Today’s McMansions, Tomorrow’s Tenements

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This weekend’s must-read article is "The Next Slum?" by Christopher B. Leinberger in the Atlantic Monthly. He posits that the suburban American dream that was launched at the 1939 New York City World’s Fair appears to be running out of gas. Emerging in its place is the growing desire of many Americans to live in more walkable, urban neighborhoods and the catastrophic deterioration of Pleasantville, USA:

Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading.

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 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…"

…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.

This scenario will be familiar to readers of James Howard Kunstler:

If you really want to understand the U.S. public’s penchant for wishful thinking, consider this: We invested most of our late twentieth-century wealth in a living arrangement with no future. American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. The far-flung housing subdivisions, commercial highway strips, big-box stores, and all the other furnishings and accessories of extreme car dependence will function poorly, if at all, in an oil-scarce future. Period. This dilemma now entails a powerful psychology of previous investment, which is prompting us to defend our misinvestments desperately, or, at least, preventing us from letting go of our assumptions about their future value. Compounding the disaster is the unfortunate fact that the manic construction of ever more futureless suburbs (a.k.a. the "housing bubble") has insidiously replaced manufacturing as the basis of our economy.

  • New Yorker

    Well-written article. Thanks for posting.

    No surprise to me. God, I LOVE NEW YORK!

  • Spud Spudly

    Having been born here and lived here all my life, sometimes I have to read people like Kunstler and travel to car-oriented exurbs just to appreciate the city. I visited my in-laws two weeks ago in their gated retirement “community” at the outermost western fringes of Palm Beach County, Florida. It’s one of those places where the houses are distinguishable only by the type of shrubbery the owners have chosen to install next to their driveway and where the Target shopping center parking lots are larger than a city block and 95 percent empty. It’s a nice place to visit for a week, but man I would hate to live there.

    I tried (very delicately) to discuss some of Kunstler’s ideas with my in-laws — particularly his theory that these age-limited gated retirement communities will die off once energy becomes scarce and the original residents die off themselves. Let’s just say that my mother-in-law in particular was not interested in hearing any of it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Some suburbs can survive with a retrofit. I realized this when I started bicycling around more recently.

    22 years ago, knowing how I wanted to live, the choices were limited, because of the accessibility I wanted within walking distance.

    But since a bicycle moves at 3+ times the speed, it provides the same access at one-third the density. Add the internet, and goods delivered, and you can have a life.

    The far exurbs are a problem, however. Perhaps if you have several McMansions on a cul-de-sac, you can convert one to workforce housing and divide the rest into nursing home units for seniors.

  • Eb

    This happened to a lot of inner ring suburbs already–elegant Victorian mansions long ago became walk-ups for 3 or 4 families in my city (Paterson, NJ).

    As far as retrofitting–maybe the term “streetcar suburbs” will come back into vogue. That would really put the “retro” in “retrofitting.”

  • Spud Spudly

    That’s funny Larry. Of course, they would first have to change the community’s by-laws to allow both commercial activity and occupancy by people less than 55 years old.

    I must say though, the landscaping is magnificent.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    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.

    This is crucial to note. It’s not “suburbs” per se that are the problem, it’s car-dominated lifestyles. When my wife and I were looking for a place to settle a few years ago, we found eight towns in southern Westchester where you could buy a co-op within comfortable walking distance of a train station and a supermarket: Bronxville, Scarsdale, Hartsdale, Pelham, Mount Vernon (near both the Fleetwood and Mount Vernon East stations), Harrison, Larchmont and Tarrytown. Since then, the last two lost their supermarkets as casualties of the Grand Union bankruptcy that in one swoop decimated the pedestrian-friendliness of towns across the region, but the others are still just as friendly.

    We ultimately decided we wanted subway frequencies to get to Manhattan, and the prices were a little steep, but otherwise those towns were great.

    Yet recent consumer research by Jonathan Levine of the University of Michigan and Lawrence Frank of the University of British Columbia suggests that roughly one in three homeowners would prefer to live in these types of places.

    This is good to use to push back against people who try to tell us that “the American people” want suburbs.

    I doubt the swing toward urban living will ever proceed as far as the swing toward the suburbs did in the 20th century; many people will still prefer the bigger houses and car-based lifestyles of conventional suburbs.

    Maybe they will, but that’s immaterial if they can’t afford them.

    Two or three decades from now, the next Kurt Russell may find his breakout role in Escape From the Suburban Fringe.

    Or maybe it will be Kurt himself, busting out of his gated retirement community in a utility trike, shooting his way through other imprisoned geriatric gangsters.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You may want to read my Room 8 post from a while back quoting the same article in the Charlotte Observer.

    http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/thinking_of_moving_south.html

    I’ve written others on the same theme. The aftermath of the housing boom and bust may reveal a shift in relative well being. Or, rather, those with relative well being may end up shifting.

  • vnm

    Great article, spot on.

    But the Atlantic’s more important article on this topic was last month: The $1.4 Trillion Question.

    Why will suburbs be going away in the years ahead? The Chinese will stop subsidizing our “way of life.” Without their help, we won’t be able to afford them any longer.

    Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus—$1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day—that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can’t go on indefinitely, and therefore won’t.

    The dollar’s value has been high for many years—unnaturally high, in large part because of the implicit bargain with the Chinese. Living standards in China, while rising rapidly, have by the same logic been unnaturally low. To understand why this situation probably can’t go on, and what might replace it—via a dollar crash or some other event—let’s consider how this curious balance of power arose and how it works.

  • Braddy

    It’s wishful thinking to believe that the suburbs as we know them are nearing their quick and ultimate demise. Some areas may gradually slide into disfunction, but that simply means even more resource$ will be spent to make them work. We almost never give up and change that easily.

    In this case, I believe there is no decisive point where people say, “Tomorrow we change.” There’s just too much tied up in the infrastructure we already have. And let’s not forget all the cities that are still caught up in their own inertia of sprawling expansion.

  • Jonathan

    vnm, I’m glad you brought up the idea of looking at other Atlantic articles; the current issue has a nice one on Spain’s monastery of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, where you can go to meditate and ponder on that rapidly declining living standard.

    Seriously, while there’s a place for learned discussions about the unstable economies of distant suburbs, the article seems strangely detached from any possible practical relevance to the lives of its readers. Either every Atlantic Monthly reader is a cappucino-sipping, yoga-practicing resident of a urban-type neighborhood, or there is a whole cadre of McMansion owners out there who can read this without understanding that the author’s point is that neither their houses, nor their neighborhoods, nor their communities, will last much longer than it takes for their kindergarteners to graduate from college. Wow.

  • angeleno

    Suburbs have never really meant higher economic class. Indeed, one of the most notorious neighborhoods in the whole US, Compton, is very much a typical suburb, built of single family detached houses in the 1920s. I don’t find it all that surprising that the same could happen in modern suburbs, though it’s still interesting to see the dynamic of cities becoming the desirable places to live and suburbs being the ghetto for those who can’t afford to live in the city, which is generally typical worldwide, but had been reversed in the US during the 20th century.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    cappucino-sipping, yoga-practicing resident of a urban-type neighborhood

    That’s funny, the vast majority of cappucino-sipping yoga practitioners I know live in suburbs or exurbs. Some of them in McMansions, even. The few other Atlantic readers I know live mostly in urban areas. What was the point of mentioning the choice of caffeinated beverage and exercise/spiritual practice?

    I think you’re picking up on a peculiarity of the Atlantic‘s style more than anything else, Jonathan. Pretty much every article seems to be framed in abstract, general, philosophical terms, leaving the reader to decide how much it affects them directly. With the exception of the back page where they make up funny words. It’s not Cosmo, you know.

    So what would you say to someone who just took out a thirty-year, zero-down mortgage on a dwelling that will most likely be impractical in five years and uninhabitable in twenty?

  • Hilary

    and about a federal economic stimulus package that is encouraging exactly that? http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/23/business/23real.html?ref=business

  • It looks like I should dust-off a strategy paper Brian Ketcham and I did did for the incoming Carter on how to get from the suburbs to brownstone-type communities (the favored form selected from slides of housing options by people who had never even seen such places). However, our World Four Cities Study of Paris, London, Tokyo and NY found that all had the common phenomenon of young families moving outward for more house for the money. The difference is that in the other cities (less so in London), the outer rings are clustered arounds shops, schools, parks and adjacent to transit. Without the clustering, regional rail promotes sprawl and auto-dep;endence, as obvious in our region. The shame is that townhouse communities are sprouting everywhere withou even a 7/11.

    Years ago, RPA found that the biggest factor in people’s choice to stay in the city was the ability to by a bagel at midnight. But the opposite driving force outward is the calibre of schools. In 1993, when Brian and Charlie Komanoff wrote “Win-win Transportation” which led to the formation of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, I chided them that they had their eye on the wrong prize–that efficient transportation would not woo people into cities untill public schools got better. that even the most avid transportation advocates would not risk their own children’s education. Now that City schools actually are better (partly due to a critcal mass of educated parents), we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    I asked my suburban-bred 12-year old niece who has a “passion for Manhattan,” on onw of our city junkets, if she could see herself living there. To her “yes,” I asked what she likes about it. Her reply said it all: “it’s busy.” (There’s hope!)

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Now that City schools actually are better (partly due to a critcal mass of educated parents), we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.)

    I expect some blowback here from the UFT and the rest of the state. They will not allow this to go unchallenged.

    Wait until the real NY State budget gets passed after the November election, and the cost of the latest early retirement deal for teachers has to be paid for out of the schools (assuming Spitzer signs it). Remember, in the last two recessions state school aid was cut for NYC, and increased for the rest of the state.

  • Michael1

    “This is crucial to note. It’s not “suburbs” per se that are the problem, it’s car-dominated lifestyles.”

    So true Angus Grieve-Smith, I mean I can expand on that so much but it’s pretty self-expanatory and repetative.

  • @Michael1: You are exactly right, there is an intrinsic link between sprawling suburbs and the car dominated lifestyle we North Americans have ended up with.

    But so many Americans are obsessed with their own prosperity situation, they barely look up at the rest of the world and wonder whether they may be part of the global mess we’re in.

  • Felix

    Sorry, to go off topic, but you’re right Larry, the schools are not better. Certain standardized test scores are up slightly (not the national tests, which are considered more reliable), but these increases come at a great cost. My fourth-grader went a month, maybe longer, without social studies in order to prep for the state English exam. His school received an “A” from the chancellor. All the stuff you read about improved graduation rates in the new small high schools is hogwash. These schools screen out special ed and ESL kids. They also hire untenured teachers and pressure them to pass everyone, and if that fails, the principals simply change the grades to passing. And did you know that schools grade their own Regents exams? There are many ways to fake these results – ask any English or history teacher.

    I think Carolyn refers to the fact that there are more “good” (middle class) schools due to changing demographics. Parents of elementary school students have better choices in certain gentrifying neighborhoods.

    According to Bloomberg, the pension deal will save the city money. Do you know otherwise?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “According to Bloomberg, the pension deal will save the city money. Do you know otherwise?”

    Because once again, according to the Mayor and the UFT, new hires will be made worse off to pay for a deal for those cashing in and moving out. Kind of like the 2000 pension enhancement funded by our $25,000 per year cops.

    But I believe the assumptions are fraudulent, and it will be even worse than that. You can’t do more than a back of the envelope, because this is a secret deal, but my overview is here: http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/the_defining_moment_of_the_spitzer_administration_has_arrived.html

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