By Ryan McGreal
Published April 15, 2008
A remarkable piece in the March 2008 issue of Atlantic Monthly seriously explores the question of whether today's suburban subdivisions, the pinnacle of home ownership, could turn into tomorrow's slums.Written by Christopher B. Leinberger, a land strategist with the Brookings Institute, the essay argues that the subprime fiasco is only an aggravating welt on a deeper phenomenon:
[T]he story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the 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.
He follows several telling trends, from the huge premium in urban housing prices to the proliferation of quasi-urban "lifestyle centres" to the steady build-up in energy prices to the role that demographic changes will play in the future value of car-dependent neighbourhoods.
Where he raises a flag is in what will happen to all the large-lot suburban houses made obsolete by these changes, which, he notes "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.
The full essay is certainly worth reading.