Is suburbia doomed?

Christopher B. Leinberger wrote a fascinating and thought provoking article in the March 2008 issue of The Atlantic entitled “The Next Slum?“. The article’s subtitle is “The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.” Have we reached the end of the suburban dream? If so what are the policy implications for New Jersey?

The article highlights a housing development outside of Charlotte North Carolina where homes were sold for more than $500,000. Currently 81 of the community’s 132 homes are in foreclosure. “Vandals have kicked in 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 Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.'”

Mr. Leinberger makes a strong case that the pendulum may be swinging back toward urban living instead of the suburban dream. This is a highly recommenced article to read. To read the full story click here. Please share your comments. The following are three crucial paragraphs that provide an overview.

The decline of places like Windy Ridge and Franklin Reserve is usually attributed to the subprime-mortgage crisis, with its wave of foreclosures. And the crisis has indeed catalyzed or intensified social problems in many communities. But the story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market – a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025 – that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and 70s – slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

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