By KATIE HOOS
Droves of young people are fleeing Westchester’s wealthiest towns, with high cost of housing to blame.
According to a recent study conducted from 2000 to 2011 by Community Housing Innovations—a nonprofit dedicated to providing affordable housing throughout the Lower Hudson Valley and Long Island—Westchester County as a whole saw a 12.83 percent decrease in young adults aged 25 to 34, compared to a 2.76 percent gain nationwide. Westchester’s most exclusive and least diverse towns have seen dramatic losses in this age range, primarily due to a lack of affordable housing. As part of the study, similar losses were found in both Nassau and Suffolk counties in Long Island.
“Among all the issues [contributing to the departure,] the lack of affordable housing is the number one issue,” Alexander Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Innovations, said. “The fact that Millennials want rentals, are much more comfortable with diversity and want walkable communities with nightlife and cultural activity; these all contribute to the exodus.”
Among the municipalities seeing the largest mass departure of young professionals, Rye City ranks the highest with 63 percent of adults aged 25 to 34 leaving town from 2000 to 2011. Pound Ridge came in second, seeing a 58 percent drop in the demographic over the decade.
Other places in Westchester—the county with the highest property taxes in the entire nation, according to Forbes—that have seen massive declines in adults aged 25 to 34 are Lewisboro, Scarsdale, Somers, Larchmont, New Castle, Yorktown, Bronxville and Bedford. Yonkers, Port Chester, New Rochelle and Mount Vernon also saw decreases in the demographic, but to a much smaller extent.
Scott Pickup, Rye’s city manager, said the cost of houses in Rye and the burden that a mortgage imposes on the younger generation might influence the drop in the city’s 25 to 34 year olds, however, the city’s growing school population shows that younger families are thriving in the area.
“I think the number one industry in Rye is the school system and the growing school population is indicative of the young families that are coming here,” Pickup said.
Pickup did admit the drop in 25 to 34 years has impacted the city’s volunteer fire department since the pool of candidates working within Rye is shrinking.
Roberts, of Community Housing Innovations, largely attributes the mass exodus of young people in Westchester’s wealthiest areas to zoning laws that prohibit multi-family housing development.
The Community Housing Innovations study indicates in the 1940s and 1950s, banks would not give loans to African-Americans who wanted to live in the suburbs because the Federal Housing Administration only afforded mortgages to racially segregated developments. When the 1968 Fair Housing Act made this discrimination illegal, individual cities and towns took control of local zoning, restricting multi-family development thus preventing African-Americans and Hispanics, whose median incomes are nearly half of that of whites, from purchasing single-family homes.
According to the study, towns across Westchester and Long Island practiced “exclusionary zoning” to preserve residential segregation.
The issue of exclusionary zoning came to a head in Westchester in 2009, when county officials decided to enter into an agreement with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development over a lawsuit that claimed the county was misappropriating federal funding dedicated to providing residents with affordable housing. The settlement required the county to finance 750 units of affordable housing in 31 mostly white communities. That build out continues today.
Roberts said the zoning in the 10 Westchester towns where his study found 24 to 35 years olds fleeing at alarming rates is indeed exclusionary, preventing further integration of people of color in predominately white towns.
“The most exclusive—some would say exclusionary—towns overwhelmingly zone for single-family houses,” Roberts said. “They’ve experienced the loss of young adults to a much greater degree.”
Westchester County, under the administration of Repu-blican Rob Astorino, who took office in 2010, has vehemently denied the claim that its towns have exclusionary zoning practices citing a 2012 comprehensive analysis of zoning of its towns supporting that conclusion.
Dan Gottlieb, 22, a recent college graduate and Scarsdale native, said he is currently living at home with his parents because housing in the area is unaffordable.
“I think for somebody my age, it’s not realistic to rent or buy a house in Scarsdale because it is such an affluent neighborhood,” he said, adding that many of his friends and their families moved away from Scarsdale once they graduated high school. “The taxes are too high.”
While 25 to 34 year olds are leaving Westchester’s wealthiest towns, it’s still uncertain where they are relocating to. The Community Housing Inn-ovations report indicates that, although the exact location of this demographic cannot be determined, studies show that Millennials—those born between 1978 and 1996—often prefer renting over buying, urban environments over suburban environments and are more comfortable with racial diversity. Consequently, urban areas, including upper Manhattan near Harlem Hospital, located at 506 Lenox Ave., and parts of Brooklyn, particularly Williamsburg, have seen an increase in the white population and 25 to 34 year olds over the decade.
Additionally, parts of Westchester County that have more of a blue-collar reputation saw an increase in the young adult population. Peekskill’s population of 25 to 34 year olds increased by 8 percent and White Plains saw a jump of 6 percent between 2000 and 2011.
In these cases, Roberts credits the increases to the cities’ efforts to embrace downtown development and provide housing that appeals to the young professional demographic. “They-made a concerted effort to invigorate their downtowns and that has attracted a lot of young adults and professionals,” he said. “In the case of White Plains, they completely revamped their zoning to allow for multi-family, market-rate rental housing with a component of affordable housing.”
Bryan James, 30, originally from Buchanan, N.Y. and currently living in White Plains, said the night life was the first thing that attracted him to the area.
“It was the place to be Wednesday for karaoke, Thursday for trivia, or Friday for happy hour,” James said.
He recently bought a co-op in White Plains after living in West Harrison with roommates.
“White Plains was an attainable goal in the grand scheme of moving out of my parents’ house,” he said.
As for preserving the younger demographic’s presence in Westchester, some organizations are proposing a complete overhaul on the type of housing the county has to offer.
“The number-one most important economic issue in Westchester County is affordable housing,” Jim Killoran, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Westchester said. “It’s unacceptable that people are getting edged out.”
Roberts believes local municipalities should take control of their own terms for development to further prevent the exodus of young professionals and not wait for federal, state or county government to intervene.
“Proceeding without prejudice or without fear, the local community itself will be able to restore a land use balance that has been lost over last two decades,” he said.