Every town wants young people to move, live and stay there. They’re what sustain and grow economies. Lafayette seems to struggle to attract and retain young people, despite having many advantages — like UL, SLCC, and a relatively vibrant cultural scene and economy.
At a minimum, there’s certainly a perception that Lafayette isn’t the best place for them. According to a survey of residents commissioned by One Acadiana, only 37% think Lafayette is good or excellent for recent college grads looking for jobs.
That is a problem in and of itself. And it’s also backed up by a lot of conversations I’ve had with young people who have left, or are thinking about leaving, or who want to stay but are struggling to make it work.
Lafayette’s an amazing place. That’s why my wife and I decided to make our lives here. But there are ways in which Lafayette makes it hard to convince young people to move here or stay here.
The good news is that none of these challenges are insurmountable. We can become the kind of community young people flock to. We just have to give them what they want.
Make it more affordable to live here
Lafayette isn’t as affordable as it needs to be, especially for young people. And there’s data to back that up. More and more people are struggling to make ends meet.
In 2013, 32% of Lafayette Parish residents lived below the ALICE line, a marker developed by the United Way as a measure of people struggling to get by. By 2018 it increased to 43%.
Young people are especially affected by this trend. I’ve heard of countless examples of jobs that require degrees but pay less than working at Costco. Entry level jobs young people are looking for tend to be the worst offenders at paying too little and expecting too much work.
Relative to these low incomes, it is not cheap to live in the city of Lafayette, and those costs are going up. According to a report from Apartment List early last year, rents in Lafayette increased 21% from 2020 to 2022. And those rents could continue rising due to high interest rates, skyrocketing property insurance premiums, and the potential for more climate refugees as hurricanes continue to devastate our lower-lying neighboring parishes.
So how do we make Lafayette more affordable? Fundamentally, the only way to do that is to increase incomes and/or to build more affordable housing.
Obviously, on the income front we need to continue to attract employers who offer higher paying jobs. Lafayette has made progress there; I know those efforts have already made a difference for technology jobs. Prior to companies like CGI opening up shop in Lafayette, I’d heard horror stories from friends in tech who asked for raises and were told good luck finding better paying work elsewhere. The situation seems to have improved, at least anecdotally.
But there’s an even more direct way to address this. We could increase the odds that literally thousands of young people stay in Lafayette if every existing employer who could afford it gave their people raises. If enough businesses made a coordinated effort to do this, it would be a PR bonanza, which would not only help us retain talent but also attract it, as it would be proof positive that Lafayette values its young people and doesn’t just exploit them as cheap labor.
On the affordable housing front, there’s only one real solution: more large-scale, higher-density housing developments in the core of Lafayette. We need to move the needle on this in a much bigger way. We don’t just need hundreds of new apartments built in Lafayette’s urban core; we need thousands.
We could do this if we started making it more of a priority. Lafayette could create a coordinated plan to develop more property that’s publicly owned like the land around the Buchanan Garage. Or we could inspire civic-minded local developers and investors to be more like Maurice Heymann and build something along the lines of the Oil Center but for affordable housing. Or we could build public infrastructure or provide creative financing options that improve the economics in ways that attract more outside developers.
None of these suggestions are simple, of course. But they’re essential, existential even. Because if Lafayette isn’t affordable, young people can’t live here even if they want to.
Triple down on Downtown
While there’s a lot of talk about how important Downtown is to this whole conversation, I still don’t think Lafayette’s fully internalized how important it really is.
Young people want to live in cities, and the defining characteristic of what makes a city a city is its downtown. Many young people only want to live where they don’t have to own a car, where they can walk, bike and take public transportation to get all their day-to-day needs met.
Young people want ready access to cool things to do and see and eat and experience. Where new things are happening and where they can find and form communities of interest with like-minded people.
You can’t manifest this kind of energy out of thin air. In my opinion, Lafayette only has one area with the capacity to be a beacon to attract young people with the kind of nightlife and creative energy they’re looking for. And that’s Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods.
That’s why I get so defensive when the wisdom of investing and reinvesting in Downtown Lafayette is questioned. Ignoring its foundational role in our ability to attract and retain young people would doom Lafayette to a future where young people aren’t excited about living here.
Lafayette may be a conservative community, but I don’t think we can afford to be perceived as an intolerant one if we want to convince young people to live here. There’s a real risk we’re already sending that signal.
Take the LGBTQ+ community, for example. Louisiana is ranked as one of the least friendly states in the country in terms of its state policies toward that community. And recent headlines from our library system or Mayor-President Josh Guillory’s refusal to simply recognize Pride Month gives the impression that our community is intolerant.
That perception is a threat to our future. More than 16% of Gen Z adults identify as LGBTQ+, according to a recent Gallup poll. Plus we have to factor in all of the allies who want to live somewhere that their LGBTQ+ friends and family feel welcomed.
Lafayette also struggles with the kind of racist behaviors that turn many young people away. Just a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine, who is a Black woman, was addressed with a racial slur at a public meeting. In the early days of the pandemic, we heard multiple stories of friends where the wife was Asian and the husband was white who faced openly racist comments while waiting in line at the grocery store. Thankfully, my wife and I have not experienced this here.
It’s not realistic to assume that we can ever expect this behavior to end entirely. But if we want to maximize the odds that as many young people as possible want to make their lives here, we should be doing everything we can to not alienate entire segments of any population and instead work on ensuring that everyone feels welcome to make Lafayette their home.
These are the table stakes for attracting young people
While there are all sorts of other things we can be doing, the items listed in this column are the foundation upon which our community’s attractiveness to young people is built. If young people can’t afford to live here, don’t feel like they can access the kind of entertainment and community-building activities they’re interested in, and don’t feel welcome because of who they or their friends are, Lafayette will continue to suffer from brain drain as we lose our best and brightest youth to communities offering more opportunities to live the life they want.
Conversely, if we double down on efforts to improve these dynamics, we can tap into our fullest potential to not just retain but also attract young people. Because we really do have so much to offer. But right now it feels like we’re resting on our laurels too much and not committing to fight as hard as we can. Meanwhile, other communities are working to take our future away from us by doing everything they can to recruit our young people. It’s time to show everyone what we are capable of by recommitting ourselves to doing whatever we can to prove that Lafayette is the best small city in America for young people to build great lives.