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Monday, March 3, 2008

Required Reading

posted by on March 3 at 13:14 PM

After years of listening to David Brooks go on and on and on about how real Americans loved the exurbs—we can’t get enough of those big yards, soulless bedroom communities, and long commutes—I was thrilled to read this piece in The Atlantic yesterday.

Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. 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….

Author Christopher Leinberger points out that American exurbs are likely to suffer the same fate that American inner cities did from the ’50s to the ’80s: soaring crime rates, deteriorating schools, falling property values…

The experience of cities during the 1950s through the ’80s suggests that the fate of many single-family homes on the metropolitan fringes will be resale, at rock-bottom prices, to lower-income families—and in all likelihood, eventual conversion to apartments….

As the residents of inner-city neighborhoods did before them, suburban homeowners will surely try to prevent the division of neighborhood houses into rental units, which would herald the arrival of the poor. And many will likely succeed, for a time. But eventually, the owners of these fringe houses will have to sell to someone, and they’re not likely to find many buyers; offers from would-be landlords will start to look better, and neighborhood restrictions will relax. Stopping a fundamental market shift by legislation or regulation is generally impossible.

Which suburbs will avoid this fate? According to Leinberger suburbs and exurbs served by commuter rail—particularly those with walkable urban-ish centers (older suburbs with small retail strips in their “downtowns areas” or newer developments with “lifestyle centers”)—may buck the trend. But as gas prices continue to rise and more people choose walkable cities over car-dependent exurbs, the fate of McMansions will be sealed: they will become, Leinberger argues, “the new slums.”

So… exurbanites? Want to make sure your property holds its value? Want to avoid owning a crumbling McMansion surrounded by foreclosed properties sold off to aspiring slumlords? Agitate for light rail, I guess, and cross your fingers. Or sell now and move to the cities.

Read the whole piece here.

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This phenomenon isn't exactly new. In the early 1970's, my grandparents moved from Ravenna to a small tract development on Kent's East Hill. Theirs was a roomy ranch house on a requisite cul-de-sac. Very tidy and suburban.
My grandma sold the place in the early 80's and moved. I hadn't been to that neighborhood until a couple of years ago, when I was in the area for business.
I took a slow ride through that neighborhood and saw the once tidy ramblers with barred windows, peeling paint, and cars outside up on blocks.
Suburban decay, big time.

Posted by Madashell | March 3, 2008 1:27 PM

Did someone mention race?

Posted by Trevor | March 3, 2008 1:28 PM

we've actually been quite different from other nations on this subject for quite a while. In Europe, the suburbs are the "bad" part of town, almost always. (Except possibly Germany, who normally provides public transportation even deep in the burbs)

Posted by mintygreen | March 3, 2008 1:32 PM

For the umpteenth time, it's about WHERE THE JOBS ARE. If you build suburbs but also get businesses to follow, THERE'S NO PROBLEM. Most Eastsiders work on the Eastside. The old "jobs in the city, houses in the burbs" is outmoded!

Posted by Big Sven | March 3, 2008 1:33 PM

Um, schools and jobs need to get a LOT better (or at least, you know, good) in the city to re-attract those of us living on the Eastside. I do miss the convenience of the city every time I visit Seattle, but I got tired of having to drive all the way across the lake to work every day for years.

The second that toll booths or a similarly retarded attempt at social engineering happens is the second I stop visiting or spending a dime in Seattle.

Thanks for the shadenfreude, though.

Posted by PeterF | March 3, 2008 1:33 PM

You said the magic words: "rising gas prices." Not that many people are going to love that 45-minute drive to work when the gas is costing them $5 a gallon.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | March 3, 2008 1:34 PM

Yeah, Mercer Island is a real ghetto now.

Seriously, this is a real phenomenon, but Leinberger is overstating his case something fierce. There's a LOT more going on than he suggests. There are some really interesting things going on in some suburban neighborhoods, like Crossroads, that are far from slums despite the influx of immigrants and some lower-income people. There are TONS of older suburban areas that are still nice, and tons that are being repopulated in interesting ways.

Also, the suburban ranch-style house is never going to be converted to apartments in large numbers; it's designed wrong. Inner-city big-box houses and, uh, apartment houses are well-suited for apartments.

Posted by Fnarf | March 3, 2008 1:36 PM

Ummm, if ST2 passed, every single exurb and suburb in King/Snohomish/Pierce county would be "served by light rail." They're almost all served by Sounder commuter rail already. That's what the thousands of free parking spots are for -- they serve exurbanites in a radius of many, many miles.

Dan Savage's dream for light rail:

Posted by light rail advocate | March 3, 2008 1:40 PM

Sven points out a problem with the "commuter rail will save us" theory: Commuter rail doesn't go where the jobs are. I mean, sure, it goes downtown, which is still the biggest single center; but as a fraction of the total job power of the region, downtown is a shrinking player. Not just Bellevue, either, but all over the place, major job centers are going up (or are already there) in places that rail will never, can never, serve.

Posted by Fnarf | March 3, 2008 1:41 PM

Ahhhh...sweet justice. I'm looking forward to the crack dealers from my neighborhood moving to Bellevue.

Posted by Gitai | March 3, 2008 1:42 PM

Uh, no, light rail advocate: what you're describing only serves those suburbanites who live within driving distance of one of these park-and-ride lots AND WORKS DOWNTOWN. Most people don't.

Posted by Fnarf | March 3, 2008 1:56 PM

I don't see why this is an either-or proposition. _Some_ people love suburbs. _Some_ people love cities. It's always been that way. You're not going to convince a whole lot of middle aged parents to move into downtown Detroit, just like you're not going to convince many 22 year olds to move out to the suburbs. It's driven, in large part, by demographics. There just happen to be a lot of people in a pro-city cohort right now, but they'll get old and move out of town at some point.

There's no risk of suburbs becoming slums any time soon. For, oh, a couple _hundred_ years the English countryside manor has been what people aspired to. Leinberger should realize that, if he's ever taken sat in on any of the history lectures taught just down the hall from him at U of M. As long as transportation remains remotely affordable, people will want those big houses in the 'burbs. Property prices will drop as gas prices go up, but the houses will still be occupied by the rich people who can afford the drive.

Some suburbs will suffer in the (probably) coming energy crunch, but so will some cities.

Posted by Patrick Austin | March 3, 2008 1:57 PM

The whole exurbs thing takes on another level of creepiness here in the Midwest. The worst of the exurban developments have completely flat landscapes (usually former farmland), absolutely zero trees, and hundreds of houses that are all built using the same plan (or miniscule modifications of it) and often painted in the same color.

I really do not understand why people want to live there. Besides being completely out of A Wrinkle in Time, the resale value is going to be nil. In a few years (if not already), in each of those developments there will be dozens of the exact same house for sale at the same time.

Posted by Julie | March 3, 2008 1:57 PM

When I moved here from Manhattan a couple of years ago, everyone warned me how whitebread and racist Bellevue had become.

I had no idea Bellevue and Edmonds were turning intro crack slums. I've never been over there, but now I'm glad for my Seattle Condo. Prices here are so cheap compared to Manhattan I could even afford granite countertops.

Who cares if the suburbs are deserted to the crack dealers? It's a bunch of icky Christians out there anyway.

Urban style living is where everything is happening. The rest of Washington state is a redneck ghetto that I never intend on visiting.

Posted by Issur | March 3, 2008 2:00 PM

There's a big difference between older suburbs and newer exurbs. I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco. It was and is immensely walkable, is full of small businesses, and is replete with excellent schools, parks, and other amenities. Most suburbs between San Francisco and San Jose meet this description. It's when you start to get too far south or too far east in that you start to find exurbs that will become the shithole slums of the future.

Posted by keshmeshi | March 3, 2008 2:10 PM

Commuter rail normally has a subsidy of between $10 to $20 per passenger per trip.

Bus service in city runs at a profit or near breakeven.

Live in the suburbs and help destroy the balance of trade - or live in the city and help America become strong.

The choice is yours - but it is a Choice - and it has consequences for our Nation.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 3, 2008 2:11 PM

If you actually read the article (and Dan's summary, for that matter), suburbs like Bellevue and Redmond, that have jobs and viable downtowns, will probably be OK. I know everywhere else feels like the countryside from Capitol Hill, but the article is talking about the exurbs -- places like Marysville and Black Diamond, and possibly Sammamish.

Mercer Island hardly fits in this category, as it's extremely close to both downtown Seattle and Bellevue and can almost be considered part of those cities.

Posted by MHD | March 3, 2008 2:15 PM

The large lot subdivsions won't become slums. Each lot contains so much land that even if it's much less valuable per square foot it will only be affordable to the middle class. Maybe not the best investment, but not a potential slum. A number of mechanisms are in place to prevent further subdivision of the land (deed restrictions, zoning, etc) in these places. The real worry for the future is the lack of smaller, afforable living spaces.

Posted by jonglix | March 3, 2008 2:29 PM

@17, Mercer Island would be part of Seattle, in fact, if the Bogue plan had passed decades ago.

Posted by joykiller | March 3, 2008 2:45 PM

Ya... and like it's gonna rain monkeys next August 26th on the moon...

everybody watch the skies and look up just left of the latest sattelite communications link put into orbit the week before the big E-vent...


What we should ask is 40 to 200 percent?

That's a pretty wide swing margin for costs and difference ratios! listening to capitol hill and chinatown to timbuk you you hoo.......and thanks to something innteerreessttiinnglee reported on by our man Dan Savage.


Posted by danielbennettkieneker | March 3, 2008 2:50 PM

See for yourself and drive around Kent's East Hill. Very run down! Though many free-market cheerleaders will think yay for living in the super-hip city, middle wage-earners like myself have no choice but to consider places like Kent if I am ever to be able to purchase a home. Will probably have to rent forever...

Posted by Madashell | March 3, 2008 2:59 PM

Danielbennettkieneker, meet Will in Seattle. Will in Seattle, this is Danielbennettkieneker. I believe you fellows have a lot in common.

Posted by Fnarf | March 3, 2008 3:04 PM

I'm sure a lot of the people posting on this comment thread realize this, but one commonly-overlooked fact is that, on a month-to-month basis, living in the city can actually be a lot cheaper than living in an exurb (or a suburb without much going on).

A middle-class family will look at the prices of a small condo in downtown Seattle and then find a whole house for about the same price in, say, Auburn or Renton. Because our society is still in everybody-owns-a-car mode, a lot of people choose the suburb route. It may actually be cheaper in the very-long run, but for month-to-month mortgage and car costs the city usually cheaper.

The reason for this is one car usually costs ~$8,000/yr to own and operate, and a family of four will likely need two in the suburbs. Also, in a walkable, bus-able, bike-able city, maintenance costs (e.g., gas) will also drop.

Speaking of bike-able, the east side would be a lot more commuter friendly if they just built a fucking bike lane once in awhile.

Posted by Zelbinian | March 3, 2008 3:06 PM

Bike lanes are not bike-friendly.

Posted by Fnarf | March 3, 2008 3:33 PM

Naw, Fnarf, at least Will makes sense some of the time.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | March 3, 2008 3:36 PM

Another consideration with city vs suburban/exurban living - too many city homes are made for single occupancy, not for families. How can a couple with 2 kids live in a studio with a murphy bed? Even if that arrangement works for someone now, it's not gonna work if one starts a family. I suppose the long range idea is for us not to breed and have a dog instead. That's how Seattle is going anyway - more dogs than kids.

Posted by madashell | March 3, 2008 3:46 PM

Fnarf... go read the piece. He points out that some 'burbs will be fine, for the reasons you site. But lots of 'burbs--the majority--are going to be blighted, for the reasons he lays out.

Posted by Dan Savage | March 3, 2008 3:47 PM

Well, except for those days when I'm having PMS. (pre-marinated-steak)

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 3, 2008 3:48 PM

Fnarf @22. I imagine that Danielbennettkieneker is what Will in Seattle sounds like when he's been pleasantly overserved.

Posted by Julie | March 3, 2008 4:01 PM

What I wondered about yesterday was: If prices for staple crops continue to climb, might some of these McMansion developments actually turn out to be worth more when converted back to the farmland that many of them replaced?

Posted by tsm | March 3, 2008 4:10 PM

Worth more as farms? I doubt it very much.

Dan, I read the article, but I think he's overstating his case. For one thing, just because urban prices are high doesn't meant that they're more popular than suburban places; they're not. It just means that relative to supply they are. Suburban places don't have the price pressure that urban places have because they are nearly unlimited; if you can't get in one, there are twenty others to choose from.

They also appeal to very different demographics; and it is foolish to pretend that the childless hipster demographic that wants to live in downtown lofts is always going to be in the ascendancy.

Are there shit suburbs? Are there star-crossed developments that collapse into slums? Of course there are. But consider this: if these places are so awful, WHY DO MOST PEOPLE LIVE IN ONE OF THEM?

Because they do; most Americans live in suburbs. And the growth rate of these more remote exurby places vastly outstrips that of cities or older suburbs. They may or may not be terrible places to live, but it's pretty cheeky to suggest that they're all going to turn to shit soon, when quite the opposite is happening now.

Seriously: get out and drive around the region. You may be surprised at what you see. For one thing, you may be surprised to see that "the region" is a fifty-mile circle now. Check out what's going on on the far side of that spiffy new Tacoma Narrows bridge, for instance.

Posted by Fnarf | March 3, 2008 4:35 PM

But if you drive around the region, you'll be adding to global warming emissions and increasing demand for gas, which means gas prices go up, making suburban and rural land values go down.


Posted by Will in Seattle | March 3, 2008 5:11 PM

So Dan,

Since you can afford a cushy Single family home in the city with a yard, everyone else with kids should too?

Sorry asshole. 500,000 dollars for a fucking 3 bedroom house? Yeah, right...

Some people don't see the value of raising kids in a 900 square foot townhome complex with no yard, crackheads and gangbangers in the neighborhood park and bums hanging out after dark.

Sorry, the "Urban" life is nice for twenty something club hoppers, Faggoty DINK's, and rich assholes like you. The rest have to drive till they qualify.

Of course, you may be saying that "they" don't need to own homes. Just be honest about saying it.

But, I guess you got yours, now no one else should.

Posted by ecce homo | March 3, 2008 7:25 PM

500 grand for 3 bedrooms? Not in my neighborhood. That buys you a 2 bedroom, 1 bath crackerbox where I live. Who the hell are these people buying these places?! No one I know.

Posted by Madashell | March 3, 2008 8:01 PM

First off, I can't wait to see what (self-hating loser) David Brooks has to say about this article. Whether you like it or not, it's happening, and New York State (where I live) is a good example; rural, exurban and even some suburban property values have pretty much been stagnant since forever, and it shows in many of the towns and outlying regions (although this is more small-town poor than exurb); closer to New York City, it can be a real eye-opener to drive through portions of Westchester County or Long Island that 30 or 40 years ago were basically middle-class suburbs and are now blighted ghettos (graffiti, vacant storefronts, drugs, gangs, etc.) that you used to see only in the worst parts of the city. On a somewhat tangential note, this is one reason not to treat immigrants like shit, because guess where they tend to end up living: these same wasteland "communities"; as bad as it can be to live in a slum, the government should not make it any worse for people trying to scrape by.

Posted by thegayrecluse | March 3, 2008 8:57 PM

Large cities in the rust belt often have smaller cities nearby that are absolute pestholes. East St Louis, Ill.; Gary, Ind.; Camden, NJ; Jersey City, NJ; Chelsea, Mass. to name a few. @35 and other non-Seattle Sloggers can probably come up with more. These cities used to have industries of their own but when the jobs left nothing new came to replace them. They didn't become bedroom communities for their larger neighbors; instead they became the places commuters drove through on multilane freeways on their way to and from work. Prosperity literally passed them by.

It will be interesting to see if they revive as havens for the middle class as the central city and exurbia become increasingly unaffordable due to high rents and high gas prices respectively. Of course that leaves the question of where the poor will go if these slums are gentrified.

Posted by RainMan | March 3, 2008 9:37 PM

They'll be eaten by the rich, alongside portions of field greens raised on the lawn.

Posted by fred | March 4, 2008 12:02 AM

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