Saturday, February 16th, 2008
The Atlantic Monthly has an article in its March 2008 edition called “The Next Slum“. Drawing on trends in urban redevelopment and noted foreclosure problems, especially in newer, starter home communities of cheaply built houses, this article claims that it is our auto-oriented suburbs on the fringes that are destined to become the next slums, while prospects for more traditional communities is looking up. While I think they overstate the case a bit, and minimize the ever shortening cycle of living and shopping trends, this is nevertheless an interesting article.
Ground zero for this phenomenon is the southern neo-boomtown of Charlotte. I noted earlier how many starter home communities were suffering from extensive foreclosures and increasing crime. One elected official referred to these entry level communities as the “projects of the future.” This article follows in that vein.
At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in the doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlottee Observer, ‘I had thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dream that stuff like this would happen.’
I’ve heard reports of similar types of incidents from other cities, though nothing this extreme. It does make you wonder if many suburban communities were prescient in banning this type of development through mandating higher end design and construction standards. I’m actually a big fan of market based solutions to affordable housing. These types of development play a key role in helping people buy into the American Dream with their own home in a solid school district. So going too far in the direction of squeezing out working class people from home ownership is something I’d definitely oppose. I do think this model needs to be revisited, and indeed I expect most of the builders in this space to start looking at how they can tweak their product and sales practices to avoid this in the future. A development that goes south like this can be a major black eye to a builder, and that’s something they will want to avoid having on their reputation. One can proudly build an entry level product that luxury buyers sniff at, but something that turns into a nightmare for buyers isn’t good for anyone. So I expect the builders, prodded by both the government and commercial considerations, to modify their development approach.
Before people with higher incomes brush this off as not their problem, it is affecting higher end communities too. The article cites a similar example from Sacramento where home prices were in the half million range. Admittedly, that’s at California prices, but the principle applies.
The authors go on to suggest that while these problems are being perhaps triggered by the subprime crisis, they are not likely to go away in a cyclical recovery because of structural changes in the preferences of Americans and shifting demographics.
In the 40′s, many Americans were cramped into squalid urban apartments that they were happy to leave behind post-WW II. This led to the decay of our inner cities and their well publicized problems. The city was the source of bad things and dysfunction, in the popular imagination as well as reality. The article cites films like “Escape from New York”. Today, it is the city that is portrayed on TV as the hip and happening locale and the suburbs that are the source of anomie. Contrast Seinfeld and Sex in the City with a Todd Haynes film or Desperate Housewives. This has been backed up in the real world with escalating urban real estate prices and condo building spurts across the country.
Other factors weigh in too. The baby boom generation is about to retire, leading to a new market of empty nesters to whom a large house where you can’t walk anywhere is a burden more than a benefit, and where school districts no longer matter. Families with children make up a smaller percentage of households every year. As gas prices remain high, the cost of commuting from a home far from work becomes almost like a tax, to say nothing of ever escalating traffic congestion.
Put together trends in lifestyle preferences, demographics, energy prices, and the lifecycle of housing and commercial development, and researchers like Arthur C. Nelson are forecasting a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes by 2025, equivalent to 40 percent of such homes now in existence.
Personally, I think this overstates the case. The urban condo boom has largely been limited to America’s largest cities, which are outliers whose experience is not applicable to most places. Even in my favorite example of Chicago, which has comparatively moderate prices and has experienced perhaps the largest condo building boom of any city in the United States, the population is still declining, or stagnant at best. People are still moving out as fast as others move in. Most of these new neighborhoods remain playgrounds for the upper classes, not the broad-based neighborhoods of yore.
Still, we’ll see what happens. I was at a business dinner a couple weeks ago at Spiaggia on Michigan Ave with a mostly 40 and 50-something crowd of business associates and their spouses. Of those from Chicago, 100% of them with children in or nearing high school said they were planning to move into the city as soon as their kids were out of the house or out of college. Friends of mine who used to live in Hinsdale put their toe in the water with a pied-à-terre, then dumped their house to move downtown full time. I have multiple younger friends in the city with small children who’ve said that they are planning to not only stay in the city with their kids, but send them to public schools. One particular woman has been volunteering at the local elementary school with other upscale parents, trying to make improvements before her daughter is old enough to go there. Perhaps the greatest hope for our urban schools is that middle and upper class parents decide to start sending their kids there.
The author doesn’t expect us to all go for the hard core urban experience. He also extols walkable suburbs, such as traditional towns along the railroad lines and those with a strong walkable core. And that traditional suburban neighborhoods closer to these walkable cores might be insulated from the shakeout. He touts especially newer “lifestyle centers” as creating walkable environments that appeal to today.
This last bit is where he really over-reaches, IMO. Lifestyle centers are shopping centers, period. Throwing a tiny amount of residential or office space in there doesn’t make them mixed use communities. The fact that many towns are now referring to lifestyle centers as their downtowns is a bit amusing to me, personally. The principal difference between a lifestyle center and previous shopping centers is aesthetic. It is retro Main St. feel. But functionally it is not that different from an enclosed mall.
This, I believe, highlights the real problem many urban lovers have with the suburbs: their key issue is aesthetic. And it can be easy to drive down some multi-mega-lane thoroughfare lined with car dealership after strip mall after fast food joint and conclude you’ve arrived in some strange version of hell. While I’m all in favor of good aesthetics, if what comes after is largely functionally equivalent to what was there before, what does that ultimately accomplish in terms of changing the game in where people want to live? Craig McCormick highlighted this to great effect in his Pecha Kucha presentation on strip malls, where he noted such design requirements as faux second stories, 360 degree facades, and “frosting” that nevertheless left the Platonic form of the strip mall intact. Lifestyle centers are simply the latest fad in commercial design. It may last a while, and indeed may be better than the soulless strip malls of the 70′s, but styles will change to something else at some point, leaving these lifestyle centers just as obsolete.
The real problem, as I’ve highlighted, is that of staying power. When you build a suburban environment that copies the fashions of the day, whether that be “power centers” and subdivisions or “walkable” lifestyle centers, you still haven’t created a reason why anyone would want to live there 25 years later when preferences have changed and there is something elsewhere that is more in tune with contemporary tastes and which is brand new to boot. The decaying older suburban areas of the Indianapolis townships should show where that path leads. If poor construction quality and the subprime crisis are causing new suburbs in Charlotte to get there faster than in the past, that’s just a difference in degree, not kind.
The author has a good idea, but it need to be tweaked a bit. You need to create an environment with staying power. One that is going to give someone a reason to want to live there 25 years later. Some of the suggestions made about mixed use, walkable urban cores and transit are a start at that. I’ve highlighted before the great things going on in Carmel, which is really trying to build a differentiated environment that will be here for the long haul.
So I recommend reading the article. While clearly it is as much wishful thinking on the part of the author as prediction, it is still definitely worth looking at and thinking over.