Sustainability 101

What does our current path mean for our homes and neighborhoods?

Imagine how much more vibrant and prosperous our region could be in 2050 if we actually grew by 265,000 people. But what would this change look like if we continued to build most of our homes on open land disconnected from older neighborhoods? What types of homes would we build, where would we build them and what would it mean for the neighborhoods we call home today?

What if we supported new growth by building homes the same way we have in the past? More people means we would need more homes. And 265,000 more people would mean that about 150,000 new homes would be needed to house our population.  Though we have plenty of available homes (45,475 vacant housing units as of 2010), our “business-as-usual” approach over the last couple of decades has been to build newer homes on larger lots in areas with mostly green space rather than moving into older neighborhoods in our cities and first-ring suburbs. 1 (See the map below)

MAP_BAU_New_v_AbandonedHomes_2050_alt Extending these trends to 2050 could mean that only 36% of our new homes would be built within areas of our region that we have already developed (see blue in map), while the rest (64%) homes would be built on currently undeveloped, green space (orange in map). It could also mean that only some new homes would be built in tightly-knit neighborhoods with a mix of housing styles, while the rest (62%) would be built in more spacious, homogeneous single-family communities.2

What kinds of homes will we build?

BusinessAsUsual_Housingtype2

Building more homes when we already have thousands available, means that some homes will get left behind. If these projections hold true, we can expect to leave 41,291 additional homes abandoned by 2050.3  This abandonment would continue to sweep through places with high concentrations of vacant homes today, while spreading into other residential areas most prone to become abandoned (see purple in map), based on the conditions that have been associated with increased abandonment in the past.4

If our region were to grow, continuing to build outward as we have in the past would create new, quaint neighborhoods with abundant open space, removed from the grind of city life. But it would also mean the emptying out of many historic neighborhoods, etching vast holes in our core cities that would far surpass the blight these communities endure today.  These disenfranchised neighborhoods would be more than just an eyesore – they would present an array of social, environmental and fiscal impacts that would tear at the fabric of our entire region, not just the neighborhoods left to become urban wastelands. One of the many impacts would be costs of home demolition; and if it cost $10,000 to demolish one home5, the cost of demolishing just half of the 44,000 homes projected to become abandoned would approach $222 million dollars. 

But this story is only part of the picture – there are innumerable other ways in which the way we develop our land in the future will affect the places we call home. What would this new growth, if coupled with the development patterns of the past, mean for our farmland, our environment, our mobility and our fiscal well-being?

If we look at this picture and like what we see, we know what we would need to do –more of the same. But recently, citizens have expressed an urgency to carve a new and different path for the future of Buffalo Niagara by reinvesting in the places we already call home. And whether or not we continue to build off of this momentum will be (at least partly) up to us.


1. New homes were placed according to current zoning information (obtained from counties and municipalities) and land use data (from Erie County Department of Environment & Planning, 2012 and the Niagara County Department of Economic Development, 2011). Parcels available to be developed in areas with conditions that have been associated with new home construction from 1990 to 2010, such as more open green space,  newer homes, lower vacancy rates, higher home values and lower property tax rates, were prioritized for the placement of new homes.

2. The type of home built is assumed from allowable lot sizes given by current municipal zoning regulations. 

3. This number is found by first subtracting the 150,000 new homes projected to be built by 2050 from the number of total households projected to live in the region in 2050 (574,320) to find the number of households that would occupy homes that already exist (424,320). The remainder of the 473,720 housing units that are currently occupied (44,399) would be vacant. 7% of units are assumed to be vacant to allow for functional turnover rate in the local residential market, meaning that the rest, 41,219, would be abandoned.

4. The projection of abandoned homes assumes that over the next forty years each municipality will absorb the same proportion of the regional increase in abandoned units that it did from 1990 to 2010, based off of trends from US Census data. The exact placement of abandoned units within each municipality is based off of the conditions that have been associated with intensifying abandonment in the past, such as lower home values, older housing, and high vacancy rates.

5. This is a conservative estimate. For instance, between the years 2000 and 2011, the average cost of demolishing one home in the City of Buffalo was $12,606. (Partnership for the Public Good, 2013, The City of Buffalo’s Abandoned Housing Crisis. Accessed October, 2013 at http://www.ppgbuffalo.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Housing-2013.pdf)