Opinion: The Loss of Scottsdale’s Family-friendly Housing

Article originally posted on HERE on March 2, 2020

While we hear lots of argument about how tall is “too tall” or how dense is “too dense,” very few candidates are talking about the real problem facing Scottsdale.

For 20 years, our city has been headed down a path that will, if not reversed soon, permanently end our history of being a family-friendly and resilient community. We suggest family-friendly development options that allow smaller lots throughout the regions where Scottsdale has abundant and even excess school capacity.

Without them it is inevitable that our city will age out while losing a large part of the resilient family-based economy that now supports us.

It has been almost 20 years since a family-friendly neighborhood was developed. With the exception of Windgate Ranch, most of the homes that families need and seek were built from the 1960s through the ‘90s.

Even if all of those homes were still available for families, our city would still see family aged population decline because parents who become empty-nesters remain in their homes quite often. But to make matters worse, the existing family-friendly housing is being rapidly converted to other uses.

The massive buy-up of these homes by investment funds specializing in rentals — has reduced the available housing for families by over 30% in some neighborhoods.

While we are absolutely pro-business we are also pro-community. This trend of converting single family homes to short-term rentals in a city with extremely tight inventories of family-friendly homes is what destroys communities. It destroys affordability, it destroys the sense of community, and it destroys schools.

With fewer family-friendly houses available, those with families or about to start families choose other cities where quality family-friendly housing is readily available. Families are not often willing to accept a multi-story apartment nor can they afford the one-acre 4,000-plus square-foot homes to the north most of which have no schools nearby.

Last month The SCOTT Project’s research affiliate, Athena Foundation Scottsdale, issued its report regarding the loss of the family-aged population demographic.

We learned that beginning in the ‘70s and accelerating from 1980 through 2000, Scottsdale focused on family-friendly development. From McCormick Ranch in the south to DC Ranch and Grayhawk in the north, small lot developments were centered around a robust network of schools.

Those small lot developments fed strong increases in the population of school age children and the residents most likely to be parents of those children (age 30-50). But, after growing by more than 130% and more than 112,000 people in 20 years, Scottsdale growth decelerated quickly.

From 2000 to 2020, our population shrank some years and grew by less than 2% per year overall. More important, throughout that period the lack of family-friendly housing caused a significant reduction in our 0-18-year-old and 30-50-year-old population.

Finding a solution to this issue is complicated by the current fallacious notion that our town is threatened by “out of control growth.” Our town is hardly threatened by rampant growth. That is absolutely untrue. Quite the opposite, our town is threatened by slowing growth and more important we are threatened by the loss of our family aged population.

The last two decades have been the slowest growth decades in Scottsdale history — not the fastest. From 1980-2000 our city grew by over 113,000 people. In the most recent two decades we grew by less than half that amount. To help this sink in, for an entire decade Scottsdale grew at greater than 5% per annum. At the start of the new millennium we shrank some years and over the decade grew at only 0.7%.

There is an absolute correlation between the end of family-friendly developments and the shrinkage of family aged population. Comparing the 1990 and 2018 U.S. Census data for age group demographics shows just how sharply family aged population fell when family-friendly developments stopped.

In addition to the Great Recession, two more factors brought to an end any new family friendly developments:

  1. The massive increase in land owned by the city for the McDowell Sonoran Preserve. Very literally, the land needed to sustain population growth was taken off the market.
  2. Political opposition to any new construction on less than one acre.

We are in no way advocating the use of Preserve land for housing. It is an asset to each of us that is unique in its sheer scope as well as the priceless benefits to our overall sense of place, health and happiness.

That said, creating the Preserve wiped out most of the options for family-friendly development from Shea Boulevard north to the Tonto National Forest.

Without any new supply of family-friendly homes, the existing supply shrank as former family residences were converted to other purposes — primarily rentals. Records from the Maricopa County Recorder and Assessor’s offices as studied by the Scottsdale Area Association of REALTORS show that by 2019, nearly one of every three Scottsdale residences was used as a second home and/or rental including short-term rentals (such as AirBnb).

What potential solutions exist?

There is some land left available for development, however, land that is near existing schools is scarce. Crossroads East is one such option.

The city should move promptly to encourage family-friendly development in that area. Otherwise it will be built out with offices, retail and some housing options that don’t necessarily support family aged population growth.

Other than Crossroads East, infill redevelopment is the only viable option. Land to the north won’t work unless schools are built in that 70-square-mile area where there are now literally no schools. And trying to build family-friendly developments in a region where the political climate now detests anything smaller than one acre lots is a financial roadblock that makes north Scottsdale the “No-Family Zone,” not the family-friendly zone.

In the south, options are also limited. First, if multi-story apartments or condos are built, families will not be the primary tenants. Second, trying to build six to eight homes per acre subdivisions is a nearly impossible task today given the “too dense” mantra that some voters and City Council members embrace.

We support strong consideration of these options throughout Scottsdale from Frank Lloyd Wright south to our border with Tempe as well as throughout Crossroads East and along the Bell Road corridor east of Pima Road. This is the area that is already served by a robust education complex that has more capacity than it has students.

Both types of developments would be accompanied by greenbelts and open areas with community parks shared by all homeowners.

When we talk to City Council and mayoral candidates this year, we don’t want to hear promises to “stop growth.” We want to hear how each candidate will foster resilient growth that embraces the families now being driven away from Scottsdale to Chandler and Gilbert where higher incomes per household are the rule and family-friendly developments also dominate the market.

Either Scottsdale acts now or we are doomed to growing old and talking about the “good old days of the ‘80s and ‘90s” wishing we hadn’t ended the golden years of healthy growth.