11 March 2008


Christopher B. Leinberger, writing in The Atlantic, writes about the coming decline of suburbs and observes how physically unprepared the 'burbs are to evolve into something more appropriate for the world of expensive oil we're soon to be living in.

Suburbia’s many small parcels of land, held by different owners with different motivations, make the purchase of whole neighborhoods almost unheard-of. Condemnation of single-family housing for “higher and better use” is politically difficult, and in most states it has become almost legally impossible in recent years. In any case, the infrastructure supporting large-lot suburban residential areas—roads, sewer and water lines—cannot support the dense development that urbanization would require, and is not easy to upgrade. Once large-lot, suburban residential landscapes are built, they are hard to unbuild.

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.

This future is not likely to wear well on suburban housing. Many of the inner-city neighborhoods that began their decline in the 1960s consisted of sturdily built, turn-of-the-century row houses, tough enough to withstand being broken up into apartments, and requiring relatively little upkeep. By comparison, modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.

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 ...

James Howard Kunstler, as I mentioned a while back, calls this problem Peak Suburbia, and with the lending crisis growing ever worse, it's clear that this watershed has definitely arrived.

1 comment:

Geoff said...

I'm witnessing this process here in the Twin Cities. Large lot homes are becoming multi-family/extended family rental units of the recent immigres. The first tier suburbs are now suffering a blight as houses are sold out by retirees (who often move to high density units towards the city center), and the new owners end up being slumlords trying to live the infomercial dream, but fail and end up being erstwhile landlords, trying to minimimize investement, while maximizing current income and potential selling (which invariably is a larger, even less caring management firm).

In general, 60-80's built Suburbia will need to be torn down, if not wall by wall, house by house, as the construction methods of the boom years was borderline planned obsolescence (Is there anything in a house built during that time that was provably guaranteed beyond 30 years?). I did more repairs in my last home (circa 1984), than in my first 2 houses (1950 and 1960) combined, which were 25 and 15 years older at time of purchase than youthful home.

-Living Downtown now, in a refurbed apt.