As sure as January follows December, change comes. You can’t stop it or slow it. The smart thing is to recognize it—and respond effectively.

Long Island is experiencing significant change, according to a report just out from the United States Census Bureau. The American Community Survey offers a range of demographic, economic, and other data, providing much to ponder. One set of findings emerges, however, which to me are not merely interesting, but important to recognize and address.

  • Our population is aging. Since 2000, median age has climbed from 38.5 to 40.7 years in Nassau County; from 36.5 to 39 in Suffolk.
  • Meanwhile our population of young adults (aged 25-34) has dropped 15% over the period. Nationwide, the percentage rose 4.5%.
  • And our child population is also falling. Nassau has 5% fewer elementary school children than in 2000; Suffolk 3.2% fewer.

Connect these data points and you get a picture of a place that is losing its attraction to young families. That’s not a healthy change. Think of Long Island in the post-World War II era—powered to prosperity by young families, moving from the city, building homes . . . building communities . . . creating the most dynamic suburb in America.

That growth was brought to us by . . . affordable housing—thanks, in turn, to the availability of undeveloped land. Well, the undeveloped land is mostly gone now, but the need for affordable places to live is greater than ever. Today 83% of housing stock consists of single-family homes--most with price tags, and taxes, beyond the means of most young families.

Which brings me straight to the good news. For here is perfect proof of the adage that every problem is an opportunity in disguise.

Does Long Island need affordable homes? Good, let’s build them. Not out in ever more remote areas, but where they belong: in downtowns and near transit sites.

Long Island has 8300 acres in such places, ripe for redevelopment as townhouses, condos, and apartments.

What could make better sense? Build homes young folks (and seniors on fixed incomes) can afford. Revitalize downtowns by bringing back the magic ingredient: people. Who support local merchants, stimulate new enterprises, and generate the social and cultural energy that makes a region hot.

Think of the boon to our languishing construction industry: the jobs and spending that ripple through the economy.

And think, long-term, of what it would mean to make our region once again a mecca for talented young people eager to make good.

It’s totally doable—the hardest question is why we’re not doing it already. Inaction seems like an old settled habit with us, but one we cannot indulge.

I think of that picture you often see at New Year’s: the old man with the hourglass and scythe, and the baby in diapers and top hat. That’s Long Island: old ways of doing things that offer no future vs. a new approach filled with promise. Now’s really the time to ring in the new.