Specifically, in eight large U.S. cities, more than 50% of residents are renting one-person households. Similarly, renting one-person households are ahead of owner-occupied single-person households in 196 of the 200 largest U.S. cities, which means owner-occupied, single-person households are the majority in only four markets: Salinas, CA, Alexandria, VA, Garden Grove, CA and Augusta, GA.
America might not yet be a renter nation, but the changes in renter households are much more significant than those noted in the owner segment; of the 120,062,818 households in the country, 43,378,800 are renter-occupied. And, while renters may be outnumbered almost two to one by homeowners, the share of renter households rose from 31.2% in 2006 to 36% in 2018, denoting much faster growth.
A sign of developed economies, the rise of the single-person household has far-reaching implications and consequences for cities and society at large. From resources and consumption patterns to infrastructure and mobility, the rising number of people living on their own will become more and more consequential for our cities’ changing dynamics.
Check out the table below for the full data on all of the 200 large U.S. cities included in our study:
We focused on the 200 largest U.S. cities. We extracted data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, comparing numbers from 2008 to data from 2018, the most recent information available. To compare the shares of single-person households and the number of unrelated people sharing a home, we looked at demographic and housing estimates, occupancy characteristics and types of households for 2008 and 2018. We also analyzed the evolution in the share of renter-occupied, single-person households and owner-occupied, single-person households.