A green sign with a horse-drawn carriage marks the turn in the road: Townes at Covington, it reads, a nod to the management company running properties in this quiet cul-de-sac 30 minutes outside Washington DC.
Of course, there aren’t any horse-drawn carriages here. There aren’t even really any pedestrians. I drive up to a cheerful cream-colored house with blue shutters. I park.
It’s high summer in the Washington metro area – the Fourth of July – and neither I nor the couple I’ve come to interview seem to mind meeting on the holiday. There is, after all, a reason they left the District and bought a big airy townhouse in Bowie, Maryland, last year. The last place any of us want to be in the 90F (32C) heat is barbequing on a concrete city roof.
Charla Freeland, 27, and Brian Freeland, 32, are graduates of Howard University in Washington, and both still work in the city for the radio station Sirius XM. But they came here to escape DC’s soaring real estate prices and the stresses of city life. As Brian puts it when we’re seated in the living room: “I like my space.”
Here there’s plenty of space: parking for their two cars, a deck overlooking a leafy park, a reservoir with birds nearby, and a room upstairs where, Charla says, “we keep our shoes”.
All that for less than the price of a one-bedroom condo in Washington. That’s not lost on Brian, whose view of the homeownership is, like other members of the millennial generation, still shaped by the 2008 housing crash and ensuing Great Recession.
At its sale price of $289,000, their three-storey townhouse cost around a quarter of what it would in their old stomping grounds of Shaw – a historically black neighborhood where median home prices have more than quintupled since 1995, making it one of DC’s fastest-appreciating real estate markets in recent years.
They haven’t made new friends yet and Charla misses her old ones in the city, whom she now drives half an hour just to meet for brunch. She doesn’t expect to be doing it long.
Most of her friends are still single and they give her no grief for leaving. “I was lucky,” she says of meeting Brian as an undergrad. “When they find someone, they’ll be out in the suburbs too.”
Suburban life may be once again in ascendance, as millennials, pushed away from exorbitant city prices and finally able to afford their first houses, are rediscovering suburbs’ spacious charms.
While there’s no official data on the number of millennials moving away from cities, the recent census suggests some suburban revival is afoot, driven by millennials.
“Population change gives you a crude sense of flow,” says William Frey of the Brookings Institution, a demographer who has studied city migration patterns for decades, when I meet him at his downtown office. “Smaller cities are growing and large cities are not growing as fast.”
Flipping open his 2018 report on the millennial cohort, Frey runs a finger over the chart showing age distribution in the United States, pointing to the bulge in population that tells him millennials are largely responsible for the suburban trend.
If such patterns continue, he argues, they could upend the 2010s stereotype of millennials all wanting to live in a Brooklyn-like urban jungle.
Frey has called the period from 2010 to 2020 “the decade of the city”. And, while the city’s reign doesn’t seem to be lasting as long as he predicted, in a sense he was right: the city’s rule will be temporary, not an unstoppable drive toward urbanization.
I want to know what’s driving young people in and out of cities, and the answer seems to be politics, gentrification and the economy, not vague notions of city “coolness” or “millennial personality” traits.
Sure, millennials like aspects of city living, Frey says. But the shift to cities came three years after the housing market crash and recession. He doesn’t think that’s a coincidence – larger economic forces are afoot.
“The youngest millennials have more options economically while the oldest millennials are starting to think about what their next stage of life looks like and making decisions that look more similar to what we’d expect that age group to do,” Jeannette Chapman, the deputy director of the Stephen S Fuller Institute, tells me later in a phone call. “They’re growing up.”
Patrick Sterns, 35, formerly of Oakland, California, recently came to the realization he couldn’t buy a house where he grew up.
Not long ago, much of downtown Oakland was still considered an affordable alternative to San Francisco, home to the country’s priciest real estate. The Oakland hills of Patrick’s youth have always been desirable, but now the soaring cost of housing has become prohibitive there, too.
“On the one hand it’s thriving, on the other hand it’s really expensive,” Patrick says.
The problem is that a home is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and for Patrick – who works in the clean energy sector, like his 34-year-old MBA graduate wife, Martha Serianz – there is always someone in Oakland with deeper pockets.
That’s how they ended up half an hour’s drive north of the city in a neighborhood that’s technically Richmond but functionally, they say, El Sobrante. And how in the spring of 2016 they bought the 1,300 sq-ft of house they dreamed of having as mid-30s professionals: three beds, two baths and on a corner lot. The list price was $435,000.
“If we could have afforded Temescal and being in the hip area where a lot of our friends are, it would have been nice,” Martha says.
But walking to cool bars in trendy neighborhoods, she adds, wasn’t really an option. “We’d have to double the cost of our mortgage,” she explains.
“It used to be you get a high school degree and you can get a good job with a union,” Patrick says. “Now the right is dismantling unions, you get a tertiary degree and you still can’t get a job.”
He adds: “We’re inheriting this highly toxic system that really only favors rich people. Cities are becoming unaffordable and, at the same time, there’s no solution on the table to help with housing.
“If we’re bitter,” he says of millennials, “it’s because we have to live somewhere.”
Martha adds: “We’re saddled with so many financial responsibilities. ‘Buy a house’ – but you have thousands of dollars of student loan debts! Or ‘find a great job’ – but older people with more experience will get it!”
Combined with the high costs of childcare, and the difficulty of saving for retirement, the situation becomes crippling. “City living was supposed to be the future,” she says. “It certainly isn’t anymore.”
Suburbs offering traditionally urban attributes appear to be on the rise.
“A lot of suburban areas are thinking about how they can be more city-like,” says Steven Pedigo, a professor at New York University who directs the Urban Lab at the school’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. Similarly, cities, as they lose young people, will be looking at suburban amenities they can provide.
Such closer-in, cluster-style suburbs have already arrived in many places. And Pedigo – who chose his town of residence for its diversity, good coffee shops, transit and walkability – would know because he lives in one.
“My students always say: ‘You’re a city guy who lives in the suburbs!?’” Pedigo says.
Where things are headed, with many suburbs ranking high in walkability and other public amenities once considered the province of cities, he doesn’t think it is a contradiction in terms.
“Anything above a certain walk score, we didn’t even consider,” he says, of moving to South Orange, New Jersey, with his husband.
It’s a world apart from more traditional tract-housing-style suburbs (where the buildings are nearly identical), or places where public transit may be non-existent but you can get a lot more house.
“It’s the tale of two suburbs,” Pedigo says. He expects to see more millennials weighing these factors as they make their exodus from cities – a practical calculation that, as a suburb-loving urbanist, he admires.
“What’s interesting … is millennials are, more than anyone else, able to make true ‘place decisions’.”
It used to be that people moved one of two places: where they could get a job or where their family lived. Instead, he says, millennials ask: which place can provide me with the best quality of life?
If most of us were any good at predicting what will make us happy or provide the best quality of life, self-help wouldn’t be the booming industry it is today. But a recent paper published in the journal Regional Studies may offer guidance.
Beyond showing millennials are happiest in cities, the study found that millennials were least happy in rural areas, and, specifically, that they suffered most from isolation, in contrast to older generations who preferred the quiet.
Some anecdotal evidence bears that out. Another Oakland couple I spoke to had moved an hour and a half north of the Bay Area to pursue a rural homesteading dream in Forestville only to move back five years later with the hard-earned self-knowledge that they are city people after all.
They have plenty of company in that. “Not only are millennials the exception, they’re the exact opposite of other generations,” says the co-author Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn of his paper’s finding on young people and rural isolation.
But there is a spectrum of urban-to-rural living, and plenty of options for millennials who want a country lifestyle without the sense of isolation.
Scott Beauchamp and his wife Nika had been living in Brooklyn, New York, when they decided to take a road trip to find their future home.
They’d been living in New York for years, but couldn’t afford to buy there. “Other people seemed emotionally invested in living in Brooklyn or being a New Yorker,” he says, but he and Nika never really were.
Her mom had a house on a lake in New Hampshire where they went to stay in the summer of 2014. After that they spent some time driving around New England, and fell in love with coastal Maine.
Beauchamp, a freelance writer, grew up in what he calls “postwar strip-mall suburbia” in St Louis, Missouri. And the experience was enough to tell him he didn’t want more of that. He also knew he didn’t want to forgo community.
He and his wife were charmed by Portland, Maine, and lived there for a year, but ultimately they wanted to move somewhere where they were getting a better deal.
“We knew we wanted to stay on the coast,” he says, adding “we like being by the ocean.” So they kept shrinking their budget and traveling north, trying to get more for less money.
They found the house they’d buy in the shipbuilding town of Bath. It was 1,400 sq ft with four bedrooms – for $180,000. The town has several “very cool” bookstores, Scott says, a walkable downtown, a beautiful waterfront, an outdoor farmers market, and an endless string of trails.
They’ve lived there since March of 2016, and for Scott, 34, and Nika, 31, it’s been a pretty perfect fit.
“My wife has gotten into native plants, repopulating our yard with them,” Scott says, adding that she has a mind to someday buy a plot of land and have a completely environmentally sound homestead.
He doesn’t plan to move anytime soon, but it’s still a bit unclear whether the existential search for home is over.
“Living closer to nature has made us more conscious of our relationship to it and its importance to us,” he explains. “I foresee us living in this house another decade and then probably moving. My wife now that she has a taste, she’s hungry for the country life and wants to move even further out.”
Back in Bowie, Brian and Charla are perfectly content with their place, and they’ve taken pride in showing it off to me. But like Scott and Nika – and a lot of millennials, it seems – they’ve never stopped looking for a house.
The whole time I’m interviewing them, the TV is on and though it’s set to silent, sometimes their eyes will flicker up. They’re watching The Deed, a show about flipping houses in New Orleans and Chicago. Charla’s hometown is New Orleans, and the place where her two sisters and nearly everyone in her family still lives.
She was living there during Hurricane Katrina and tells me early in the interview about how the builders who came in afterward overdid things, erecting million-dollar houses in places that will likely flood again.
The house being flipped, Charla tells me, part excitement in her voice, part horror, is just 15 minutes from her parents’ place. It’s going for $1.23m – six times what her parents’ house is valued.
Would they move back there?
I think I know Charla’s answer, but it’s Brian who doesn’t hesitate. “In a heartbeat,” he says.