21. Trends in New Housing

This indicator shows us where new housing is being built – in urban, suburban, or rural areas. It is important because surburban sprawl is considered a major threat to our sustainability. It sheds light on how much choice we have about what kinds of housing we consume, and where. A society worth sustaining would offer a wide range of housing choices and prices in all areas, so people have many options in where they choose to live.

How are we doing?

Figure 21.1 shows the share of building permits issued for new construction or renovation in urban, suburban, and rural areas. As the large gray portions of the bars in the graph show, most building permits are issued for construction in suburban jurisdictions, but the share of suburban construction in the total has decreased steadily since 1990. The share of permits issued in urban areas has risen. The total number of building permits issued increased steadily between 1990 and 2000, from 17,524 to 34,585. In 2001 it dropped, however, to 28,267.

What is behind these figures?

This pattern suggests that interest in living in urban areas may be slowly growing in New Jersey, even as exurban development continues. The suburban and exurban development leads to more driving, more greenhouse gas emissions, more traffic congestion, more road construction, and then even more development. With these development patterns we end up converting farmland and forests into housing developments, offices, and shopping malls.

The trends in multifamily housing provide additional insight into New Jersey’s changing urban form. Figure 21.2 shows the share of building permits in each type of municipality that were for multifamily housing, rather than single-family homes.(1) Not surprisingly, urban areas had more multifamily housing than suburban or rural areas.

The higher density reflected in these figures can be a mixed blessing. For some people, it is a major element in accomplishing such key policy goals as smart growth and vibrant livable cities. For others, however, who prefer rural tranquility to urban life, density goes hand in hand with congestion and a lack of privacy. Unfortunately, with a steadily increasing state population, those preferences for rural tranquility often lead to suburban sprawl and congestion that destroy the qualities that people sought in moving to suburbs or rural areas.

What else would we like to know?

These housing trends raise the question of how areas are classified as rural and suburban. Does the construction of multifamily residences in rural areas mean that those areas are, in fact, no longer really rural? Are lands being classified differently with expanding development, and has the share of the state classified as rural decreased? This question points to the limitation of this indicator as a way to really assess how much choice we have in our housing decisions. Such choice should reflect not only whether housing is single or multi-family, but also how much it costs, how accessible it is to jobs, transport, and schools, and a range of other factors.

Indicator Target:

Targets with which to assess state progress have not yet been established for this indicator.


(1) A single building permit is issued for a residential structure, whether it contains one unit or many. Consequently, the share of households living in multifamily housing will be considerably higher than the share of permits issued, since a single permit could be for anything from a duplex to a large apartment building.