How Congress Can Help Create Suburbia 2.0

As Obama administration adviser Shelley Poticha noted this week, building more energy-efficient and hospitable cities — not to mention suburbs and rural areas — starts with clear terminology. "Sustainability" and "livability" are positive concepts that can be hard to define, but how can "transit-oriented development" be brought home to someone unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of policy?

Foreclosure_Rate_Homes_Sale_Chicago_Suburbs_5wKfNDSWQE0l.jpgWeeds spring up near a foreclosed home in Illinois. (Photo: Getty Images)

The beginnings of an answer, surprising as it is, lie in an MSN report with a scary headline: "Is Your Suburb the Next Slum?" In stark terms, the piece outlines the consequences of a housing (and energy consumption) boom gone bust:

The one-two punch of a crippling recession and higher gas
prices have quelled demand for many of the nation’s fringe communities
from Charlotte, N.C., to Sacramento, Calif., while at the same time
demographic trends have begun pushing an aging population back to the
nation’s urban cores.

That’s prompting some planners to predict a
huge surplus of large-lot suburban properties in the years ahead — as
many as 25 million homes by 2030, according to Arthur C. Nelson,
presidential professor of city and metropolitan planning at the
University of Utah and director of its Metropolitan Research Center.

Not all of these homes will sit vacant, Nelson says. Many of them will be divided up into multifamily rental properties.

"You
will have two or three households living in these large mansions in the
suburbs," Nelson says, adding that this will bring property values down
and put extra strain on public services.

It’s true that an influx of new residents into suburban areas will place new burdens on local governments. But that’s exactly why the office of sustainable communities that Poticha was appointed to lead and the $4 billion in new development grants now pending in Congress are worthwhile — even for suburbanites who still crave more space than they need.

As demographics shift and the recession forces Americans to start living within their means, mixed-use development like the sort that has kept Arlington, Virginia, booming — will be what helps communities remake themselves. And though that remaking will mostly occur on the local level, Congress and the administration can lend a helping hand to those who want it.

Instead of "transit-oriented development," could it be called "saving the suburbs"?

(h/t Kaid Benfield)

  • hauksdottir

    Whether subdivided houses bring down property values or raise them is due to the quality of the tenants. A millionaire owner with too many “homes” might not be aware of drug parties or squatters trashing up a place while he is absent. Poorer people, used to doing things themselves rather than hiring it out, might garden, paint, install shelving and fixtures, and otherwise improve and take care of the property they are renting and actually living in. One home… and it is THEIRS.

    The Victorian in which I live has 4 gas meters, but the last remodeling modernized the interior and made it 3 units. Victorian families were huge, and often had live-in servants, so these houses usually have extra entrances. Most of the homes in my neighborhood are subdivided. As long as we have yards and neighborhood pocket-parks, we don’t think of it as dense.

    The owner lives in back, I’ve been here 20 years, and the lady upstairs 18 years. We aren’t transient. Most of our neighbors have been here for ages, too! This is OUR home and OUR neighborhood. It is an eclectic neighborhood: Black, White, Chinese, etc., and we get along fairly well. We know who belongs here and who doesn’t, so we look out for each other and house-sit for each other.

    When one house sports new paint, others on the street follow. If one tenant turns a weedy patch into a perennial bed, and shares plants, others do too.

    Allowing subdivision of houses doesn’t automatically mean slumnifying a neighborhood. It all depends on the residents.

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