Are our suburbs going to turn into slums?

March 15, 2008 | By | 4 Replies More

Wouldn’t it be horrible if our American suburbs starting turning into slums?

It’s already happening, according to this article from The Atlantic“The Next Slum?”

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay . . .

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.

This article documents that many of yesterday’s suburban Pleasantvilles that are already tipping into decay.  The elephant in the room is the inexorable increase in energy prices.  Cheap oil created the suburbs.  Expensive energy will destroy their affordability.  

Why am I convinced that the rise in energy prices is inexorable?  Because even though we are starting to have a national dialogue that “something” needs to be done about energy supplies, very few Americans are taking this crisis seriously.  We continue carving out new suburbs, encouraged by pipe dreams about corn being solution to the energy problem.  Yet we are doing almost nothing to develop sustainable ways to replacing the 5,000 gallons of oil Americans use each second.   We are in deep denial while conservation is still ridiculed by many Americans (e.g., those who vote with SUV’s and new suburban and exurban houses).

The coming years are not going to be kind to many of those Americans who bought into unsustainable versions of the American Dream.


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Category: American Culture, Consumerism, Environment

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Monica Kozeny says:

    I was very surprised when I read this article recently – apparently the fuel famine was forecasted since the beginning of automobiles and we are no closer to a solution today than we were then! The particular "solution" of the 1920's that is discussed in the article actually led to even bigger problems….

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The slumming of suburbia has been happening for many years now. Hundreds of thousands of single family homes, built in the late 1950's through the early 1970's, have been bought by slumlords operating as real estate brokers. These purported real estate businesses differ from legitimate agencies in that they never sell thes holdings to individuals, but rent them out to low income families that are considered undesirable as renters at apartment complexes. Often the owner works out a rent discount with the tenants for the tenant repairing the house at the tenants expense.

    These slumlords also tend to have connections with the city councils and flex their influence to harrass homeowners in the neighborhoods where they own houses. They are are a cancer on the land.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Stroud's choice represents a fundamental shift in the way more Americans are approaching home buying in this era of ballooning gas prices. Real estate agents, transportation officials and industry surveys indicate that home buyers are placing more importance on cutting their gas bills and commute times than they have since the oil shocks of the 1970s.

    And there are some early indications that homes near urban centers, and subway, train and bus stops are often selling faster and at better prices than those in the distant suburbs.

    On Wednesday, a survey of 900 Coldwell Banker agents showed a remarkable 96 percent said that rising gas prices were a concern to their clients, and 78 percent said higher fuel costs are increasing their desire for city living.

    The above is from the AP, June 18, 2008:

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    From the Economist:

    “KEEP your house” reads the handwritten sign on a chain-link fence some 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. It is an advertisement, although it could be the attitude of an overstretched buyer who owes the bank more money than his home is worth. Many people in Moreno Valley have simply walked away from their properties. As abandoned lawns turn brown in the desert climate, the fallout spreads. It is no longer a matter of saving individual houses, but a whole city.

    For the full article, go here.

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