Affordable Urban Lifestyles for Millennials with Children, Part II

Strong Towns member, Jennifer Griffin, gave a presentation at the latest Congress for the New Urbanism on the topic of millennial families. This essay is based on that research. Read the first part of the essay here.

In a previous article, I discussed how affordable urban living for millennial families with children has the potential to become one of the largest market demands in the near future.  Moreover, as these urban, forward-thinking, entrepreneurial millennials with kids get priced out of the major metropolitan cities, they are now beginning to relocate to 2nd- and 3rd-tier cities, often in traditional “collar neighborhoods” on the edges of downtown.  These neighborhoods are inclusive of many or all of the desired lifestyle elements that urban millennials with children want (e.g. walkable and mixed-use with quality kid-friendly amenities, institutions, and infrastructure).  Continuing with our case study of Tulsa, OK, let’s now discuss more specifically a number of lifestyle options these millennial families are finding in 2nd- and 3rd-tier cities.

It should be noted that one of the greatest virtues of these traditional, pre-war collar neighborhoods – especially of those in Tulsa – is the incredibly diverse array of housing types seamlessly integrated within them.

Everything from small 400-square-foot flats to large manor homes are located side-by-side in a cohesive mass and scale.  The variety of ages and conditions—both of the collar neighborhoods themselves and of the housing types within them (because these neighborhoods were built up, added to, and/or renovated over time)—further augment the diversity of price points available.

Among the housing types found in Tulsa’s collar neighborhoods, the majority are small lot, small footprint single-family detached homes.  The price per square foot of these units, depending on the physical condition of the property, varies tremendously.  Therefore, if a millennial family with kids is willing to throw in some sweat equity and renovate, that family can obtain a home in one of the more desirable collar neighborhoods without breaking the bank.

Like all material goods, however, there is a finite supply of these small single-family homes, and they are the first to get bought up as these areas become more and more attractive to young urban families with children.  Fortunately, the diversity of housing types found within these neighborhoods coupled with the millennial generations’ openness to creative, non-conventional living arrangements continues to provide solutions for obtaining their desired lifestyle.  Let me now highlight three alternative options that I’ve found in Tulsa’s collar neighborhoods alone.

Option One is the classic Missing Middle Housing model.  This basically amounts to buying small in a great urban neighborhood—for example, buying a unit within an attached townhouse courtyard, duplex, fourplex, or 6-flat apartment building.  This is the perfect solution for families looking to be more efficient with their space (and more resourceful with their pocket book), but still with room enough for their kids to be free-range in the leafy green streets, semi-private courtyards, and public parks located within these neighborhoods.  Two great examples of this (among many) in our neighborhood are the duplex courtyard and the six-flat apartment building shown above, both of which have three significant recreational amenities (e.g. a public park, playground, splash pad, bike trail, etc.) located within a 5-minute walk and six within a 10-minute walk.

Option two is the Multigenerational Living model.  This is what our family chose to do.  We essentially leveraged our familial and financial assets and bought a slightly larger house with my husband’s parents in one of the highly sought-after collar neighborhoods.  This came at a higher price tag than if we bought in another, not yet fully revitalized collar neighborhood, but it ends up being incredibly affordable for a number of reasons.

First, we share operational costs between four adults, and we have in-house, high quality, affordable childcare (i.e. a live-in grand-nanny).  Moreover, one of the reasons why our collar neighborhood is more expensive than others is that it has a good public elementary school located across the street from our house.  Considering that tuition for private elementary education around town can be anywhere from $5,000 up, having a quality public school in our neighborhood can save us a minimum of $70,000 for two kids from pre-kindergarten through 5th grade.

Furthermore, our house, like many of the homes in Tulsa’s collar neighborhoods, has a detached carriage house with a granny flat above.  Instead of the grandparents actually living in the granny flat, we passively increased our property’s density by sharing the main house with them and renting out the flat to bring in some additional income.  Finally, we have a number of other social and familial benefits from this living arrangement, such as the grandparents being able to gracefully age in place.

Finally, Option Three is the Entrepreneurial Communitarian model.  This is similar to multi-generational living, but done with neighbors rather than family members.  It is what our friends Nathan and Kristin (with their two kids) decided to do.  They bought a large house in a less revitalized collar neighborhood – a neighborhood without a good public school and where crime was an issue.  However, their house (for its size) was very inexpensive.  To make things even more affordable and to improve neighborhood safety, they essentially converted their large home into a passive income generator and neighborhood community center.  Living in a top-floor flat in their attic with their two kids, they rent out four other rooms and leave the ground floor as communal space not only for their renters but also for the neighborhood at large, hosting a variety of neighborhood gatherings there throughout the week.  Moreover, they further reduced their operating costs by converting their yard into productive agriculture, complete with a chicken coop and beehives.  They even went so far as to convert the existing in-ground pool in their backyard into a basin for growing edible bamboo (as seen in the top right photo above).

These diverse housing options in an affordable city like Tulsa give my family and other millennial families like mine an array of choices for how we live, work and play. We don't have to give up the walkable neighborhood in exchange for the good school, or the comfortable home in exchange for nearby amenities. We can choose the housing option that works for us and build a good life there. It's the complete package.

(All graphics by Jennifer Griffin)

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about the author

Jennifer Griffin is a practicing design professional and founding principal of J Griffin Design, LLC. She has worked in the US, UK, and Central America on a variety of projects, from small-scale renovations and additions of historic structures, to mixed-use urban infill projects, to master plans at both the neighborhood and regional scales. Her work has received multiple Congress for the New Urbanism Charter Awards. Jennifer was educated at the University of Notre Dame, from which she received both her Bachelor of Architecture and her Master of Architectural Design and Urbanism degrees. She also has served on the faculty of the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, where she has taught urban and architectural design courses at both the graduate and undergraduate level while conducting research on the relationship between the built environment and human flourishing.