February 24, 2008

The end of suburban allure: Will suburbs become America’s new slums?

The "American dream" has often been equated to "owning a home of one's own"; and, in the post-World War II era, that dream more specifically translated to "a move to the suburbs." But those days are ending, argues Christopher B. Leinberger in The Atlantic.

He cites suburbs where "[v]andals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in" to make a somewhat shocking point:

"[T]he story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the [subprime mortgage] 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."

In other words, "[T]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."

Sound far-fetched? Arthur C. Nelson at Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institue studied consumer research, housing supply data and population growth rates, Leinberger says, and then modeled future demand for various types of housing. "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."

The good news locally: There's never been a better time to invest in revitalizing older, more compact downtown neighborhoods, such as Framingham's. The plan to beef up downtown's walkability environment could pay even greater dividends than if, as I'd wished, it had been tried 10 or 20 years ago.

Some still argue that "market demand" is responsible for the boom in exurban McMansions and other car-oriented suburban development patterns. But actually, as I and many others have argued, it is local zoning regulations which are responsible. It's typically much tougher for a developer to build mixed-use cluster zoning on suburban land than a residential-only subdivision with quarter- or half-acre zoning.

Look at the price per square foot of various housing option, notes Leinberger, a real estate developer and professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan. You'll see what the free market values now:

"Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

"It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development. For instance, luxury single-family homes in suburban Westchester County, just north of New York City, sell for $375 a square foot. A luxury condo in downtown White Plains, the county’s biggest suburban city, can cost you $750 a square foot. . . . People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country—even when those neighborhoods are small."

When we were looking to buy a house in the mid-'80s, outer suburbs like Southborough, Acton and Stow were still affordable and exurbs beyond were cheap. But having grown up in a dense, walkable community just over the New York City line, I couldn't stand the thought of having to get in my car and drive 10 miles roundtrip to a strip mall just to pick up a quart of milk. On the other hand, after six years of apartment living (and hearing my neighbors clearly on the other side of the walls), I wanted a bit of breathing space between my own home and my neighbors.

That's why the Saxonville neighborhood of Framingham ended up as the perfect balance for me. I could walk to the library, post office and grocery store (now a hardware store, but at least there's a convenience store), not to mention take-out pizza and Chinese. But there's still some buffer between my house and others.

Over the past couple of decades, while it was the best lifestyle choice for us, it didn't look like the best investment choice. Property values in some exurban towns have soared more than older, mixed-income communities like Framingham. Now, though, I'm even happier I'm here. Instead of missing out on the great-flight-to-the-exurbs trend, it looks like Framingham is in sync with current and future market forces - if that long-discussed downtown revitalization comes to pass.


  1. Good post Sharon, and an important topic!

    Unfortunately, many homebuyers, and developers, still don't get it yet.

    I drive by a condo development going up just off Rte 9 Westbound in Southboro that supposedly has very strong sales, particularly from empty nest Boomers downsizing from their bigger single family homes. About the only thing they can walk to I think is the Red Barn coffee shop in front of the development. While that's a great destination, people living there are otherwise marooned without a car. And are subjected to the noise and fumes from Rte 9 traffic.

    Meanwhile, the sales of condos at Dennison in downtown Framingham have been weak. Last report I saw was that only about 20-something per cent were sold. Now it looks like many are being rented as apartments.

    Granted, the noise from trains don't make it a tranquil area, and the neighborhood is more urban grit, but at least you can walk to the train station, library, stores, restaurants, etc. Hopefully over time it will turn into a vibrant community that boosts downtown as a location, especially since the Arcade project appears dead and buried.

  2. Sharon,

    I just stumbled on to your blog during a search and I find the content both useful and encouraging. I live in the Salt Lake area of Utah and like many other western cities we have experienced massive sprawl. Fortunately a company decided to start a new urbanist development and it has become the fastest growing development in the state. I love living in a walkable community. Daybreak, the development mentioned, has encouraged more new urbanist communities to spring up around the state. I do find one big problem with walkable, new urbanist communities. They are difficult to afford once established. Income diversity fades out as the property values rise. I value this diversity as a new urbanist principle and hope a solution presents itself. As the pendulum swings the other way I fear the suburbs, those with mcmansions, will become slums. Many ideas have been presented to counter this movement by turning these developments into more walkabe communities, but I have not seen anything like that here in Utah. Take a look at the blog that I just started if you get time. Daybreak Today http://daybreaktoday.blogspot.com