Skip to comments.The Slumming of Suburbia
Posted on 02/19/2009 4:16:58 PM PST by Lorianne
The financial meltdown has produced a vast patchwork of foreclosed and abandoned single-family homes across America, accelerating the decades-long migration of our nation's poor from cities to the suburban fringe. In 2005, as rising property values reduced affordable-housing stock in inner-city neighborhoods, suburban poverty, in raw numbers, topped urban poverty for the first time.
The trend will continue. By 2025, predicts planning expert Arthur C. Nelson, America will face a market surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (a sixth of an acre or more), attracting millions of low-income residents deeper into suburbia where decay and social and geographic isolation will pose challenges few see coming.
"As a society, we have fundamentally failed to address our housing policy," said Nelson, director of metropolitan research at the University of Utah. "Suburbia is overbuilt and yet we will keep on building there. Most policymakers don't see the consequences, and those who do are denying reality."
Nelson and others warn that suburbia's least desirable neighborhoods - aging, middle-class tract-home developments far from city centers and mass transit lines are America's emerging slums, characterized by poverty, crime and other social ills. Treating those ills is complicated by the same qualities that once defined suburbia's appeal seclusion, homogeneity and low population density. "We built too much of the suburban dream, and now it's coming back to haunt us," Nelson said.
To be sure, the low-income drift to suburbia has less to do with bucolic appeal and more to do with economics. Over the past two decades, the gospel of urbanism has spread though the American mainstream, Nelson and others argue. The young, the affluent, the professional class and empty-nesters are reclaiming the urban living experience dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers while the poor disperse outward in search of cheap rent. Low-income residents often subdivide suburban homes, sharing them with multiple families. Studies reveal that population densities in suburban neighborhoods increase two to four times when low-income families replace the middle-class, Nelson said.
Meanwhile, layoffs and other effects of the economic crisis are contributing to higher poverty levels in once-solidly middle-class communities.
Most experts believe the market-driven migration of the poor to suburbs and the affluent to urban zones sometimes called "demographic inversion" will continue for decades.
"Americans are disillusioned with sprawl, they're tired of driving, they recognize the soullessness of suburban life, and yet we keep on adding more suburban communities," said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the University of Michigan. He said consumer preference is reflected by Hollywood: "People identify with Sex and the City and Seinfeld. So why are we still building like Leave it to Beaver?"
Leinberger is an unabashed urbanist who preaches the gospel of dense, mixed-use communities like a missionary saving souls in the jungle. As a visiting fellow this year at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., he walks to his office and to appointments around the city. He argues, with few dissenters, that suburbs are losing favor because they make little sense, forcing people into their cars, limiting social interaction and discouraging racial and socio-economic diversity. Enlightened planners across the country are promoting compact "24/7" urban centers were people live, work and play in close proximity. Virtually every major U.S. city is targeting once-gritty urban neighborhoods for revitalization and, inevitably, gentrification.
The displaced poor find value in the aging, outer-ring tract-home developments that once promised easy living far from the city's hustle and bustle. And housing officials, resolved to breaking up pockets of concentrated poverty (where at least 40 percent of the families are living below the poverty line), are thrilled. The federal Section 8 housing program, which allows recipients to negotiate government-subsidized rentals anywhere, is grounded in the belief that a safe, stable neighborhood can help unbuckle the straps of poverty.
But the positive benefits of moving to a neighborhood of less poverty diminish as the number of poor relocating there increases, new research suggests. In other words, families are far less likely to pull themselves out of poverty when their exposure to other poor families reaches a kind of tipping point. George C. Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University, has quantified this poverty threshold as roughly 15 to 20 percent of a neighborhood. If the poverty rate exceeds that, Galster said, "All hell breaks loose" in the form of crime, drop-out rates, teen pregnancies, drug use and, in turn, declining property values.
Galster's working paper for the National Poverty Center, Consequences from the Redistribution of Urban Poverty During the 1990s: A Cautionary Tale, warns that polices to break up concentrated poverty may be backfiring. While the number of Americans living in the poorest neighborhoods has notably declined since 1990, by about 25 percent, poverty elsewhere has inched up. Galster worries that the rush to relocate the urban poor, through Section 8 and other poverty redistribution programs, has pushed many less-desirable suburban neighborhoods to this tipping point.
And when they tip, he added, neighborhoods tend to spiral deeper into poverty: Declining property values attract more poor residents, gradually displacing the middle-class families that provide stability, further depressing prices.
Miami real estate broker Adrian Salgado said he's witnessing the spiral, even within newer tract-home development in the region's southern and western fringes. With many areas overbuilt, and foreclosure rates high, Section 8 tenants and other low-income renters are finding deals too good to pass up. "I know everybody needs a place to live, but we're creating a social disaster," said Salgado, noting that many early middle-class buyers in these transition neighborhoods are desperate to sell but can't.
Although national data is thin, local officials across the country are reporting an increase in violent crime, gang activity, drug use and other social breakdowns within suburban neighborhoods. In places like New York City, Atlanta and Chicago, urban crime rates are dropping while rising on the outskirts of town. Crime is also rising in the fast-growing sunbelt communities hit hard with foreclosures. Leinberger noted that in Lee County Fla., where nearly 25 percent of the homes stand empty, robberies were up nearly 50 percent last year.
Indeed, police in some cities are monitoring suburban foreclosures to identify neighborhoods at risk for increased crime, while others look at Section 8 relocations, arguing that a sudden rise in low-income rental densities is among their most reliable indicators of a coming crime spike.
Such tactics rankle some anti-poverty advocates, but a growing body of research is challenging suburban relocation as a remedy for poverty. Ed Goetz, a housing policy specialist at the University of Minnesota, said the suburban dream often fades for poor families because old support systems are severed, and access to programs and services day care, after-school programs, job training, drug treatment and counseling are greatly hampered by shear distance.
"The isolation can be both physical and emotional," Goetz said. "The frequency of interaction with neighbors declines, social networks break down. We haven't considered that carefully enough." Goetz said studies show a surprising willingness among the suburban poor to return to urban, high-poverty neighborhoods where services are more accessible and mass transit more convenient.
But the suburban diaspora of America's poor is unlikely to subside, most experts agree, posing complex challenges for policymakers. If anything, added Alan Berube, a housing expert at the Brookings Institution, suburban poverty will grow not just from in-migration of the poor but from within as the financial crisis "pushes middle-class families down the economic ladder."
With that in mind, Galster recommends strict monitoring of suburban poverty rates to prevent neighborhoods from reaching the so-called tipping point. Such data would allow housing officials to push for laws requiring property owners in low-poverty neighborhoods to accept Section 8 tenants (the existing program is voluntary), something he recommends. Conversely, he argued, laws should prevent landlords from accepting low-income tenants when neighborhood poverty rates exceed designated levels. He also supports "inclusionary zoning" rules that mandate a small number of low-income housing units in new single-family developments.
But Nelson, whose research predicts the vast oversupply of large-lot homes in the coming decades and the growing "suburbanization of poverty" said much can be done today to reshape the residential landscape. Most of the homes he expects to exist in 2025 have yet to be built. He said planners can reduce that oversupply by crafting long-term growth policies that reflect a careful assessment of regional demands for all housing types over a generation or more. What they will find, he said, is a preference among all income groups for denser, mixed-use communities with access to mass transit.
Leinberger agreed, arguing that planners should acknowledge that the suburban experiment has failed. "I wouldn't add another new road in American today," he said. "The changing geograph y of poverty is another reminder that our housing policies today will be felt for years to come, and in ways nobody ever imagined."
I've seen this happening in nearby suburban areas where section eight people have moved in. Homes are being burlarized during the day.
No place to hide. One problem is, middle class people have no street smarts. We don’t know how to even think about protecting ourselves.
As long as we have the defacto monopoly of public schools, families will continue to live in the suburbs (and, unfortunately, those soccer moms will continue to think that those schools are just “wonderful”).
Cities will continue to get childless residents with money (providing that they’re not as corrupt as Obama) and poor families with no other choice (that they’re willing to accept).
That simple and it will not change.
The worst part is we found out about the burglaries from other people at a Labor Day picnic, not the local paper.
How about these idiot social policy makers try something totally different and encourage two parent families among the poor to address the social diseases they’re whining about?
The are certain “suburban” areas, such as several towns in the 909 area code in California, that are more fit for poor people (smog, cheaply built houses, far from anything) than others.
I’m sure the stupid hippies will see nothing wrong as deer take over. I already see them singing Gaia hymns while cavorting through the abandoned living rooms with the bugs and leprechauns.
With little horns on their head and tails tied to their waists.
Palmdale + Compton = Palmton
Lancaster + White Flight from Palmdale = Klancaster
“People identify with Sex and the City and Seinfeld. So why are we still building like Leave it to Beaver?”
Because people are having Children and do not wish to raise them in “Sex and the City”
An expert? People identify with Sex and the City and Seinfield? An expert?
Good Lord. What kind of crap is that. I certainly like to have a few minutes with Mr. Leinberger. I'd like for him to explain why he is he is a land use expert. Then I'd like to explain to him how I don't care for others who make broad assumptions about how people want to live. And I don't identify with characters to think and act like losers.
I wonder, with the banks not paying attention to anything at the local level (nobody checking the properties), whether one could get away with squatting to own. Some of these properties could sit for a very long time.
“Leinberger is an unabashed urbanist who preaches the gospel of dense, mixed-use communities like a missionary saving souls in the jungle.”
Leinberger is an ass. I’ll make my own housing choices thank you very much.
Yes, the 909! I’ve also heard to it referred to as “Lancracker.” Then again, there is a county in Pennylvania that also shares that sobriquet...
That’s already happening a lot in the suburbs. There are even people who will find you a house to squat in ... for a finders fee.
Maybe, if you want to live in an ant hill.
Paris has the rich folks in the urban core and the poor folks live in the suburban rings. Wouldn’t be surprising to see that pattern copied here.
Of course! That's the answer.
Yep, you knew it HAD to include a big government ‘solution’ didn’t you?
That is the trend here now. Back to the medieval days all that is needed is the ramparts.
Sure glad you don’t speak for me!!
they already are in some areas, but once the house goes into formal foreclosure (which can be delayed up to a year now), the bank assigns a realtor, who sticks a for-sale sign in the window/yard, and is able to report back to the bank that squatters are occupying same, and is a contact point for locals to report midnight move-ins. That said, ACORN's new civil unrest program to hit 22 cities is pushing homeowners to move back into 'their' homes, and ACORN is promising to show up en masse if an eviction is attempted by local police.
I do, however, like this part, of all said in the article:
Conversely, he argued, laws should prevent landlords from accepting low-income tenants when neighborhood poverty rates exceed designated levels.
I don't think these folks are charging fees but they're definitely helping squatters occupy vacated homes.
What a putz !
We all recognize it's horrible, yet people keep buying there ! I wonder why ? It's so easy, even a college professor ought to be able to figure it out: They want to live there !
That's why we have the East and Hudson Rivers. ;)
The economy, transportation, energy, technology, demographics; It's to difficult to know how this will go.
RedMonqey makes a good point. My wife and I are raising our children in the city, and while it has some advantages and major conveniences, there's still that desire to have a backyard for them to play in, and maybe, possibly, somehow, “neighborhood” kids to play with?
My two kids are the only kids on our block, and the Sex in the City/Seinfeld point is spot on. A bunch of 20-30 something unmarried hipsters are the main demographic.
College guy talking about what we "as a society" need to do. Translated, this means, "give me money and follow my orders." For the last ten years the US Government has spent money faster than any other entity in the history of the world, but IT'S STILL NOT ENOUGH!"
Never trust an article written by someone too stupid to know the correct spelling of "sheer".
Gee, maybe if we didn’t have so many experts telling us where we should live and government money going towards real estate bubbles, people would just live where they damn well pleased for whatever price they found agreeable.
Exactly. That’s the wonderful thing about journalism today. You come up with your own story and find some muckity-muck to tell you whatever you want to hear.
“Slowly, as the pieces fit together, we shared a horrifying epiphany: the banks, corporations and investors acting in each global region were the exact same players. They were a relatively small group that reappeared again and again in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia accompanied by the same well-known accounting firms and law firms.
Clearly, there was a global financial coup detat underway.
The magnitude of what was happening was overwhelming. In the 1990s, millions of people in Russia had woken up to find their bank accounts and pension funds simply gone eradicated by a falling currency or stolen by mobsters who laundered money back into big New York Fed member banks for reinvestment to fuel the debt bubble.
Reports of politicians, government officials, academics, and intelligence agencies facilitating the racketeering and theft were compelling. One lawyer in Russia, living without electricity and growing food to prevent starvation, was quoted as saying, We are being de-modernized.
My home in an upscale suburb of Seattle was burglarized and of course the paper did not report it. Then 50 other homes were burglarized in my neighborhood. Still no reporting. Worse, the real estate people never told new buyers. I met a couple of those buyers in the dog-walking park. Having shelled out close to a mil, they were livid.
Of course, the Seattle area is run by liberals and they really don’t want to upset those poor downtrodden burglars’ only means of supporting their families. Downtown Seattle has running gun battles at midday in front of Nordstrom. But police do not go into the areas where criminals live and pick them up. Wouldn’t want to appear racist, you know.
Going into those areas and arresting people is what Giulianni did to turn NYC into a low-crime area. But Seattle officials don’t have the will to get tough.
I live near Miami now. At least here people take steps to protect themselves instead of living with the fiction that nothing bad happens here.
Hey Jack, I’m happy that you think defensively and have the wherewithall to back it up. I’m just a spoiled little ole girl who never learned to be tough and don’t have anyone in my life to protect me. I rely on big dogs (she just died) and safe neighborhoods, am appalled that there are none any more. I should go to self-defense classes but I’d probably flunk the course.
Big dogs are good!! Buy a gun and learn how to use it.
Oh no you won't. In more and more jurisdictions, Leinberger's ilk control zoning decisions, such that land use is restricted and development effectively limited to an urban core, a/k/a "transit village." Outlying development is restricted, as it encourages "sprawl."
Further, even if you do nothing, the Section 8 program will bring the slums right next door to you, so you can share the joy of "economic diversification."
Yup. It should have been labeled as an editorial. It's the author's opinion, thinly disguised as reporting.
Absolute bunk! I cannot imagine that "all" income groups have a "preference" to live in "denser" (i.e., crowded), "mixed-use" (i.e., living right upstairs from a smelly restaurant or noisy nightclub) with "access to mass transit" (so you can share space daily with thugs and homeless psychopaths).
I'm sure you meant well, but this article deserves a barf alert. :)
To clarify: that would be the left's kind of "expert".
In any other milieu, he would be known as a blithering idiot.
Shocking to hear this about Seattle...
My local newspaper has started listing all the DUI drivers that are arrested. They don't do that with burglaries, and I'd love to see it done. Right now, the public has no idea what's going on with burglaries, even in their neighborhoods. More people would get alarm systems if they had this info.
What time of day was your house burglarized?
It is all explained in a UN document called agenda 21.
Alarm systems would help. Burglars were in my house about 3 pm. I was coming home from Seattle on the ferry, turned into the supermarket for no reason...I was even thinking, “why on earth are you turning in here, you don’t need anything.” But the car had its own idea. When I got home, the burglars had just left—they smoked and my bedroom was still smokey. They stole all my jewelry, some of which was quite valuable.
Later that week, a couple in a neighboring town was murdered by jewel thieves. Was I blessed or what?
Terrible story about those people being murdered...
You must have been paranoid for a while.
The lefties really hate suburbia because it is the bastion of conservatism even among people who may vote Democrat but who otherwise live in a responsible, family-oriented conservative way. For years now, the lefties have been looking for ways to slumify the middle-class suburbs. One trick that they tried was to make elderly housing accept “disabled” people, would you believe that disabled included drunks and drug users! Elderly people were being mugged in their elderly housing. What an outrage. Judges are mandating that a town have a required percentage of “affordable housing” and gave builders the right to ignore zoning laws in order to achieve the correct percent of affordable housing. Liberal planners just hate those neat rows of single-family houses and the people living peaceful lives in them. Liberals are only happy when they are spreading misery.
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