Millennials are leaving many parts of New Jersey, says a new research report, drawn to other places where people can walk to work, shopping and recreation – and where they have a better shot at affording a place to live.

Nationally, the number of people age 22 to 34 was up 6.8 percent between 2000 and 2013, as millennials, the largest generation in American history, became young adults. But in New Jersey, their numbers declined by 2.3 percent.

Tim Evans, research director for the land-use policy organization New Jersey Future, said he had initially set out to measure with data whether it’s true that younger people are really flocking to cities. “The hype is true. Millennials really do like living where they can walk to stuff,” he said.

Evans suspects that Millennials – generally defined as people born between 1980 and 2000 – are leaving due to the high cost of housing.

“Both renting and owning,” Evans said. “I know some people talking about New Jersey having high taxes, but property taxes even aren’t an issue for you if you can’t afford to buy a house in the first place.”

“I have a feeling that a lot of them are decamping for cheaper parts of the country,” he said. “Or they’re going across the river into New York or into Philadelphia. The ones that can afford a nicer place, they want the hip neighborhoods in Brooklyn or in Fishtown in Philly, which New Jersey really doesn’t have an equivalent of.”

The flight isn’t universal. For instance, 45 percent of Hoboken residents are Millennials. In all, the 118 New Jersey municipalities that score best for "smart growth," Millennials are 25 percent more prevalent than the state average.

But Millennials are 19 percent less likely to be found in towns that don’t rate for smart growth, generally meaning car-dependent suburbs with large residential lots. And that imbalance might be even higher if nearly half of Millennials in New Jersey weren’t still living with their parents.

“It’s all kinds of walkable places that are seeing higher concentrations of millennials, not just the two or three headliners that you hear about,” Evans said.

(Click here for the report. Story continues below the map.)

(Maps produced by New Jersey Future)

Those headliners include places like Hoboken, Jersey City and, more recently, Newark. They’re trying to add more housing quickly and must also update their infrastructure to meet demand, said Evans.

“It’s a little tricker if you grew up in the era of car dependency,” Evans said. “If you’re an auto-oriented suburb and you don’t already have a downtown, how do you create one?”

Places like Robbinsville and Plainsboro, which had vacant land, built town centers from scratch. Other places that were built out, like Voorhees and Somerdale, are knocking down portions of old malls or retrofitting strip malls to add things like townhouses and pedestrian amenities.

“You’re not going to mistake it for a traditional downtown, but it’s definitely better than what was there before. And so they’re moving in the right direction,” Evans said.

Evans said mass-transit options aren’t a necessity to provide the kinds of environments young adults are seeking. Town centers in more rural counties, such as Lambertville, Hackettstown, Newton and Phillipsburg, can offer the kind of neighborhoods millennials generally prefer.

Some towns that would seem to have the types of downtowns that would attract millennials aren’t, such as Cranford and Pennington, because they either lack a variety of affordable housing options or enticing amenities, said the report.

“The biggest thing probably is to increase the diversity of your housing types so that you’re not just building McMansions. New Jersey has excelled at building big, nine-room houses with four-car garages since the ‘80s or so,” Evans said.

“You have to start looking to build smaller attached housing, apartment buildings, single-family homes on smaller lots, the kind of housing that a young adult just starting out in the workforce can afford,” he said. “And you want to try to build neighborhoods that have multiple uses within walking distance – the ‘live, work, play’ environment, where you want housing and stores and offices and recreational opportunities all within walking distance of each other.”

Evans said the pattern isn’t novel. Millennials are following Generation X’s lead in moving to walkable cities but are doing it to a bigger degree.

If that continues, they’ll eventually move from those cities to the suburbs – but to older towns with downtowns, not to the cul-de-sac communities that Baby Boomers sought.

“If they’re any preview, we’re probably going to see the millennials do the same thing,” Evans said. “They’ll be moving from Jersey City out to Metuchen, for example, but they’re probably not going to be moving to East Brunswick.”

Unless the housing market produces the kind of homes millennials prefer, in the places they want to go, prices will keep getting bid up, sort of like they have in California’s Bay Area, Evans said.

“The risk is that we could turn into nothing but a playground for the rich if we don’t build enough new housing for the people that want to move to these traditional downtowns,” Evans said. “You look at what’s happening in the Bay Area, where a 2,000 square foot house goes for over $1 milllion. That’s the risk, that we price people out and that the businesses that want to hire entry-level workers are forced to look elsewhere so their workforce can afford to live near their job.”

That’s the risk in today’s more desirable communities. The potential risk for suburbs that don’t diversify could be the opposite – falling housing values.

“The housing in car-dependent suburban areas, I bet you, is going to start to get cheaper because of a drop in demand,” Evans said.

“Whether that induces the millennial generation to move to those places, I don’t know,” he said. “They’re already not moving there. Whether they change their mind and decide that the price point is more important than the amenity package that they’re looking for remains to be seen.”

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com