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A map illustrating the percentage of housing units built in 1939 or before, as of 2008-2012 (the darker the purple, the greater percentage). Westchester’s rate of 32 percent is higher than any surrounding suburban county

By Alexander Roberts for the Westchester County Business Journal.

It is the $64,000 question, to quote an old quiz show. Where will the millennials choose to settle? This year, that group — born from 1980 to 2000 — will replace the baby boomers as the nation’s largest living generation. Where these 70 million to 80 million people go will determine the rise or fall of the Westchester and Fairfield county economies.

In the last decade or so, the news has not been good. Large swaths of Westchester and Fairfield have witnessed a Pied Piper effect, in which their most exclusive communities such as Rye, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Darien and Weston have lost between 40 percent and 60 percent of their 25-to-34-year-old populations since 2000. However, that could change based on recent surveys of millennials’ preferences.

While the homeownership rate for those younger than 35 has fallen by 17 percent (from 43.1 percent to 35.8 percent) nationally since 2004, a 2014 survey by Fannie Mae found that 90 percent of young renters were likely to buy in the future. And a survey released this year by the National Association of Home Builders found that 66 percent want to live in the suburbs, 24 percent in rural areas and only 10 percent desire to live in city centers. Young homebuyers prefer a single-family detached home at a rate of 75 percent.

But before uncorking the champagne, Westchester and Fairfield counties need to consider that millennials can’t buy what they can’t afford, and our region faces stiff competition as the new homebuyers start to look beyond Brooklyn and upper Manhattan in search of more space in the suburbs. Westchester taxes remain the highest in the country due to structural problems that include the existence of 48 public school districts and 212 taxing jurisdictions, all duplicating services like police, fire, sanitation and maintenance. The system of home rule makes development difficult, as the housing stock ages and communities find more and more excuses not to adapt to changing tastes.

For example, the median year built of a home in Westchester is 1955, when Eisenhower was president and teens wore bobby socks and poodle skirts. Nearly one-third (32 percent) of homes in Westchester were built before 1940, compared to 13 percent in Rockland County, 21 percent in Nassau County and 10 percent in Suffolk County. In contrast, the median year built in a growing suburb such as Travis County outside of Austin, Texas, is 1987, and only 3 percent of the homes were built before 1940.

While the charm of historic homes with distinctive architecture may compensate for the lack of modern amenities, the homes most millennials can afford are more likely to be the county’s split-levels and colonials built in the 1940s and ’50s that are drafty and just plain old.

And so, while the news on millennials’ home preferences holds promise for the long-term future of the suburbs, Westchester and Fairfield counties still need to fix their structural deficiencies of lack of affordability and aging housing stock to compete.

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