Suburbia: The next slum?

Next American City points us toward a sobering article in The Atlantic about the effects of the subprime crisis on the nation’s suburbs. “The Next Slum?” says these changes “may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.”

Here are some highlights:

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

(Arthur C.) Nelson (director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech) forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025 — that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big advantages — better schools and safer communities — have eroded. Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax base — often highly dependent on house values and new development — deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.

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.

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, and they’re not likely to find many buyers; offers from would-be landlords will start to look better, and neighborhood restrictions will relax. Stopping a fundamental market shift by legislation or regulation is generally impossible.

Will this happen in Fort Wayne’s suburbs? It’s certainly possible. Is there any reason that the same forces that brought crime and abandoned houses to the inner cities would be stopped at the city limits? Indiana currently has the ninth highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

There should be no gloating on the part of urban advocates. This is a serious situation that will impact real families who thought they had escaped the negative effects of city living. It will be quite a shock if they discover they were wrong.

Related: Check foreclosures in your own neighborhood at RealtyTrac.

— Photo of Las Vegas suburb by Rich Lem on Flickr