The collapsing suburbs

I came across this on CNN.com:

Is America’s suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls “drivable suburbanism” — a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

Yep. We’ve been seeing some of this happening here in Peoria, too. And, generally, I happen to think that this is a positive trend. There’s something a little too sterile about suburban living, or at least the way that we’ve practiced it here in America.

However, this comes with its own price:

Yet Nelson also estimates that in 2025 there will be a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes that will not be left vacant in a suburban wasteland but instead occupied by lower classes who have been driven out of their once affordable inner-city apartments and houses.

The so-called McMansion, he said, will become the new multi-family home for the poor.

“What is going to happen is lower and lower-middle income families squeezed out of downtown and glamorous suburban locations are going to be pushed economically into these McMansions at the suburban fringe,” said Nelson. “There will probably be 10 people living in one house.”

In Shaun Yandell’s neighborhood, this has already started to happen. Houses once filled with single families are now rented out by low-income tenants. Yandell speculates that they’re coming from nearby Sacramento, where the downtown is undergoing substantial gentrification, or perhaps from some other area where prices have gotten too high. He isn’t really sure.

(Emphasis mine.)

So, yeah, what about them poor folk that used to live in the urban cores? Where are they going to live?

We’re seeing some of that here, too. My neighborhood is poised to be a part of the ongoing urban renewal in Peoria, which means that real estate prices in University East are pretty high, compared to what they were just a few years ago. This is going to make it more difficult for working-class families to be able to live here.

Sure, this is really just a mirror development of the previous migration of the poor to the urban cores. However, there’s at least one significant difference. The urban centers actually had generally well-built buildings. For example, my home started its existence as a single-family dwelling, was divided up into three separate apartments, and then was returned to being a single-family dwelling by the time that we bought it. It’s a solidly constructed house.

The McMansions of the suburbs, though, are not so well built. The quality of materials and construction simply isn’t as good as the older homes. As the working class moves into the suburbs, are they also going to be trapped in rapidly decaying buildings?

And where will they work? If you live in town, at least you can use mass transit or hoof it yourself. If you’re out in the ‘burbs, your options are limited. After all, the suburbs only work as long as those who live there have automobiles.

Now, I say this as one who really enjoys the thought of living in the proposed Renaissance Park area. My idea of a good night is hanging out at One World Eats or Water Street Wines, Cafe and Coffee on the riverfront, both of which are the results of the sort of urban renewal that we’re talking about. Personally, I like the idea of living in a bustling urban area, filled with arts and music and coffee houses and restaurants, all within walking distance of my house. That sounds fantastic!

And yet, I have to raise the question: who are we displacing? Are we forcing the working poor into another migration, simply because we want to have our beautiful urban centers?

Or is there another way?

These are real questions. I don’t have answers. But I think that the time is rapidly approaching where we need to begin thinking about how to answer them.

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6 responses to “The collapsing suburbs

  • Isaac

    It seems like this is just a cyclical pattern. Your house is standing proof… not to mention the houses in the neighborhood just across Main St. from your place. First, they were built as McMansions. Second, they were transferred into 3-4 family dwellings. Finally, they were (sometimes) returned to the original single family homes.

    People may rent out their Dunlap homes as multi-unit dwellings, but eventually it’ll swing back and people may start moving back into the suburbs to get away from the city.

    Also, I don’t think the homes that are being built today are QUITE as cheaply constructed as you portray them to be. And as we’ve seen with Grand Prairie and ICC – if there is a market, CityLink will probably put a bus route in to service the area. So, it doesn’t really seem like an issue of “no cars and a decaying house” as much as a regular, predictable cycle of the economy of a growing urban area.

    Anyway, I do really like this idea of urban renewal and agree that it would/will be fantastic.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Hey, Isaac!

    You may be right; my assessment of the construction quality of these houses may be a bit pessimistic, although I stand by my general assessment that the materials and quality of construction are inferior to the older buildings. These weren’t McMansions that were being thrown up at a ridiculous pace, as are many suburban houses.

    And you may be right about public transit adjusting to address newer needs. It’s been so long since I’ve taken the bus that I honestly hadn’t considered it. Seeing public transit adapt itself to suburban sprawl should be…interesting.

    However, I don’t think that this is just a regular, predictable cycle. At least, not in the way that you mean. The suburban boom of the 50s and 60s was driven by specific technological advancements (e.g. the automobile), creating a new sort of living environment that didn’t really correspond to previous living arrangements. So, as I look at this movement of people, I interpret it as the slow failing of a way of life that probably wasn’t sustainable. Now, maybe I’m overstating this, but suburbia is a fairly recent phenomenon, as compared to city, village, or farm life. Maybe it just didn’t work.

  • mortonmalaise

    Suburban homes are built to stringent building codes. Just because they’re built quickly, doesn’t mean they’re built poorly. In today’s world of licensing, liability, and tort law, contractors can’t afford to cut corners.

    Gentrification in Peoria will never become the issue it is in NYC because there just isn’t enough money in the city, nor are there enough real estate developers to drive out the working poor.

    Remember, most of the working poor in the inner city are renting from slumlords who live in the outlying areas. The last thing a slumlord wants to do is live close enough to his tenants for them to visit his home when they have a problem.

  • Barb

    Houses are only as well-built as the building codes require. Therefore, if the building codes are lax (or the building inspector is not an honest person) then the houses are not so great. However, Seth, your point “As the working class moves into the suburbs, are they also going to be trapped in rapidly decaying buildings?” is not as much a matter as the soundness of the structure, but the ability or willingness of the owners to pay for the upkeep. Historically speaking, rental units are not normally kept as well as owner-inhabited homes. This is not a slam against the renters. They may keep their homes neat and tidy, but the fiscal responsibitly lies with the lanlord who’s chief motivation for ownership is to make money. And how does one maximize profits but by curbing expenses.

  • Michael

    The problem with big homes in the burbs being turned into chop jobs with many rental units is that code does not allow for this. Areas such as the new burbs of Dunlap are zoned for single family housing R-1 = no more than 2 unrelated people. Your area of University east is zoned for no more then 3 unrelated people making a modern chop against code. Your home was choped pre-code and now that it has been converted back to a single unit you could not turn it back to a triplex.

    As for the new homes being of lower quality line it is worth noting that new homes are of a uniform quality, good enough if the home is taken care of. Old homes were built to many standards from great to poor. One of the old homes I rebuilt years ago had wall studs and roof rafters spaced from 10-26 inches on center. That home today would never pass code no matter how drunk or crooked the inspector.

  • Seth Ben-Ezra

    Michael,

    See, this just goes to show that house construction is not my forte.

    Additionally, as I was thinking about it, there’s something of a filtering process for older structures. Basically, an older building has more time to fall apart than a new building. Therefore, the remaining buildings probably have a higher incidence of quality, simply because the bad buildings that were built at the same time have already fallen apart.

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