Sees Trouble in the ‘Burbs’ Population Change Could Empty Homes, Turn Boom to Bust
October 16, 2004
By Mike Swift, Courant
just about any economic measure, Tolland is booming.
A new shopping plaza is under construction on Route 195 near
the entrance to I-84. The town had the greatest percentage growth
in single-family homes in Connecticut over the past 11 years.
Housing prices were among the fastest-growing in Greater Hartford
over the past decade.
Not only are developers building more houses; they are building
bigger ones. The town had a 25 percent jump in the number of
large houses built during the 1990s, six times the state's rate
of growth. To accommodate all the children living in those big,
new houses, Tolland is building a new $56 million high school.
It sounds like a rosy economic picture, but to Michael P. Sacks,
a sociologist at Trinity College, the same demographics that
sparked an economic boom in eastern suburbs such as Tolland during
the past decade hold signs of trouble in the future.
Sacks' census-based research shows that many eastern suburbs
of Hartford have become magnets for baby boomers and their children.
Those families, he said, appear to be moving out of other Greater
Hartford suburbs that gained an increasing number of minority
families during the 1990s.
At the time of the 2000 Census, the demographic bulge represented
by baby boomers was clustered between the ages of 40 and 54 --
when they were in their peak income years, raising children and
more likely to have purchased a large house for those young families.
But there is no large population wave of corresponding wealth
following in the footsteps of the baby boomers, a group that
in Connecticut is predominantly white. In a research paper presented
at Trinity this past week, Sacks questioned whether the boom
suburbs of the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century
might become bust towns a decade or two from now, when the boomers
age into another phase of life.
"I think there is going to be trouble, especially considering
the kind of housing they are building'' in suburbs such as Tolland,
Hebron, Colchester and Andover, Sacks said. "It's such a blind
side that people aren't looking ahead and dealing with it.''
"The individual expectation is we're going to buy a nice house
in the suburbs, we're going to stay in it while the kids grow
up and then we are going to sell it at a profit. ... Are people
looking at the trends, that when they go to sell it 10 or 20
years down the line, there's not going to be anyone to buy it?''
Such talk flies in the face of the Connecticut axiom of flourishing
suburbs with ever-rising housing prices contrasted with decaying
cities. But scientists such as Sacks who study demographic patterns
say the fortunes of individual suburbs, especially in places
like Greater Hartford where there is no county government to
compensate for imbalances between towns, are growing increasingly
Builders say they are already building smaller houses in response
to the aging of the region's population. Many would like to build
more smaller homes, marketing them to people aged 55 and older,
but say they are blocked by town zoning boards trying to control
growth by forcing developers to use more land for each house
"We know what the market wants, but it's often difficult to
deliver that product because we are faced with regulations''
that require larger lots or more open space, and, therefore,
larger houses, said Bill Ethier, executive vice president of
the Home Builders Association of Connecticut.
"I guess they are trying to control development and keep down
the number of houses by just increasing lot sizes, or they do
things with their land use regulations to make it more difficult
[to build],'' Ethier said. "They require the developer to set
aside more land for open space from the land they own to keep
down the number of houses.''
If developers must use more land for each house, they generally
need to build bigger, more expensive houses so they can turn
a profit after covering the high cost of land, he said.
Builders would like to see more towns adopt zoning regulations
that would allow more diversity in the type and size of housing,
Ethier said. But with land use controlled by 169 different cities
and towns, he said, that is a difficult goal to achieve.
Ethier said, however, that he's not convinced that Sacks' prediction
of trouble for booming suburbs with a lot of big houses will
turn out to be true.
"It's hard to predict what the market is going to want next
year, let alone five, 10 or 40 years,'' he said. "Our economy
may come roaring back in five years and all those people might
need new homes, so there might be a demand for those homes.''
The 2000 Census found that the median size of a house in Connecticut
was 5.6 rooms (not counting bathrooms, porches, halls and unfinished
In Tolland, the median size house had 6.9 rooms, and census
data show that the town added more than 900 houses -- a 25 percent
jump -- with seven or more rooms between 1990 and 2000.
Linda Farmer, Tolland's director of planning and community development,
said the town is aware that developers are building larger houses,
but the town has no plans to restrict that trend.
The town, Farmer said, is concerned that children who grow up
in Tolland might not be able to afford to buy a home there when
they grow up.
"Is there housing stock available, that they can stay in town,
or has it gone beyond their means? This is something we will
be looking at,'' she said.
Aging baby boomers, Sacks said, might leave behind a glut of
large houses in suburbs, but there are also worrisome demographic
trends in other Hartford suburbs.
While blacks and Latinos moved into Hartford's suburbs in unprecedented
numbers during the past decade, Sacks said, segregation between
races did not change much in metro Hartford.
That suggests, he said, that white families are responding to
the influx of minorities by moving elsewhere within the suburbs.
Nearly 90 percent of the rise in the numbers of blacks and Hispanics
during the 1990s was in the 21 metro Hartford cities and towns
where the white population was shrinking.
"There is re-segregation going on,'' Sacks said.
Sacks said he is not studying why people move. But the worrisome
trend for some towns, Sacks said, is that poverty is moving out
to the suburbs, at the same time that whites are migrating to
Connecticut's system of town government is one reason for this,
Sacks says. As more people moved to the suburbs in the decades
after World War II, Hartford and other cities were unable to
incorporate adjacent towns, which might have preserved the cities'
tax base and the heterogeneity of their populations.
Sacks said the newest census data show poverty is spreading
across those local political boundaries.
"No longer are the poor concentrated in central cities,'' he
said. "They are also spreading into these [suburban] neighborhoods.'
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at