What would our region look like in 2050 if we had 100,000 fewer people, but we continued to build most of our new homes in new places? What would it mean for our existing communities? And how much could it cost us?
- Over the past forty years, our region has lost nearly 214,000 people. But over this same period of time, we have expanded our urban footprint by over 166 square miles
- We have lost 160 square miles of farmland.
- Since 1970, we built over 150,000 new housing units, while the number of homes we left vacant tripled.
- We drive more than twice as many miles a day, on average, than we did forty years ago.
- We have added 525 miles of road just since 1990 which cost us $26 million a year to maintain.
So what would the region look like if these past trends were to continue through the next forty years?
If population and employment level decline at the same rate they have over the past twenty years, then by 2050 Buffalo Niagara would have 100,000 fewer people and 47,000 less jobs. And if we continue to build up our land as we have in the past even while lose people, new homes will continue to sprout up on undeveloped land, encroaching on natural areas and farmland, while intensifying concentrations of abandoned homes spread further into our first ring suburbs and entire swaths of our cities become virtually uninhabitable.
Even with fewer people, if home construction trends of the past were to extend out over the next forty years, we can expect to see 142,000 new homes built in Buffalo Niagara by 2050. In doing so, we would consume at least 110 square miles of currently undeveloped land, including over 8,000 acres of farmland1.
These new residential developments would force us to add 660 miles of new roads that could cost taxpayers another $32.7 million each year just to maintain. With a smaller population, this means a greater tax burden with fewer people to pay for it.
On the flip side of this story is housing abandonment. It’s fairly simple math, building more homes while fewer and fewer people live in the region means some homes will be left behind. If trends continue, we can expect to leave 96,000 additional homes abandoned by 2050. Places with high concentrations of abandonment today would continue to absorb future abandonment, while additional abandonment would spread into other residential areas most prone to be abandoned2.
Abandonment is long-term vacancy that signals intense disinvestment and presents a slew of social, economic and environmental problems – but the fiscal impacts alone can be overwhelming. For instance, if it cost only $10,000 to demolish one home3, the cost of demolishing just half of the 96,000 homes projected to be abandoned by 2050 would exceed $478 million dollars.
If Buffalo Niagara continues to lose people, this reality will persist – growing outward will breed decay in the communities that many of us now call home. So as we consider what places we will invest in over the next forty years, we must be mindful of how these investments will impact all communities across the region.
Realizing this, we have already started to change some of the trends of the past – working to reclaim once thriving parts of our cities and restore many of the natural assets our region holds dear. And the good news is, whether or not we continue to reverse the trends of the past will be (at least partly) up to us.
Data Sources and Notes:
1. This is a conservative projection assuming that only 40 percent of newly constructed homes will be placed in undeveloped areas. But if our tendencies are to build more of our new homes on previously undeveloped land, we could easily see over 60 percent of new homes built in currently undeveloped areas – possibly building homes on a total of 183 square miles of virgin land.
2. This is based off of the conditions that have been associated with intensifying abandonment in the past, such as lower home values, housing age, and high vacancy rates.
3. 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)