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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Do you live in the next slum?

Is your suburban subdivision the next slum? Most suburbanites would be appalled to even be asked such a question, yet the answer may be YES. At least that is the premise of an interesting article in this week’s issue of the Metropolitan Policy Update, one of several newsletters that I get which track the impact of urban policy on the American lifestyle. The gist of the article is this – the current housing bust is both real and a harbinger of a sea change in the American lifestyle. That’s sort of déjà vu all over again for me. Remember that just a few days ago (Feb 16th post) in this blog I called what is happening now in housing a sea change in the American lifestyle. I hadn’t heard of this article at that time.

One aspect of it being “real” is that various suburban neighborhoods, some of them quite “upscale” are now filled with abandoned homes that were lost to foreclosure. Many of those homes have been vandalized, stripped and in some cases marked up with graffiti,. Does that sound familiar? Does it sound like what comes to mind when someone uses the term slum? That’s the point of this article by Christopher Lienberger that first appeared on

Christopher uses examples from North Carolina, California and Florida, but my recent experiences looking at mostly foreclosed house bears out his point. Many once affluent suburban neighborhoods are starting to look like inner-city slums or at least what we have an image in our minds that they would look like. Boarded up buildings, broken windows and doors, lots that are un-kept, and maybe graffiti on the walls. You can see all that out here in the ‘burbs now. Go inside some of these innocent looking McMansions and you’d swear that you’re in an inner-city crack house. Many have had the doors kicked in and have been stripped. I suspect that other crime in the area had gone up, too.

Leinberger makes the case in his article that the movement to suburbia, which he claims started after the Futurama display in the 1939-40 World’s Fair, may have played itself out and that a return to urban living has already begun. Leinberger relates the story of how the American population right after WWII was sold on the idea that the “Great American Dream” was a house out in the suburbs, with big lots and surrounded by strip malls and other shopping malls. Then he builds a case for the desire to return to urban living that is creeping back into our lives through TV shows like Seinfeld, Friend and Sex in the City. He even relates that to the “walkability” of more urban areas, which can include small town and village (like Milford) that still have a vibrant core business area.

Leinberger also reports on the shift in urban housing values (increasing) and resulting shortages in urban areas, verses the glut in the suburbs. He points to the new trend of “lifestyle centers” that are growing around the country as suburban areas try to create an urban center around which to build. We certainly have seen that locally in Walled Lake and Wixom and on a small scale in Highland Station. The new trend towards work-live buildings is even coming to Milford, even though we’ve had stores with lofts in which people can live in our downtown, basically ever since they buildings were built in the 1800’s.

Part and parcel with this movement back to urban living is the question of what then happens to the McMansions and so-called “big-lot” homes in the suburbs? That is where Leinberger posits that they may become the new suburban slums. Foreclosures and abandonment he believes will be more prevalent in the future in the ‘burbs and that will lead to this sorry state of affairs. I have certainly been in many neighborhoods lately where several houses were empty and starting to deteriorate. It’s amazing how fast they can go downhill when left un-maintained. Many of these are in “nice” subs, even upscale subs; but, then, that’s where a lot of the foreclosures are hitting these days. Leinberger makes an interesting case that modern homes are much more cheaply built and thus much less sturdy than the homes built before the 1940’s when the suburban movement began. He says that is why they go down hill and decay that much quicker.

In the end, Leinberger sees this movement as healthy, both literally, due to the increased walkability of the urban areas; and figuratively, due to the slow down or reversal of urban sprawl. He doesn’t predict the demise of suburbia. After all, it would hardly be possible to crowd everyone back into the cities at this point and there is just too much invested in the malls and infrastructure out there to abandon quickly. He just predicts a better balance between the lifestyle choices that people will make in the future, with a return to a more urban setting being a more viable choice, especially for the Millennials and their children, who already are used to “less is more” as a mantra. To read the entire article by Christopher Leinberger, click here.

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