Today's Suburb, Tomorrow's Slums?

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.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2008 at 06:38:39

Thanks for sharing this. I couldn't help but notice the word string, "not served by rail transit" near the end of the article:

But much of the future decline is likely to occur on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core. In other words, some of the worst problems are likely to be seen in some of the country’s more recently developed areas—and not only those inhabited by subprime-mortgage borrowers. Many of these areas will become magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.

Please allow me to toot the horn for Ryan:

BRT = poverty, crime and social dysfunction LRT = healthy environment and walkable urban living will give more people what they seem to want

It is an article with lots of meat on its bones about suburbia, Mr. McGreal's favorite contentiousness treat. And of course I sort of agree to its tasting of bitterness sweet.

In not so ancient times the healthy walkable living areas were within the core walled cities protected by the respectable Lords, Ladies and their entourage of archers and mighty knights. Outside the city gates, beyond the shadow of the nobleman's keep, on the fringe, were the peasants. The farmers and husbandmen eked out their pittance in the vast undeveloped fields surrounding the castle grounds guard.

The ancient model fared well when defending against marauding hordes. The poor farmer's, if they were lucky enough, could reach the walled central city core before the horde and could take up arms there in a cooperative defense of everyone's now threatened livelihood. Sure his orchards would be razed, his animals taken or slaughtered and his prime crops would be burnt to a crisp, but there was safety in numbers behind the wall and a chance to live.

The lucky farmer who made it to the gate in time had the privilege of fighting off the hordes right along side his king. When it was all over the king would pat the poor farmer on the back and say "atta boy, now on your way", and all the peasants would leave the central core to begin the long sullen journeys back to what was left of their meager existence and start over. But they had to hurry because the king required the taxes paid-in-full, in bad times as well as the good.

The title could thus be read, "Today's Suburbs, Tomorrow's Plumbs"

The farmer's reward as always, is another helping of the king's prunes.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 18, 2008 at 09:15:34

My sincere apologies Ryan. Without the opportunity of editing a post or even contacting the editor himself, I, in retrospect, left out two premium words: gypsy and preened. Maybe you can figure out where they went my friend.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 21, 2008 at 09:20:36

I do understand with downtown crumbling and all, that folk's interest has shifted tracks somewhat from LRT briefly. It offers us a time for repose away from Hallmark's nose.

Ryan like other essayists often paint with broad brush strokes which give the finished work a more narrowly focussed palette, texture and hue. As a proponent for LRT, Ryan does demonstrate a favorable short term rebirth for the core and a mild benefit for the GHA in general but fails to blend the changing world environment's "paint thinners" within his strokes prudently enough to avoid the "water-down" streaks and runs. This only occurs however, when his oils and bristles meet with the diluent of TIME.

Rather than splatter more rhetoric and rhyme onto this grand working's carefully framed canvas, I'll leave the reader a couple sound dabs of another's brush, stoked in a vial of destiny's oil:

Toot Toot "We will probably begin to see a shift in housing demographics away from the suburbs, as people begin to migrate either “inward” to the convenience of the cities or “outward” to the safety of more rural areas (most likely to communities about 1 ½ to 3 hours from a major city)."

Hoot Hoot "Even as city life becomes more difficult, many rural towns will experience a rebirth as they find themselves reorganized into eco-villages and self-sustaining communities, experiencing an influx of educated, industrious individuals. Life will begin to de-centralize (from an urban-centric structure) and regionalize (around natural resources), and the price of arable land and “hobby farms” will skyrocket. With this return to small, prosperous communities where whole families will be working together for the benefit of the community, a renewed sense of spirituality may begin to bloom."

deconsumption: Timeline for Unfolding Crisis of Mankind

The window of LRT benefit is closing quick. Better start now or forget it altogether. Planners may wish to preserve a rural fast-track.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 22, 2008 at 07:20:23

Thanks for the reply Ryan, can we save that for later?

Ahhh, sweet planners, ye misunderstand the rural fast-track pact and the terse meaning of thinner's water down fact:

Flamborough faces biggest tax hike Councilors ignore pleas, approve 9.8 per cent increase

Boot Boot "I never forget and I never forgive." Now we have those hurtful words of councilor Robert Pasuta to echo for all eternity or at least until the end of the term, either way diluted with TIME. It is not about purses and slots, but much rather of fast horses, tracts and hobby farm's lots. The attitude of rake, rake and double take is gonna make the rooks cook fake. And may even break the stakes of our good starting gait!

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 22, 2008 at 08:00:08

I'm sorry again dear readers. Please place an apos-trophy in rooks and make the cook to look. I really suck at this.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 22, 2008 at 19:42:19

Okay Ryan, here's the short of it. Your server is refusing the email. I've sent three in the last month. These are the headers of one such returned email:

The original message was received at Sun, 6 Apr 2008 07:06:50 -0400 from []

----- The following addresses had permanent fatal errors -----

(reason: 571 Message Refused)

----- Transcript of session follows ----- ... while talking to

DATA <<< 571 Message Refused 554 5.5.0 Remote protocol error

Reporting-MTA: dns; Received-From-MTA: DNS; Arrival-Date: Sun, 6 Apr 2008 07:06:50 -0400

Final-Recipient: RFC822; Action: failed Status: 5.0.0 Remote-MTA: DNS; Diagnostic-Code: SMTP; 571 Message Refused Last-Attempt-Date: Sun, 6 Apr 2008 07:06:53 -0400

That's all I can tell you...

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2008 at 07:07:49

"Is it possible that your own email system is misconfigured?"

Not likely Ryan, but it behooves me to not speculate as to the cause. Your mail comes in here just fine so send me an alternative address where you may be reached.

May I continue dabbing?

Moot Moot "What’s important when you are in that hedge fund mode is to not do anything remotely truthful, because the truth is so against your view, that it’s important to create a new truth, to develop a fiction."

Poop Shoot "This is a dangerous and slippery slope we are progressing down and the idea of income redistribution to be shared in management by a strong central government and bankster community would have had our forefathers in the streets with pitchforks and bonfires ready to rock and roll. Instead we are more concerned with the release of the next video game for the Playstation III or just will the new Apple Iphone have the ability to provide back massages while playing MP3’s back. Folks, you had best wake up. This is a historical crossroads which has every indication that our society will undergo a massive change from top to bottom and unfortunately the bottom half of the citizenry will experience it first and feel it with the greatest amount of pain."

Shenandoah - BEWARE of the Killer "B's"

Confused yet? There is a thread.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 23, 2008 at 07:39:18

However thin, we'll have to see if Cat's Chat Ken let's me in.

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By WRCU2 (registered) - website | Posted April 24, 2008 at 08:00:47

Alrighty then. The Hamilton Spectator has shown me how afraid they are to be a fair reporting agency. And the scary fact is this town could really use a boooooooooost.

This is my parting shot, because I see this town and its journalists are no different than all the rest. Righters around these parts are only permitted to speak plainly, in simplest words a child can understand and the result is a populace easily and quite often swayed into childlike endeavors. We're meant to play along like good little boys and girls. Seen and not heard. We're not to get involved in any grown-up matters that we're not supposed to comprehend. Those kinda things are best left to the adulterers among us.

I placed the comment I submitted to Ken Peters under his Cat Chat Quip, "Some Interesting Cat Moves" on my server for anyone that's interested. It was apparently MODERATED of any dissenting views like those submitted to the myriad of spectator's polling stations, if it ain't brightly split unto the kid's kaleidoscope of crossed eyes knit.

I wish you all the best, in all that you do. I had a great time these last few months practicing my lamest literacy and appreciate the fact that no matter how fermented my words were, Ryan's raisethehammer remains bold and true in sharing them with you.


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By highwater (registered) | Posted April 24, 2008 at 10:47:54

Why the Goodbye Cruel World? The consciousness streams of your prismatic missives provoked like fibreglass imbedded in skin, now regrettably ether lost.

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