Part 2: The Cities

McIlwainSeniors1_1_351In communities across the country, senior citizens (those 65 and older) are having an increasing impact as their numbers grow. From 2000 to 2010, the U.S. senior population grew by 20 percent—an increase of 40 million. During the current decade, however, the 65-and-better population is projected to grow at an even faster rate, adding an unprecedented 60 million to the population. This is a growth rate of 55 percent—almost three times that of the past decade.

A growing population of senior citizens can have many impacts on a community, both positive and challenging. Overall, they are the wealthiest age group in the country despite large numbers with limited incomes and diminished retirement funds. They pay taxes, have low crime rates, and support local retail and cultural activities. While they are politically active, their interests often clash with those of young families concerned about spending on schools and roads. Communities with large senior populations also face the growing challenge of meeting their needs as they age. The result is a rapidly changing and often volatile political landscape in those localities where the senior population has grown rapidly.

Though this growth has been rapid on the national level, it has not been evenly distributed around the country.  Indeed, during the past decade the movement of millions of seniors has caused a disproportionate growth or decline among metropolitan regions (see “Seniors—Where Are They Living? Part 1: Metropolitan Regions,” McIlwain, UrbanLand Online). The disparity has been even greater at the municipal level, with some cities seeing their senior population grow by 50 to 60 percent while others saw it decline by over 20 percent. In fact, the senior population grew in only slightly more than half of the cities in the 50 largest metropolitan regions over the past decade.

The “Myth” of Seniors and Cities

Much has been written about the growing number of seniors who have moved from the suburbs to the cities; much of this is true and some of it is hyperbole. The “empty-nester phenomenon”—the couple who sells their suburban home after the kids have moved out and buys a condo in the city—is real and has been occurring, though it is hard to quantify.

It is also hard to quantify how many seniors have moved into one of the growing number of suburban town centers developing around the country. In other words, urban living is no longer confined to the central city. Seniors who moved into these towns are counted by the U.S. Census in the regional metropolitan numbers, not those of the central city Nonetheless, they are voting with their feet and their dollars for a more urban lifestyle.

These “boutique cities,” as one ULI member calls them, have become increasingly significant population centers for people of all ages and incorporate retail, office, and commercial development as well as housing. Often, they are becoming linked by transit.  The seniors who moved from a suburban cul-de-sac to a suburban town center are now taking local transit or driving less by living closer to jobs, retail, and services, which reduces regional congestion and pollution and thus benefits the region.

That said, there are still more empty nesters who have stayed put in the suburbs—“aging in place,” as it is now called. There also are many who moved elsewhere, generally to a southern or western city or suburb. So, despite an increase in urban living among seniors, other moves (or nonmoves) by seniors over the past decade have been more significant. Nonetheless, the senior population in the United States is so large that even a small shift at the margins can make a meaningful difference for better as well as for worse. And some cities, as described below, have in fact attracted surprisingly large numbers of seniors.

Seniors Moving Into and Out of Cities

Not surprisingly, the cities that gained the most seniors over the past decade, according to the census, were all southern and western ones, including Raleigh, North Carolina, where the population of seniors grew an amazing 60 percent; Charlotte, North Carolina (over 30 percent); Las Vegas, Nevada (over 27 percent), Austin, Texas (over 27 percent), and San Jose, California (over 24 percent). Over the same period, almost half of the cities in the top 50 metropolitan regions saw a decline in their senior population. In cities like St. Louis, Missouri (-26 percent); Buffalo, New York (-24 percent); Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (-23 percent); and Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio (both -21 percent), the drop was precipitous.

This pattern of growth and decline reflects what many commentators have already noted—namely, that during the past decade many seniors opted to move to the South, Southwest, and West. Yet not all cities in the South and West saw their senior populations grow.

For instance, it was a southern city that saw the greatest decline in seniors—namely New Orleans, where the senior population declined 34 percent. As in so many other aspects, though, New Orleans is a special case; seniors, all of whom had to leave due to Hurricane Katrina, may well not have had the resources in money or energy to return and settled elsewhere in the country—a part of the great New Orleans diaspora that has left the marvelous traditions and culture of this great city impoverished.

New Orleans, however, was not alone among southern cities that saw their senior populations decline—so did Birmingham, Alabama (-19 percent); Richmond, Virginia (-13 percent); and Tampa, Florida (-8 percent). In the West, Salt Lake City’s senior population declined by 12 percent, and Seattle’s went down by 1 percent. It was, in other words, not enough to be in a sunny or western region to attract seniors to a city; factors other than weather were important to seniors looking for a new city to which to move.

Cities and Their Suburbs

The growth of seniors in cities and the surrounding suburbs generally differed considerably; what happened in the city was seldom reflected in the region, and vice versa. With the exception of San Jose and Raleigh, every metropolitan region saw a faster rate of growth in seniors than the central city. In fact, the city of Atlanta’s senior population grew by only 2 percent while that of the region grew by 44 percent.

In those cities where the senior population declined, the metro population generally grew, sometimes quite rapidly as in the case of Salt Lake City, where the senior population fell by 12 percent yet grew in the region by 25 percent. The exceptions to this were Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and New Orleans, where seniors left both the city and the metro region, though they left the region at a much slower rate.


Seniors were on the move during the past decade, at least during the earlier years of the housing boom; whether they moved as much during the later years of the housing bust is hard to say. Generally, they preferred suburbs to cities, though southern and western cities like Las Vegas, Jacksonville, San Jose, Austin, Charlotte, and especially Raleigh definitely attracted them.

As mentioned in Part 1, however, caution is warranted when projecting these trends from the past decade forward. The housing bust has trapped many seniors in large suburban homes whose values have fallen below what seniors are willing to sell them for, or are even worth less than the debt they secure. Even those seniors willing and able to sell their homes are likely to be more conservative and less willing to head off to new horizons in the face of today’s ongoing economic uncertainty. As housing markets and the economy are likely to be mixed and uncertain for much of the current decade, the trends shown by the 2010 U.S. Census may not be continuing now, leaving the movement of the rapidly growing senior population uncertain and hard to predict.

See, Seniors—In Which Regions Are They Living?

ULI–the Urban Land Institute